Does Saturated Fat Cause Heart Disease?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard recently that health experts have been “wrong” about saturated fat all along.

Thanks to an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017, it’s now widely believed that saturated fats have nothing to do with heart disease. Logically, the opinions offered in this editorial have research to back them up. But that doesn’t mean what you might think it means.

Here’s everything we know about saturated fat (backed by evidence), why eating less of it can be a good thing, and a list of the best foods to eat for a healthy heart.

Is saturated fat good or bad?

Burger with gherkins

Burger with gherkins | istetiana/ Images

Your body needs saturated fat. It uses fat as fuel to keep everything functioning as well as it can. If you eat animal products of any kind — or junk food — you probably eat a decent amount of saturated fat.

Is this a good thing — or not?

Put simply, this is not an easy question to answer. What we need to do instead is look at specific foods that contain saturated fats, not saturated fat as a whole nutrient.

There are good sources of saturated fat and not-so-good sources of saturated fat. Some might increase your risk of heart disease. Others might not. Foods high in saturated fat that are also high in calories and sugar, for example, aren’t just unhealthy because of their fat content.

Healthy foods high in saturated fat include:

  • Eggs
  • Lean beef and other red meats (high in protein and essential vitamins)
  • Turkey, fish, and other sources of animal protein
  • Dairy products (protein, vitamins)

Unhealthy foods high in saturated fat include: 

  • Grain and dairy-based desserts
  • Processed meats (sausage, bacon)
  • Refined carbs (white rice, white pasta, white bread, cereal)
  • Fried potato foods and dishes
  • Butter and cream
  • Fast food pizza and burgers
  • Chips, cookies, and other prepackaged junk foods.

You can technically get all the saturated fat you need from its healthier sources. But look at the list of unhealthy sources. Chances are, you eat some of these foods fairly regularly. Whether or not you think saturated fat is safe, consider the quality of your diet overall before dismissing — or accepting — expert findings and opinions.

Saturated fat and heart disease: What we know so far

Many foods contain saturated fat. Some provide a variety of health benefits and are worth incorporating into a balanced diet despite their fat content. Others provide minimal benefit and should be eaten less frequently than other, healthier options.

Saturated fat has taken a lot of blame for America’s deadliest health problems in the past few decades. However, the discovery that diets high in added sugar can increase your heart disease risk has confused many consumers into thinking saturated fat can’t be harmful.

For starters, let’s clarify that we do know saturated fat probably isn’t as bad as we used to think. Recent meta-analyses — comprehensive reviews of large studies on a particular subject — have failed to find strong links between saturated fat and an increased risk of death by heart disease.

A review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, found that lowering saturated fat intake was not associated with a lower risk of dying from heart disease.

However, this does not mean saturated fats and heart disease aren’t related in any way. This is the difficult part about interpreting the results of nutrition research studies. Researchers learn a lot over time, but still don’t always have clear answers to seemingly simple questions.

A study published in Circulation found that lowering saturated fat intake — but replacing it with healthier fats — reduced cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Evidence conflicts — and it’s more complicated than it seems. That’s why all this is so confusing. It’s also important to remember that even the best, most promising studies aren’t perfect or wholly conclusive.

If that editorial in the BMJS has convinced you that saturated fats are fine, Dr.¬†David L. Katz’s warning about the risks of saturated fat points out a number of flaws within the opinion piece.

If you’re looking for a study that proves once and for all that saturated fat does or does not cause heart disease, you aren’t going to find one. Basically, there’s no way to tell whether or not saturated fat is a direct cause of health problems because your body needs it to survive.

Maybe the problem here is that you’re asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking whether or not saturated fats cause heart disease, maybe you should be asking why so many people die of heart disease every year.

If saturated fat intake isn’t the reason heart disease is the deadliest health condition in the nation, what is?

Mayo Clinic cites a variety of poor eating habits, saying diets “high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart disease.” But high blood pressure and cholesterol not directly caused by diet, physical inactivity, stress, and conditions such as obesity are also risk factors.

Heart disease is a complex condition with many possible underlying causes. Maybe blaming it on one nutrient in our food was where all the confusion truly began.

Saturated fat and other diseases

Ice cream

Ice cream | bhofack2/iStock/Getty Images

The evidence above leads us to believe that saturated fat intake is not the major underlying cause of heart disease among Americans. However, other studies warn that high saturated fat intake is still associated with plenty of health risks.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source links to several preliminary studies suggesting saturated fat might contribute to conditions such as depression, mental decline (often associated with dementia), and osteoporosis. Hopefully, further research can either confirm or refute these early findings.

The Nutrition Source also clarifies that saturated fat intake has not been linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes or cancer. But it might contribute to weight gain and obesity.

Many researchers instead focus on the health benefits of diets that lower blood pressure and other markers for heart problems. Some studies suggest diets low in saturated fat, but high in other nutrients such as fiber, are better for your heart — even if it isn’t just because of your fat intake.

What we can conclude from all this is that saturated fat is like any other nutrient. If you eat too much of it, the results probably won’t do you much long-term good. If you replace it with something better (unsaturated fat), you might actually be benefiting your heart.

That’s not to say you can never put butter on your toast or order a McDonald’s hamburger on-the-go. But don’t take that to mean you’re immune to these foods’ effects if you indulge too much. Fat isn’t always bad. Too much of any food is a health risk, though, regardless of the type.

There’s also no harm in reducing the amount of saturated fat you consume through heavily processed foods, since many of these foods are also high in calories, sodium, and added sugar, and low in essential nutrients such as fiber and protein.

Foods that might prevent heart disease

Because there’s evidence that replacing saturated fats with healthy fats and high-quality carbs might be an effective way to decrease heart disease risk, changing your diet really can make a difference. Even if saturated fat has little to do with it in the end.

You should at least try to incorporate more heart-healthy foods into your diet when possible. This can include eating more:

  • Whole grains (oats, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice)
  • Salmon and tuna (which contain omega-3 fatty acids, shown to improve heart health)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Fruits and vegetables, which contain naturally occurring sugar but are high in fiber
  • Olive oil, which also contains healthy fats
  • Animal proteins such as lean beef, turkey, and eggs.

So, is saturated fat all to blame for the high death rates associated with heart disease? Probably not. But there’s evidence that diets high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids (from food), and other nutrients in plant and animal foods reduce heart disease risk. What does that mean?

Maybe instead of focusing on what not to eat, it’s best to start focusing on what you should be eating more of. If you aren’t eating healthy food, there will be consequences. There’s no debating that.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what causes the world’s deadliest health problems. If they can be prevented, in many cases, with a higher-quality diet, the next step should be to encourage the consumption of more of those foods. The general population probably doesn’t want to stop eating red meat or junk food. But they might consider eating more plants and healthier forms of meat.

If moderation isn’t the answer you want to hear, maybe “balance” is a better way to look at heart health in the years to come.