Part of why saturated fat so easily took the rap is probably due to its name.
Part of why saturated fat so easily took the rap is probably due to its name.
Image: Oleksandr Prokopenko/123RF

Nutritional advice and nonsense are horribly intertwined. While plumes of poppycock about salt, superfoods and detoxing continue to be dispensed like so much incense wafting from a church altar, the myths around fat are probably the worst offenders.

Almost every bit of advice on the topic I read (and I’ve put triple-figure hours in), from government edicts to “wellness” sites, tells you the same thing, decade after decade. Saturated fat is a bad fat. It’s out to get you. It will raise your cholesterol; raised cholesterol will cause earlier death.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats on the other hand, are good. These kinder fats can help to reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. Saturated fat can be avoided by eating a diet rich in plant-foods and low in animal-based foods.

Ho-hum and eye-roll. There’s no nice way to say it (though readers of this column will know that I’ve tried in the past); this is absolute bollocks.

Before this theory took hold mid-20th century, nobody had thought to isolate saturated fat as the cause of disease. Probably because (as you’ll see if you examine the data) there’s no proof of causation at all, by country or globally.

Enter a well-connected American physiologist, Ansel Keys, who staked his reputation on proving this theory. That he achieved it (long story short), has little to do with science and everything to do with egos, politics and right place, right time. Why did the myth continue and become “common knowledge”? Yup, politics and economics.

I do think, too, that part of why poor old saturated fat so easily took the rap, is its name. I mean it sounds like a fat that’s drenched in fat, doesn’t it? Fat injected with fat; fatter than fat itself!

Actually, the word saturated just refers to the fact that every carbon atom in the fat molecule has a hydrogen atom partnering it. The molecule is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. This makes it the most stable of all fats. Monounsaturated fat has one hydrogen atom missing in the molecule, poly has more than one. Nothing ominous there.

But here we are, still being warned off the stuff. That’s despite saturated fat intake being unconnected to cholesterol levels, despite cholesterol in food being unconnected to blood cholesterol (which Keys himself admitted), despite no evidence for raised cholesterol causing heart disease. And despite that there’s little understanding of which foods contain which fats.

Every single food which contains one fat contains all three, whether avocado or tuna. There are no exceptions. And red meat, eggs and lard contain more unsaturated fat than saturated, so why not advise to eat those? Only dairy foods contain more saturated than unsaturated. And so what? One is not better or worse than the other.

But prevailing dogma has industry backing (how can they sell statins if saturated fat doesn’t increase cholesterol and cholesterol doesn’t kill you?); and besides, they have our bias to help things along.   

Many doctors, cardiologists, biochemists, researchers and dietitians have been hammering away at undoing this thinking for decades. If you have any interest in improving your lifespan and general health, I can heartily recommend the work of people who rigorously unpack research and are not funded by industry.

Visiting the sites of Dr Malcolm Kendrick and Dr Zoe Harcombe should be your first port of call. Ordering journalist Nina Teicholz’ amazing book The Big Fat Surprise is also an excellent plan, and while you wait for your copy to arrive, you can watch any of the above clever people on You Tube.