The Great Saturated Fat Debate

The American Dietetic Association (who is the govening body for Registered Dieitians and one of the groups responsible for influencing our dietary guidelines) is currently holding its 93rd annual meeting in Boston called the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (or more commonly known simply as FNCE - 'Fence-EE").

Like most group conferences, this one centers on what this group feels they do best, and that is nutrition.

However, it's not known as a heavy-science conference, but rather more knowlege sharing of nutrition. If you want really science-y nutrition conferences, you'd attend others such as the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL). (I've been to both, so I can speak from experience).

In any matter, FNCE is the conference all Registered Dietitians try to attend each year for a few reasons - there are often some good sessions to attend about nutrition; it helps us (I'm a RD too) maintain our CEU requirements; and there is this HUGE expo with tons of free goodies - although most of the goodies are food products and something I tend to stay away from.... in any matter, people leave with much heavier suitcases than when they came.

This year, the Member Showcase main session was titled, "The Great Saturated Fat Debate". Since this is something near and dear to my heart (That's what I studied for my 7 years in grad school) I knew I had to attend and hear it (even though I was skeptical as to what the outcome would be since the ADA tends to be anti-saturated fat).

Although I wasn't able to be there in person (had to watch baby), I was able to listen to the whole talk via the internet on U-Stream, which is why I totally love technology. Awesome!

According to the session description, we were supposed to learn from the four speakers in this round-table discussion if saturated fat really matters to our hearts and if limiting its intake really results in the best prescription for health.

But, that's not quite what happened, even though some of the information was good.

Here's how it went down:

The speakers in this session were:

1) Walter Willett, MD, DrPH - the chair of the nutrition dept at Harvard and author of several nutrition books

2) Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH - assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and expert in dietary fat

3) Alice Lichtenstein, DSc - Director of the Cardivascular Nutrition Lab at Tufts and part of the Dietary Guidelines committee

4) Lewis Kuller, MD, DrPH - Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at UPitt

(Notice not one of these persons were a RD? Makes you wonder why RDs are considered the nutrition "experts"??? Hmmm.... not that I'm totally bashing RDs, but many (I"m one too) has to learn to admit that they don't know everything when it comes to nutrition and that they look to many non-RDs for knowledge)


Walter took the stage first and said flat out that dietary total fat is NOT related to Coronary Heart Disease. In fact, the recommendations by the dietary guidelines to tell Americans to use fats and oils sparingly for health never had ANY solid evidence or support to back it up.

Then, we all know what the outcome was: we took as much fat out of our food supply and replaced it with starch and sugar and Americans got fatter and sicker.

And, the notion that dietary fat makes you fat is not true whatsoever. In fact, he pointed out that when farmers want to fatten their cows, they use carbs... not fat!

Also, controlled clinical trials show us over and over again that lower carb, higher fat diets are more advantages for weight loss and fat loss in humans.

Overall, he said the advice in the dietary guidelines to restrict dietary fat should be removed because it's not telling us the truth about what makes up a healthy diet - in other words, a low-fat diet is not beneficial for our health.


Next up was Lewis Kuller. Dr Kuller was the advocate for low-fat diets and low-saturated fat diets saying that the biggest reason is that saturated fat drives up LDL cholesterol and this is one of the major reasons we have atherosclerosis.

He listed some studies from the 70s showing that diets high in saturated fat made total and LDL cholesterol increase and said that this is why we have heart disease. We knew it then and we should be still listening to it now.

He didn't have the most convincing arguement in my opinion, but he did try...Couple that with the fact that both Willett and Mozaffarian both looked much more healthy than this guy and they both were fat advocates where he was not... interesting. 


Then Mozaffarian hit the stage - this guy is a powerhouse! He's done most of the research out there and written several papers indicating that when you replace saturated fat with carbohydrate (as we have been doing the past 30 years...) you increase the risk of heart disease.

He also pointed out that there is no relationship between saturated fat and heart disease or diabetes and that we should stop telling people to restrict it.

Instead, he recommended that we focus on telling people to consume polyunsaturated fats, rather than restrict saturated fat.

(Note, I thought this was a little weird, and was confused to as why he didn't just say "UNsaturated fat" which would also include monounsaturated fat. But, if this is his way to help people eat more nuts, seeds, avocados, unprocessed plant oils and such, so be it). 

He also said that we have to stop using individual biomarkers like just LDL cholesterol or just HDL and start realizing that there's more to disease than just one or two biomarkers.

(Note, an addition from me is that we really don't know the basis of diseases like heart disease or cancer and so can't really blame just one or two items. Scientists are still trying to understand these diseases and we may hear down the road very soon that LDL cholesterol really isn't the whole picture - which is just what Mozaffarian was saying).


Finally up was Alice Lictenstein. Alice is known to be a low-saturated fat advocate. But, in this presentation, she did say that we have to stop confusing the healthy eating message - which is that fat is not bad and that low-fat diets are not a healthy diet. Still though, the media keeps reporting this and we have to stop it.

She didn't advocate saturated fat at all, but did recognize that cutting fat out from the diet is not helping anyone.


Overall - the title of this Showcase should have been more accurately labeled, "The Great Fat Debate" because the speakers didn't really address the confusion around saturated fat. They really pushed the message that we need to stop demonizing fat in the diet and instead tell people to eat more polyunsaturated fat (They didn't distinguish between omega-3 poly and omega-6) rather than to tell them to eat less saturated fat.

Hopefully our society will finally stop fearing fat because fat does NOT make us fat, nor does it make us unhealthy... but that also too depends on the source of fat. If that fat is found in baking, processed foods and faux foods, then it is an issue. But if that fat comes naturally in a food, like the fat naturally in meats, fish and fowl, the fats in nuts and seeds and the fats in olives and avocados, then we're on the road to better health and a smaller waistline.

Happy Eating!


Posted Nov 09, 2010 by .

Comments for This Entry

GravatarDan Hubbard12:10PM on November 09, 2010

This reductionistic view of our extremely sophisticated and individualistic biochemical system is laughable. Are we really any more intellectually advanced in this area now than we were 50 years ago? The science is poor. Conclusions are drawn from associations, variables are way too plentiful to control. How can you study nutrition while ignoring, genetics, epigenetics, psychosomatic conditions, psycho-social and geographic environments, etc? Are we really going to indict ubiquitous molecules such as fatty acids as the 'cause' of the disease processes? We have a crude understanding of energy balance and weight loss, but the etiology of disease? Are we really going to come up with a correct blanket statement for nutrients for which intake for centuries has varied from 10-90% in human healthy human populations?

GravatarMichelle Davis07:19PM on November 09, 2010

"They really pushed the message that we need to stop demonizing fat in the die."
Thank goodness!
Maybe the AHA will soon stop demonizing fat.

GravatarSue01:19AM on November 12, 2010

Was there any talk about the Krauss saturated fat meta-analysis?

GravatarZach02:51PM on November 12, 2010

Nice article. I find the fact that they made blatant recommendations for increases in polyunsaturated fat, yet failed to distinguish between omega-3's and omega-6's, quite unsettling. The difference between omega-3's and omega-6's is quite significant and there are many sources of polyunsaturated fats that would only act as a detriment to one's health.

GravatarJaya12:22PM on November 14, 2010

Cassandra, thanks for sharing this! It is so interesting and your presentation of the info is so accessible for anyone!

I can't really contribute to this conversation since I have no experience or expertise in this area, but I will say that "Fat" as a word has probably more semiotic power than people can ever imagine. Whether we are talking about structural or dietary fat, I think that the majority of us are hardwired to vilify one or the other...if not both. I think these research findings get right to the heart of the central problems of the philosophy of science (like confirmation vs. verification) and how powerful an enterprise science can be for invoking hope and fear when it comes to just about anything. Interesting stuff - thanks again!

GravatarCassandra05:05AM on November 18, 2010

Sue - just saw your comment now. Yes, Mozzafarien showed a few slides from Krauss' work and that was why SFA are not considered detrimental.
Scientists argue - we argue. What does that tell us? That there isn't one right answer: we're all different and we all have varied responses.

GravatarFat Farm03:39AM on January 07, 2011

Thanks for stating a clear demarcation between natural fats and processed fats.People often mistakenly consider natural fat as dangerous as processed one ,which is wrong and you have explained that in great detail.Keep writing .

GravatarSarah01:46PM on February 12, 2011

Just found this entry when I googled the "The Great Fat Debate" (which was actually the formal title of the session, so your inclination was right, by the way!), and wanted to say kudos on the summary. I was at the conference, and am a dietetic intern presently. One of my classmates and I had had a similar (though albeit not as high level) discussion about dietary fat at a journal club we started, and found ourselves very confused as to why we couldn't find this "hard evidence" for a low-fat (and low sat fat) diet we assumed was out there. I know the trickle down of new evidence and recommendations is slow, but it was incredibly helpful for me as a student to be able to witness top experts in our country admit that sometimes what we're told to recommend isn't actually backed by evidence. Thanks for being an RD who doesn't follow the herd - we must all constantly reevaluate what we know!

GravatarWeight Loss Boot Camp02:01AM on March 29, 2011

Most of the processed foods we buy from our store shelves are produced by a handful of companies that have perfected the art of getting us to buy them. They do this by employing the best food chemists in the world who use all their knowledge to make sure these products sell. The foods produced contain many man-made chemicals, additives and preservative to make sure they taste as good as the can and can last for as long as possible on the shelves.But, herein lies the problem. the same chemicals used greatly contribute to us storing extra belly fat and not being able to lose belly fat.

GravatarSarah05:56AM on March 29, 2011

Could you list the chemicals that contribute to storing extra body/belly fat? Are they clinically proven to do that? It would be a valuable list to share!

GravatarSue02:42AM on April 21, 2011

Shouldn't the systolic be higher than the diastolic? Normal 120/80 or 110/70. The difference between the two should be around 40 (Blood Pulse Pressure).
You need some saturated fats.

GravatarDavid brown06:16AM on July 28, 2011

I'm glad to see the saturated fat controversy getting the attention it deserves. Now, I'd like to see more publicity about the omega-6 hazard. I almost did myself in by consuming "natural" peanut butter on a daily basis. Google "Omega-6: Friend or Foe" to access an interview containing the details of my experience.

I have Google Alerts for both "saturated fat" and "omega-6, lenoleic acid." I get daily notification on saturated fat articles. Most omega-6 articles are omega-3 supplement ads. However, there was an exceptionally good article by Massachusetts psychiatrist Emily Deans published a while back. Google "Your Brain on Omega 3" to access that article.

Good discussion here. For more recent research on Dairy and LDL Google "EurekAlert Dairy Consumption" and "EurekAlert LDL."

GravatarKris Johnson09:13AM on July 28, 2011

Thank you for your summary. It is promising to see that ADA invited Willett to the debate. But I was very disappointed to see zero discussion of the problems with excess 0mega-6 fats and how they have crowded out the limited amounts of omega-3 essential fats in the American diet - to say nothing of the problems with excess carbs. It was not until after I retired from dietetics that I discovered how the politics and misguided science had misled us down that unproductive low fat path. So now I call myself a reformed ex-dietitian, and teach classes to help people overcome their fat phobia and understand the health-giving qualities of natural whole foods prepared in traditional ways. And the interesting thing is that I don't find this confusing at all - in fact it make far more sense. People are just confused because they have been misled (brainwashed) for so long.

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