What’s Wrong with Saturated Fat?

I’ll admit it.  When I saw a news feed about McDonald’s making changes to their iconic burger, the Big Mac, I was hooked.  Why mess with success?  Turns out that lately, sales of burgers have been down a bit.  Now, to someone like me, I see that as a cause for celebration.  But to others, especially the upper corporate tier at McD’s, that is bad news. 

So, they have set out to make the Big Mac and some of the other burgers, more delicious and appealing.  How?  Wait for it…by making it higher fat, among other things.  The bun will be softer, the cheese gooier, the onion cooked on the grill along with the burger, AND there will be more special sauce.  Oh boy!  Do they know what sells or don’t they?  (My question is…how do these people sleep at night? But that’s just me.)

BTW, it turns out that Burger King, not to be left in the dust, is making some changes to their Whopper.  Not sure what those are yet, but one imagines that there will be more fat involved. 

Drilling down on saturated fat

Which brings me to today’s burning topic.  Saturated fat.  Saturated fat has “a history.” As things go, it has taken some time for it to come into its own.  

Back in the 50’s a brilliant and quirky doctor by the name of Ancel Keys became curious about longevity.  This was at a time when people in the United States were snarfing down meat and butter till the cows came home.  Remember, it was after the war, and people had been deprived.  Now, they were languishing in meals featuring slabs of meat.  Heart disease started to get more and more common as a way to die. 

He wondered why this was so.  So, in the 70’s, he checked out what was going on in other countries.  Turns out that countries where eating foods with lots of saturated fat (like the US) were suffering from more and more heart disease. Some other countries…most notably Greece, Italy, and Spain, had less heart disease, by a long way.  Voila!  The birth of the Mediterranean Diet.  Ancel Keys actually came up with the concept, while at the same time in essence proving that eating saturated fat leads to heart disease.*

*To be clear, saturated fat is mostly found in animal products like full fat dairy, beef, pork, lamb, and in some other things like coconut and palm oil.  Americans were indeed snarfing up many of these items.  Unsaturated fats are mostly found in plants, nuts, seeds, and plant oils like olive oil, which are found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet. 

Getting rid of fat

People started to get with the program.  Along with considering the evils of saturated fat, people decided that eating any kind of fat makes you fat.  Low fat diets thrived.  The thing is that heart disease continued to be very common, and the population in general was gaining weight.  Apparently, it was not just saturated fat that was the culprit.

Meanwhile, the sugar industry took advantage of the situation and did their best to get off the hook and blame saturated fat for everything.  It worked…for a while.  Now we know that sugar is just as bad for us.  But, that is a topic for another day.

Pretty soon there was more research being done around this.  Long story short, it was found that people eating saturated fat did not necessarily develop heart disease or die from it.  It turns out that some people are more susceptible to its evils than others. 

That said, like a lot of things, how much you eat of it can be a problem.  The USDA has come up with the idea that getting less than 10% of your total calories from saturated fat is still OK.  Being even more conservative, the American Heart Association has set a goal of 5-6%. 

Other important points:

  1. Saturated fat consumed in excess of 10% of daily calories does increase LDL cholesterol in most people, which means increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.  By the way, saturated fat is not the same as cholesterol.  They are both fats, but their structures are different. Saturated fat raises the amount of bad LDL cholesterol in your blood and lowers your good HDL cholesterol, but that is not the same as eating cholesterol.  Cholesterol is carried in your blood to your tissues by LDL’s.  LDL’s are what can clog up your arteries.  I know it’s confusing.  Just know that there is a difference between the two. 
  • Eating fat does not make you fat.  You need fat in your diet in order to absorb fat soluble vitamins.  They are A, D, E, and K.  These items are vital for bodily function.  You need fat for other reasons.  Fat provides the body with things called essential fatty acids, that are used all over the place to keep you healthy.  The reason they are called essential is because your body doesn’t make them.  You need to eat them.  And, bummer, as we all know, fat is the way your body stores energy for a rainy day.  Perhaps even more of a bummer, fat makes things taste good (see above regarding the Big Mac).
  • Here’s the thing.  Most fats, even the healthy ones like olive oil or avocado oil, also contain saturated fat.  Also, there are different types of saturated fats that can affect the body differently.  Saturated fats can be found in relatively small amounts in healthy foods like nuts and seeds, fish, and avocado.  Even so, you may notice that many of these foods are staples of the Mediterranean Diet.  The Mediterranean Diet has stood the test of time for being great in many ways, including lowering the risk of heart disease. 

The bottom line is this:

You can’t avoid fats in general and saturated fats in particular and remain healthy.  Having said that, you do need to keep a lid on both of those things. 

Final thought…is this easy to do?  NO! just take a look at the new ‘improved” Big Mac!  It’s probably quite tasty, but I am guessing that they are not doing their best to reduce the saturated fat content.  Beware, and do your best.      

Cheers,  Kristen

© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: amirali mirhashemian | Unsplash

The End of Try Try Again by Kristen Carter MS

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