Saturated Fats, Heart Disease, and Other Things We Still Don’t Understand

What is this love affair that everyone seems to have with bacon these days? It seems to appear in every other recipe published on the internet. The most recent ones I saw were for bacon candy and bacon brownies.

Now the latest internet claim is that lard—which is rendered fat from pigs—is supposedly good for us. Ugh. The basis for this idea is that much of the fat in lard is either monounsaturated (like the fat in olive oil) or is the type of saturated fat that doesn’t affect cholesterol levels.

I don’t know–maybe so. But, dietary fat is a bit more complicated than that. Some types of saturated fat (including the palmitic acid in lard) have been shown to have other effects in the body which raise risk for heart disease.

Still, over the years, much of the canon about diet and heart disease has been challenged and debated. How much does saturated fat matter? We really don’t know.

Canadian researchers recently looked at different dietary factors and ranked them according to how strongly and consistently they affected heart disease risk. They reviewed findings only from the types of studies that provide the most conclusive evidence and they went all the way back to 1950. Their findings were published in the April 13, 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Here is what they concluded:

• Factors that had a strongly protective effect against heart disease were vegetables, nuts, monounsaturated fats and Mediterranean style of eating.

• Factors that strongly raised risk for heart disease were trans fatty acids, high glycemic index, and Western dietary pattern (characterized by high intake of processed meat, red meat, butter, high-fat dairy, eggs, and refined grains).

• There was moderate evidence for a protective effect for omega-3 fats, folate (a B vitamin), whole grains, vitamins C and E from foods, beta carotene, alcohol, fruit and fiber.

• The evidence was weak for any effect of vitamin C and E supplements, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, total fat intake, omega-6 fats, and individual foods like meat, eggs, and milk.

This is just one review, of course, and it is hardly the final word on diet and heart disease. It is suggestive of where the evidence stands right now, and mostly shows that we still have a lot to learn about this dietary issue.

But, there is certainly no evidence here that eating lard is good for you as the lard advocates claim.

There is, however, strong support for the idea that whole plant foods protect against heart disease. And, it’s clear that the way most Americans eat now—a diet that includes large amounts of animal fat—raises risk for heart disease. The American Heart Association still recommends a diet low in saturated fat.

I think that tells us that we vegans are on the right track when it comes to healthful eating. But does it make the case for vegan diet? Once again the answer is no. There is one case for veganism: It’s the only ethical and humane way to eat. That’s a claim that the lard fans and saturated fat promoters can never make for their diet.

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2 Responses to Saturated Fats, Heart Disease, and Other Things We Still Don’t Understand

  1. Johanna June 5, 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    "That’s a claim that the lard fans and saturated fat promoters can never make for their diet."

    Oh, they make the claim, all right – and they're sure to back it up with plenty of lip service to the idea of eating lard only from free-range animals raised by small-scale local farmers, and so on and so forth. It's just that when they claim it, they're wrong.

  2. Janet July 31, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I am not a vegan, nor even a vegetarian. There is not much depth to this article, but I have to say that it is one of the most balanced and common sensical articles on dietary fats that I have seen on the internet.

    Nutrition, the human body, and all living systems, for that matter, are extremely complicated, and we will never have all the answers. From a nutritional standpoint, to fling forward with a diet high in animal fats is, at this point in our knowledge, just as risky as adhering to strict veganism….Though I understand you have other reasons for adhering to a vegan diet.

    With the information we currently have on health and nutrition, it seems most prudent, me to, to eat a wide variety of minimally processed foods, don't over eat, and get plenty of exercise. Simple.

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