Since I wrote two newspaper columns on saturated fat in February (along with a little supplemental blog content), I didn’t expect to be writing about it again so soon. Except, as you may have noticed, the debate over whether saturated fat contributes to poor health once again all over the news.

If you don’t delve much deeper than the headlines, it would be easy to think it’s time to tuck into an extra rasher of bacon or pile of pepperoni.* Not so. The international team of researchers behind this latest meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine state in their conclusion that their findings “did not yield clearly supportive evidence for current cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats.” They’re saying that saturated fat is neither harmful nor beneficial to health–it’s neutral.
Unfortunately the continued focus on fat perpetuates the decades-long reductionist nutritional thinking that has so many people:

  • Ping-ponging between widely different diets based primarily on whether they are high or low in fat, carbohydrates or protein (macronutrients).
  • Swallowing supplements of the important vitamin, mineral, antioxidant (micronutrients) or phytochemical du jour.
The truth is, no nutrient–macro or micro–exists in a vacuum, and the relative healthfulness of your diet depends on far more than the presence or absence of any one nutrient. One of the paper’s co-authors, Dariush Mozzaffarian, advocates moving away from the focus on single-nutrient recommendations. He has been vocal in the past about how cutting fat and adding in extra carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) is not a recipe for good health. In an NPR article, he said a healthful diet should include a wide variety of minimally processed, whole foods such as nuts and vegetable and olive oils, as well as fish, fruits, vegetables and small portions of animal products such as yogurt and cheese.
In an article posted yesterday, Dr. David Katz had some criticisms about some of the methodologies of this recent study, brings up the issue of what happens when we eat less saturated fat but more sugar, and nicely wraps around to how “our one-nutrient-at-a-time approach to diet and health has been a decades long public health boondoggle” and that “dietary guidance must be about the whole diet, and should be directed at foods rather than nutrients.” Agreed, and nicely put.
On Whole Health Source, Stephan Guyenet also offers come criticisms and some broad view perspective, including why this study “doesn’t mean it’s prudent to eat a bacon and butter diet.”
* Processed meats like pepperoni, hot dogs and cured bacon have been consistently shown to be detrimental to health, likely due to what is done to–and added to–the meat during processing.