What fats are good or bad for your health?

We hear a lot about fats these days. Expressions of horror are directed at people who eat juicy hamburgers. Some health-concious people are switching to turkey burgers, buffalo burgers or "garden" burgers, in an attempt to enjoy a "guilt free" burger. Is this necessary? Is the saturated fat in beef bad for you? And what do we mean by "bad" anyway?

Many years ago, there were two observations that linked saturated fat to heart disease:

  1. Increasing one's consumption of saturated fat raises one's total cholesterol level

  2. A higher total cholesterol level is associated with (though not necessarily causing) a higher rate of cardiovascular disease.

Ergo, some people say, eating more saturated fat leads to heart disease (or the converse - cutting down on saturated fat will reduce heart disease). However, there are strong arguments against this simple approach. For details, we recommend the excellent book "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes. Very briefly, there are tribes of very healthy people who eat beef and beef products almost exclusively. In addition, saturated fat raises both LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and HDL (the "good" cholesterol), so the impact of saturated fat consumption is not clear. Most of all, there are no consistent studies that have been able to show a direct link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, despite the many years of assuming such a cause and effect relationship.

A recent article (Reference 1) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition provides a meta-analysis (i.e., a study that includes many other previous studies, to enhance the statistical precision) of the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The next page provides a synopsis of some of their results.

Last Modification - March 26, 2010