Can saturated fat make you healthier?

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For decades, nutrition rules have put strict limits on saturated fat. Even as far back as the 1960s, experts were pretty unanimous in decreeing that eating foods high in saturated fats, such as red meat and full-fat dairy, increased your risk of heart disease. And people concerned with the health and function of their bodies (such as runners) took heed, severely curtailing their intake of such foods.

However, several recent headline-grabbing studies have challenged this age-old nutritional commandment. One of those, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine early last year, reviewed 76 studies and found no association between saturated fat and heart disease. Another review, published in 2010, reached a similar conclusion. ‘Saturated fat may not be the demon it was made out to be,’ says Jeff Volek, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, US, and a dietitian.

Before you celebrate this news with a bacon double cheeseburger, there’s a catch: just because these study reviews didn’t find an association doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Many of these studies were not designed to find direct cause and effect. They also often relied on participants to self-report their diets, and such accounts are often inaccurate.

But through randomised, controlled clinical studies, researchers do know some things for certain. ‘Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels,’ says Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Penn State University, US. Because LDL can contribute to plaque deposits in arteries, ‘it is one of the two major risk factors for cardiovascular disease’, she says. Kris-Etherton adds that when ‘good’ polyunsaturated fats (found in fish and vegetable oils) are substituted for saturated fat, LDL levels go down and so does the incidence of heart disease. And there are other reasons to err on the side of caution: diets high in saturated fat have been linked to some cancers, and processed meats to increased diabetes risk.

But it’s not all bad news. Research has discovered that saturated fat may have health benefits. For example, certain medium-chain saturated fats, such as lauric acid (found in coconut oil), have the potential to be immediately burned for energy rather than stored. It’s also emerged that taking saturated fat out of our diets has a strange effect: it lowers levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, which clears bad LDL from the bloodstream.

‘What the research comes down to is that all foods – in moderation – fit into a healthy diet,’ says sports nutritionist Heather Fink. ‘Runners are active and health conscious, so they often restrict those foods. They don’t have to.’

Making the right choice involves looking at the total food versus a single nutrient. Some foods higher in saturated fat are really nutritious – and excluding them means you miss out. For example, red meat contains iron, zinc and protein; whole milk is an excellent source of bone-building calcium and vitamin D; and grass-fed beef and dairy provide conjugated linoleic acids, which have been linked to weight loss. Plus, full-fat foods are more flavorful and satisfying, which can reduce your appetite, says Volek.

A varied diet incorporating natural whole foods – including some saturated fat – can supply a range of nutrients that keep you in top running form. So enjoy that chicken with the skin on (once in a while) and spread butter on your toast (occasionally). Once you’re also eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and lean protein, you’ll be doing your body – and your running – a lot of good.

SAT FAT SUPERSTARS

Get extra nutrients from these surprising sources.

Chicken thighs - High in zinc, which boosts the immune system. 3g sat fat per 100g.

Eggs - Packed with protein and essential amino acids. 2g sat fat per egg.

Cheddar cheese - One fifth of your daily calcium needs per slice. 21g sat fat per 100g.

Macadamia nuts - Packed with the essential mineral manganese. 10g sat fat per 100g.

Full-fat yoghurt - Lots of probiotics, which are linked to weight loss. 2g sat fat per 100g.

Red meat - A good source of energy-supplying vitamin B12. 3g sat fat per 100g.