December 13th, 2016

Saturated fat: good or bad or indifferent?

Yesterday Ace linked to an article reporting on a study that appears to be saying saturated fat is good for you. The subtitle at the report’s link indicates that the research “overturned previously accepted wisdom.”

Actually, not really.

First of all, one small study of this type doesn’t “overturn” much of anything. Secondly—as is almost always the case with mass media reports of studies on health, the linked article at the Express gets an awful lot about the research wrong.

Let’s look at the actual study, shall we? Unfortunately, the full text is unavailable unless you shell out a lot more money than I’m willing to pay. But the abstract is here, and the research findings appear quite mild. In fact, completely unremarkable.

First we have the number of participants, variously reported as 46 or 38 (eight apparently dropped out) overweight men between 30 and 50 and divided into two groups, each of which received a different diet. So half got the high-fat diet, which makes the number of subjects very small indeed. And we have no idea what the age distribution was, just the range. At any rate, we’re not talking about older people, the population most at risk for heart disease. Whatever findings there were, we have no idea whether they can extrapolated to a more general population.

Both groups got a diet. One was high fat (73% of calories from fat) and one low fat (30% of calories from fat). Both groups lost weight. We know that losing weight tends to improve blood pressure and cholesterol and other such markers, however it is lost, so if both groups lost weight one would expect things like blood pressure to go down. Both groups ate the same number of calories, the same amount of protein, and their diets “emphasiz[ed] low-processed, lower-glycemic foods.” In other words, they were very healthful, highly-controlled diets that differed only in the ratio of fat to carbs consumed.

The abstract is mum on what they actually ate. But none of the articles I read that reported on the research (and I read many) indicated that red meat was a big part of the diet of either group. Instead:

…[T]he food types were the same [in both groups] and varied mainly in quantity, and intake of added sugar was minimized.

“We here looked at effects of total and saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet rich in fresh, lowly processed and nutritious foods, including high amounts of vegetables and rice instead of flour-based products,” says PhD candidate Vivian Veum.

“The fat sources were also lowly processed, mainly butter, cream and cold-pressed oils.”

In the high-fat group, only half the fats were saturated, and the other half consisted of oils.

My sense is that for both groups the diet was mainly very low sugar and mostly vegetarian except for dairy products. This is a far cry from saying something like “red meat is good for you,” and it certainly doesn’t say “red meat is better for you than carbohydrates.”

And then there are the actual results. None of the MSM articles I read made it clear that the findings were essentially the same for both groups. Nor did they emphasize the fact that the diet was only followed for three months, and all the effects were small.

Back to the abstract:

The diets similarly reduced waist circumference (11–13 cm), abdominal subcutaneous fat mass (1650–1850 cm3), visceral fat mass (1350–1650 cm3), and total body weight (11–12 kg). Both groups improved dyslipidemia, with reduced circulating triglycerides, but showed differential responses in total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (decreased in LFHC group only), and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (increased in VHFLC group only). The groups showed similar reductions in insulin, insulin C-peptide, glycated hemoglobin, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance.

The best non-technical article I saw on the subject was this one at a British health website:

After various drop-outs, only 38 of the original 46 men were available for analysis – just 18 in the LFHC group and 20 in the VHFLC group.

Body weight dropped by about 11-12kg, or 3.6 BMI points in both groups over the 12-week period.

Total abdominal fat and fat around the organs decreased by roughly 20-30% in both groups. Waist circumference decreased by 11-13cm. There were no significant differences between the groups.

Fasting blood sugar only reduced in the LFHC group, but there were no other between-group differences for other measures of blood sugar control, such as insulin.

Levels of one type of fat (triglycerides) decreased in both groups. Low-density (“bad”) cholesterol decreased only in the LFHC group, but high-density (“good”) cholesterol increased only in the VHFLC group.

Improvements were noted to occur within the first eight weeks in the VHFLC group, but were more gradual in the LFHC group.

The men were all healthy to begin with, by the way, because anyone with pre-existing disease had been eliminated.

So that’s it, folks. Something of a nothingburger—perhaps literally (were they allowed burgers? Your guess is as good as mine—unless you want to pay for the article and see.)

13 Responses to “Saturated fat: good or bad or indifferent?”

  1. groundhog Says:

    ground red meat vs. steak. Also a difference.

    One thing I know, too much fast food I really do feel sick after few days in a row. I don’t need a study to tell me.

  2. Juli Says:

    I’m very pro red meat. I’m a followr of primal Mark Sisson. I thought his blog had addressed this recently, but I did find this from 2012: ( ) :

    “But Dean Ornish/my mom/Walter Willet/the AHA/my doctor said saturated fat will give you heart attacks.”

    They all may say that, and sound pretty convincing as they say it, but the science says differently. I tend to listen to the science, rather than what I think the science is saying:

    A 2011 study found that “reducing the intake of CHO with high glycaemic index is more effective in the prevention of CVD than reducing SAFA intake per se.”
    From a 2010 study out of Japan, saturated fat intake “was inversely associated with mortality from total stroke.”
    A 2010 meta-analysis found “that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”

    That looks pretty clear cut to me.

    Response: “The most recent studies have concluded that saturated fat intake likely has no relation to heart disease, contrary to popular opinion.”


    He just released an updated version of his book Primal Blueprint. Perhaps I read more there, but I tend to think that the pendulum went too far against fats. I feel much better having gone more primal, and believe that better research is needed.

    There was one study I thought I saw about ingesting olive oil at the same time and that would prevent …something. Of course, the focus in the primal/paleo world is pastured and grass fed as opposed to CAFO. There are significant nutritional differences between the 2 in terms of Omega-3, etc. (I get mine from a local farmer, mainly organic veggies, etc. Supporting local is important to me.)

    I’ve found that embracing fat (not seeking it out though) has increased my satiety and helps me not eat the sweets I love.

  3. neo-neocon Says:


    I’m not at my computer now and can’t do the research at the moment, but I seem to recall that the evidence is fairly strong linking consumption of a lot of red meat with an increased cancer risk.

    All human nutritional studies are hard to do, however, because it is very hard to control for all the variables.

  4. S.C. Schwarz Says:

    There is actually a lot more to this issue that this one study indicates. For a good lay overview I recommend “The Big Fat Surprise,” by Nina Teicholz. It’s a good book and I’d think you’d be surprised by what she uncovered.

  5. mikeski Says:

    “Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat…college.”

    Annie Hall (1977)

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Diet, schmiet. It’s all about your DNA and genes. Kirk Douglas just turned 100, I’d be surprised if he does anything special. Churchill drank like a fish, smoked heavily and ate to obesity and outlived Montgomery, a health nut… by 20 yrs. If one thing doesn’t get you another will. None of us are going to get out of life alive. “Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die”. A. Lincoln

  7. Sergey Says:

    First of all, there is no such thing as the best diet for organism as a whole, since different organs and systems have their own preferences. Fat is good for the heart muscle, but bad for vessels. So if your weak spot is the heart, it is recommended to eat fat chicken and eggs, even bacon, to help strengthen heart. But not too long, because it will make cholesterol level too high. If your weak spot are vessels, you need to keep cholesterol low and avoid fats and eggs. And there are many such trade-offs for people with specific medical conditions.

  8. artfldgr Says:

    The official study that started the fat is bad was crappy and paid for by the sugar lobby…
    The benifits have not appeared
    The drugs did not bring the benifits
    But did bring lots of stuff effects

    There is a lot more to this
    But I sit and say why bother I brought this up before
    And with more details on the new work

    I work in research computing doing medical
    If you only knew…
    I would say, but it’s not worth arguing
    And empirical evidence is frowned upon due to its length

  9. parker Says:

    If one does not figure out that each person has a different metabolism, lives their life in a unique manner, and must eat a diet that makes htem feel good (or not) by the age of 20; they need to get out of the gene pool and dry off. 😉

    Do this don’t do that morphs into don’t do this do that at the blink of the latest study’s eye. ‘Dietary experts’ be damned, one size does not fit all.

  10. KLSmith Says:

    I finally figured out that I should quit drinking soda all day. Hey, it tasted good. Now that I’m drinking mostly water I lost 20lbs pretty quickly.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Correlation, not causation. The issue is High Fructose Corn Syrup or other artificial and potentially GMO products which the human body wasn’t adapted to digest or metabolize.

    The idea that the credentialists and the “scientists” know what is going on in the human body, is a joke. Although not intended as one by the Doctor Classes, they just regurgitate what’s in their field and in their manuals. Even though many of them don’t have nutrition or sports science as their field, they still think their Doctor Class allows them the Authority to render judgment.

    Combine that with politicians from New York and you get some kind of Nazi food cult. Everyone likes a nazi food cult right.

    Saturated fat or fat may not be all that good or bad for the human body, but the correlation looks like causation, because it replaces the nutrition and calories gained from artificial food sources. As a result, the negatives decrease, so people think increasing saturated fat or fat is the deal. Like increasing protein intake. But the primary cause may very well be the decrease of artificially treated carbohydrates and other additives.

  12. Juli Says:

    Neo – Mark Sisson has deconstructed the red meat as a carcinogen idea.

    Here’s one statement from the above “Don’t get me wrong: colorectal cancer is deadly. Particularly if you have familial history of colorectal cancer, you should do your best to avoid it. It’s not a pleasant cancer. It’s just that the relative risk increase of 17% doesn’t amount to nearly as much absolute risk.”

    One thing that many of us do is to skim the headlines/articles about nutrition studies (not you necessarily) and accept the findings, at least at a high level. But Sisson has many people who write in about various studies and he critiques them. So I tend towards skepticism because so many of them are small, rely on self-reporting, etc.

    IIRC, you are not someone who benefits from a high protein diet, so regardless of any studies, it won’t work for you based on genetics.

  13. neo-neocon Says:


    You’re right that I have never benefited from that kind of diet (nor do I like it at all)—au contraire.

    But I’ve read a great deal of research about it in depth, and I believe that leaping into high meat consumption is not a great idea for a lot of people, particularly processed meats such as bacon.

    Actually, i think moderation tends to be the way to go for the most part, although individuals differ.

    By the way, that quote you offered about the 17% increased relative risk—that’s 17% increase per four oz. increase of red meat per week. On a high meat consumption diet, the amount of meat per week is increased far far more than that.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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