With the multibillion dollar dieting industry in full swing, it’s often incredibly difficult to separate facts from hype. Many established dietary plans have large marketing campaigns that prioritize profit over physical health, and even supposedly objective scientific studies can fall victim to bias depending on the funding source. So what about one of the diet industry’s favorite culprits: saturated fat? How harmful is it for you? Is some saturated fat permissible in your diet, or should you go to extreme lengths to cut it out entirely? What about the links between saturated fat and heart disease? Is there an objective body of research that indicates saturated fat is bad for the heart? If so, how much fat can we safely ingest and what specific harm does it cause?
We do have a serious problem with heart disease in the US: some 65 million Americans struggle with the many problems cardiovascular disease causes. Saturated fat intake has long been associated with heart disease, but this is mostly due to questionable studies on humans and animals when the diet-heart disease hypothesis was originally developed. While saturated fat does indeed raise blood cholesterol levels, this is not necessarily cause for alarm. Our bodies naturally manufacture cholesterol as well as utilizing it during daily activity. When we consume high-cholesterol foods like egg yolks, our bodies simply manufacture less.
As for saturated fat, it has not been found to significantly increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the variety of cholesterol that leads to heart disease. Large long-term scientific studies have corroborated this fact. Trans fat (found in vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and margarine), on the other hand, has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) while lowering HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels.
Cardiovascular disease causes damage to your heart and its vascular system. Your heart pumps blood upwards of 100,000 times per day, and as with any mechanical pump, if there are contaminants present in your blood, your risk for heart disease goes up. Smoking, blood vessel inflammation, high blood pressure, and elevated amounts of sugar in the blood (possibly due to diabetes) all contribute to the development of heart disease over time. Plaque can build up in places where the arteries are damaged, which leads to narrowed blood vessels and an increased risk for heart attacks. In order to reduce your risks, live a preventive lifestyle: eat healthy, exercise regularly, and avoid activities and foods that cause excessive damage to the heart. Minimize your exposure to trans fat and hydrogenated oils. Remember that heart disease develops gradually, but despite advances in heart-related medical science many of its effects are presently irreversible.