What’s wrong with saturated fat?

There has been so much media coverage lately about saturated fat, with newspaper and magazine articles, and even peer reviewed journal articles claiming that saturated fat isn’t that bad after all. This news is well received by people who love to hear good news about their bad habits. It allows people to avoid the difficulty of change and to keep eating the foods that are making them sick.

Lurking in the background behind the saturated fat issue are powerful industries (in particular the dairy industry) whose products are relatively high in saturated fats. Most guides to healthy eating include the advice to eat less saturated fat, but they shy away from naming those foods we should eat less of for fear of offending the meat and dairy industries. So we end up with recommendations that mix food advice, e.g. eat more fruit and vegetables with nutrient advice e.g. eat less saturated fat. Why not just say “eat less cheese”?

The saturated fat/high cholesterol/atherosclerosis/heart disease link is well established. Nothing has changed to refute decades of research which link high fat animal products with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases. The only real challenge to the ‘saturated fat is bad’ paradigm is whether some of the adverse effects of foods high in saturated fat might be due to other features of these foods such as animal protein, carnitine, choline or haeme iron. For practical purposes it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the saturated fat or something else – it’s still meat and dairy foods that are contributing to chronic disease.

Many of the stories woven to refute the health hazards of saturated fat are based on several key scientific publications:

  1. Chowdhury, R., Warnakula, S., Kunutsor, S., Crowe, F., Ward, H. A., Johnson, L., . . . Di Angelantonio, E. (2014). Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 160(6), 398-406.
  2. Malhotra, A. (2013). Saturated fat is not the major issue. BMJ, 347, f6340. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f6340
  3. Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(3), 535-546. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725 (NB This research was funded by the dairy industry)

It all sounds quite plausible until you actually look at the fine detail of the evidence given, which takes considerable time and skill… few health professionals do this, so what hope has the general public got? We are indebted to people like Plant Positive, Dr John McDougall, Dr Michael Greger, T Colin Campbell and others who invest the time and effort to cut through the smoke and mirrors. Below is an extensive list of resources that will help you understand what’s behind the sensational headlines.


These videos from Dr Michael Greger explain how industry works to confuse the public on the saturated fat issue. The second video presents powerful evidence that saturated fat does indeed raise blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease:

An extensive analysis of this topic is provided by Plant Positive. His whole website (and YouTube channel) is designed “to correct specific falsehoods and flawed arguments that pervade the popular and academic discussion of nutrition”:

Addressing the Siri-Tarino and Chowdhury Saturated fat articles:

Cholesterol **February 2015 update**

In Feburary 2015 it was reported that the new US dietary guidelines will withdraw their recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol. Below are some responses from plant-based practitioners:

Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease **June 2017 update**

In June 2017 the American Heart Association published a ‘Presidential Advisory’ written by a team of highly experienced researchers who conducted a thorough review of the scientific literature into the effects of dietary saturated fat:

David Katz, MD wrote several articles trying to counter the pushback from low carb/high fat advocates in the days and weeks following publication of the AHA paper:

Ancel Keys’ research:

This white paper was commissioned by the True Health Initiative to explore the historical record and address the popular contentions with primary source material and related work, and in consultation with investigators directly involved. Popular criticisms directed at the study, and the lead investigator, Ancel Keys, turn out to be untrue when the primary source material is examined:


  • Campbell, T. C., & Jacobson, H. (2014). The low-carb fraud. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc.

Related pages:

Page created 4 July 2014
Last updated 8 July 2017