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Dive deeper into the saturated fat debate

Updated: Apr 24, 2019

Are saturated fats fine or are they posing a risk to our heart? In this blog we hope to open your mind and try to show you that it all depends on where they come from!


In the past, saturated fats were blamed for many health problems and this led to a global increase in the consumption of carbs and sugar.

As fat consumption declined and carb intake rose, we also witnessed an increase in obesity and type II diabetes. This eventually caused many people to think that saturated fats were not to blame and that carbs were the big killer.


Nowadays, there are people who even think that saturated fats are completely fine for you!


But now, moving onto the science…


Saturated fats are known to increase the total amount of cholesterol in your blood: both the good (HDL-cholesterol) and the bad (LDL-cholesterol) cholesterol.


So, is it a tie between good and evil?


Not really, just because saturated fats increase the levels of HDL-cholesterol, this does not counteract the large increases you get in LDL-cholesterol. Too much cholesterol circulating in your blood increases the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries), which in the long-term can increase the risk of having a heart attack.


This is specifically true for saturated fats that you obtain from red meat sources, such as pork, beef and lamb.

Consumption of foods high in saturated fats are known to increase cholesterol levels in the blood. While saturated fats increase the levels of HDL-cholesterol, they increase the levels of LDL-cholesterol to a greater extent. Unfortunately, this increases the amount of cholesterol being transported across blood vessels, which can lead to cholesterol deposition and atherosclerotic plaque formation.

On the other side, saturated fats from dairy sources do not seem to be so damaging to our health, and they may even be protective. How come?


It is down to the calcium in dairy foods. Calcium interferes with the absorption of saturated fats and cholesterol into your blood, thereby dampening the increase in cholesterol levels when high-calcium dairy foods are consumed.

However, notice that not all high-fat dairy foods are high in calcium. For example, butter has a lot of saturated fat but very little calcium. On the other side, cheese is high in both fat and calcium. In an experiment, it was demonstrated that cheese consumption had a significantly smaller effect on LDL cholesterol levels compared to butter due to the protective effects of calcium.

a) Cheese is high saturated fat, but it does not produce large increases in LDL-cholesterol levels due to its high calcium content. The calcium and saturated fatty acids interact together in the intestine, forming insoluble micelles (aggregates) that cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream. This leads to a smaller formation of LDL-cholesterol. b) On the other hand, butter is also high in saturated fat but low in calcium. This results in greater fat absorption and a significantly greater increase in LDL-cholesterol.

In addition, people that consume most of their saturated fats from dairy sources have an overall lower risk experiencing a heart attack or stroke compared to those that obtain most of their saturated fats from red meat.


As long as individuals don’t have allergies or intolerances to dairy products, a simple step to maintain their cardiovascular health is to substitute saturated fat intake from red meat with dairy foods such as yogurt and cheese.


References

Nestel P. J. et al., Eur J Clin Nutr 2005: 59(9);1059-63.

O’Sullivan T. A. et al., Am J Public Health 2013: 103(9):e31-e42.


This post was written by Juan Girones, Medical Writer at Havas Life Medicom.


You can read more of his work on his blog Nutrisphere on Medium: Precise and up-to-date nutrition and medical information.

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