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Why saturated fat gets a bad rap.

by Alex Boersma

The long awaited 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans have finally been released.  I am not going to do a full expose of the poor science supporting USDA conclusions, since I have the same issues with the new U.S. Guidelines as I have with the Canada Food Guide.  If you happen to be interested in a detailed criticism of the USDA research base, Denise Minger does a better job than I could ever hope to do here .  I highly recommend this read if you are still clinging to the illusion that the medical establishment is giving you the best advice based on the strongest scientific evidence.

As expected, the new Guidelines are full of the same old, same old…conventional wisdom imploring us to reduce saturated fat consumption while increasing our intake of whole grains and vegetable oils.  As most of you know, I am not a big fan of grains or vegetable oils and I don’t think there is anything wrong with saturated fat.  In fact, I am fairly confident that it is the myopic obsession with saturated fat which prevents researchers from recognizing the possible drawbacks of a diet high in grains and their oils.

Why the obsession with saturated fat?  I believe the 2010 Guidelines unwittingly provide us with a few clues.  If you want to follow along and get better views of some of the information I am about to convey, you can find the new Guidelines here


The graph below is taken from Chapter 3 of the new USDA Guidelines, the chapter called “Foods and Food Components to Avoid”.  In an effort to pevent  unsuspecting consumers from unintentionally devouring excessive quantities of “deadly” saturated and trans fats, the USDA has kindly provided us with a handy-dandy graph showing every possible source of these “artery hardening” nutrients. (solid fats include saturated fat, trans fat and hydrogenated oil

***graph stolen from Denise Minger’s site as I couldn’t find a way to cut and paste it from the USDA.  The saturated fat alone graph is similar and you can view it from the link above.

If you thoughtfully examine the graph (something I suspect the researchers at the USDA never got around to doing) you might notice something:

Less than 30% of the sources of  saturated fat in the diets of the U.S. population are actually food!

The average American seems to get almost 30% of his or her solid fat supply from confirmed metabolic saboteurs such as pizza, desserts, chips and fried potatoes.  Although I don’t know what the nebulous “all other food categories” includes, I can only assume that there’s not much in there which would have been recognized as food by my grandmother.  Of the remaining 50% of the pie, I’m guessing anything that says “dishes” will be confounded by questionable sauces and grains.  Burgers, franks, burritos and tortillas are all confounded by the likelihood of poor quality meat, refined grains and other additives.  I suspect that even the cheese category is corrupted by things like processed cheese slices, cheese strings and other cheese whiz-like products.

This is not rocket science.

It took my 7 year old daughter less than a minute to identify the fact that there were only 4 or 5 items in that chart which qualified as food.  When I asked her what would happen to people who ate most of the foods on the chart on a regular basis she said “You would probably get really really sick and maybe even die”.  When I asked her what was wrong with these foods, she said “They have too much sugar and carbs and junk and other bad stuff in them.”

Maybe she should work for the USDA!

 When researchers do epidemiological studies on nutrition and disease, they typically require their subjects to fill out a food frequency questionnaire.  If they wish to establish the quantity of saturated fat an individual consumes, they can’t just ask a simple question like “How many grams of saturated fat do you eat every day?”  The average person wouldn’t have a clue how to answer such a question.  So the researchers provide them with a list of foods which contain varying quantities of saturated fat, then ask them to remember how much of each of these foods they ate over a given time span.  From this information, the researchers glean what quantities of saturated fat people eat.  They will typically then divide their cohort (the group of people they are studying) into quintiles (fifths)  according to how much of a certain nutrient (in this case saturated fat) they consume.  After following the cohort for a given amount of time, they examine how many subjects in each quintile experience end points of whatever disease they are studying.  If they are studying heart disease, these end points might include things like heat attacks or bypass surgeries. For example:

  • Bob eats 5 pizzas, 5 Big Mac meals, 5 bowls  of Captain Crunch with full fat milk, and 5 chocolate sundaes every week.
  • Let’s say that works out to 25% of daily caloric intake from saturated fat..more than three times what the USDA says he should be getting.
  • That puts Bob in the top 20% of saturated fat eaters.
  • After 10 years, the researchers may find that the top 20% of saturated fat eaters experience twice as many heart attacks as the bottom 20%

From this we can conclude that a person who eats like Bob is twice as likely to have a heart attack as a person who eats  only 1 pizza, 1 Big Mac meal, 1 bowl of Captain Crunch with full fat milk and 1 chocolate sundae per week.

No duh…Bob eats 5 times as much crap as the other person!

But is it fair to extrapolate these results into a conclusion such as:  “People in the top quintile of saturated fat consumption are twice as likely to experience a heart attack as people in the bottom quintile of saturated fat consumption”?

I think not!

If I eat a T-bone steak, a couple of pork chops, a 3 egg omelet and 5 or 6 servings of vegetables with butter every day, I will be in the same quintile as Bob.  Will I share his propensity for heart disease?  Obviously, I don’t think so.  But the truth is, this hypothetical study lacks the power to predict anything about people who eat mostly steaks, pork chops, omelette’s and veggies.  Likewise, it lacks the power to predict anything about people who eat a lot of saturated fat, it doesn’t even take into count that many people drink teas from to better their health.

Unfortunately, this hypothetical study isn’t all that hypothetical.  If you take the time to explore the USDA’s evidence base you will find that a large proportion of it’s evidence relies on epidemiology.  Just a few examples:

 The truth is, way too many North Americans eat almost as badly as Bob.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at page 12 of the guidelines, which summarizes the top 25 sources of nutrition amongst Americans.  You will see that almost half of caloric consumption comes from foods that we all agree are bad for you.

So is saturated fat really guilty of destroying our health?



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