As a nutrition professional I spend a significant amount of time keeping up with the research on nutrition and how that research is interpreted by the public. As you can imagine, it’s not as easy job. There are dozens of peer-reviewed journals publishing hundreds of research articles every couple of months.
It’s impossible to keep up with all if it, but that’s okay. The science of health and nutrition is a slow moving dinosaur. One study doesn’t change consensus or alter various schools of thought. If a study does challenge contemporary thinking it usually creates more questions than answers. Science can be slow, but also beautiful in a nerdy romantic way.
Saturated fat myth myth
What’s less beautiful is when one idea gets tons of press and fits in with some groups’ previous held beliefs. Yes, I’m talking about the saturated fat ‘myth.’ For decades dietary saturated fat has been associated with an increase in serum cholesterol, a leading risk factor for one of leading killers in the United States: heart disease. Traditional nutrition recommendations(creating these is a science of its own!) say we should get fewer than 10% of our calories from saturated fat and some newer ones lower that number to six percent.
Since saturated fat is found primarily in animal products (with some exceptions as you’ll see below) its effect on health is a divisive issue that often splits vegans and paleo. My colleague Ginny Messina has discussed this. We have a lot of evidence on our side: long-term studies like the Adventist Health Study show that vegetarians and vegans eat less saturated fat, have predictably lower total / LDL cholesterol and significantly lower rates of heart disease. So we win, right? Cheeseburgers kill, tofu wins. Hold onto your soy burger, it’s not that simple.
A few months ago I was a guest on Rich Roll’s podcast. He’s a vegan athlete, author of Finding Ultra and all-around great guy. He asked me, with no warning, some very specific nutrition questions. Not wanting to oversimplify complex biochemical mechanisms, I said ‘well, it’s complicated’ more than a few times (‘like a million times!’ according to an email I received). Interpreting nutritional science and conveying an accurate, useful message is complex and I’m careful to not make claims that can’t be backed up.
Let’s get back to saturated fat. Vegans eating less of it and having lower disease rates is complicated by what they are eating instead of high saturated fat foods. That quinoa and black bean burger isn’t just lower in sat fat, it’s loaded with fiber, phytochemicals and unsaturated fats. Is it the absence of one or the addition of the others that is beneficial? Or a combination? It’s complicated.
When the paleo folks argue that 50 years of science on saturated fat is wrong, they are right about one thing: what you replace it with is just as or even more important than whether you eat below the recommended amount or not. They say the science is wrong, I say it’s complicated and evolving, which is the nature of scientific study.
If you’re not confused yet keep reading
Dietary fat can be divided into 3 categories: saturated, unsaturated and trans. We’re clear that trans is detrimental to health, so we’ll put that aside. Now the remaining two categories are just that, groupings based on biochemical structure. There are individual fatty acids and each has its own effect on serum cholesterol levels. And guess what: not all saturated fatty acids are bad. Stearic acid, for example, is neutral at worst and possibly even beneficial. It’s the most prevalent fatty acid found in cacao (full disclosure I have a book on cacao coming out), which is why chocolate isn’t associated with heart disease. Pretty cool, but also confusing if you’re new to all of this.
Paleo advocates aren’t the only ones stretching the science
Let’s look at another plant food: coconut. It is often billed as a super food, for a number of reasons, one being that some of the saturated fats are medium chain triglycerides that do not raise cholesterol. So pay the big bucks and cook everything in it, right? Not so fast. The remaining saturated fat in coconut is similar to what is found in animal products; which vegans vilify as detrimental to our health by way of cholesterol and heart disease. Should we avoid it then and cook everything in olive oil? The only problem is olive oil is about 14% saturated fat. Maybe the anti-inflammatory factors in coconut negate the sat fat content making it the better choice? Honestly, I’m not sure. Are you convinced that it’s complicated?
Many ‘health coaches’ and other pseudo professionals claim that their style of eating is better than others and add to the confusion with misleading cherry-picked evidence. They often present a few foods as life-savers and vilify others without understanding, or caring about, the big picture. You can argue points, but you are doing exactly that- arguing. And most of the arguments I see (and angry emails I get) are by individuals who have claimed their way of eating as the gold standard and won’t be swayed by evidence to the contrary when presented with it.Declarative statements are popular, but not helpful
I’ve been an ethical vegan almost 18 years- anyone else remember when Whole Earth (RIP) was the only vegan bakery?-and a health professional for 10 of those. I have to say this though: it’s possible to be healthy and eat animals products and it’s also possible to be vegan and unhealthy. Neither alone is a determinate of health. There are plenty of reasons to be vegan (the animals!) and we have strong evidence that eating lots of plant foods is very good for you. But arguing over saturated fat, saying that a cheeseburger causes a heart attack or coconut oil will save you from one doesn’t help our cause. It’s not one food or nutrient, but (probably!) an overall diet where fat comes from whole plant foods.
There are many paths to good health and I hate to see vegans get caught up in the minutiae over which is the best. And maybe paleo and vegan aren’t that different. We should discuss these concepts and increase our understanding of nutrition, but not lose the forest for the trees or the field for the strawberry. Or make exceptional claims that distract from the science we do know and from the most important point- veganism is about the animals. So please continue to eat lots of beneficial fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains and try not to get caught up in the single food and single nutrient circus.
Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD is co-author of Appetite for Reduction with Isa Moskowitz and No Meat Athlete with Matt Frazier. He has a private practice in Southern California and works with vegan athletes through Strongest Hearts. Follow him at @MattRuscigno. You can also contact him via his website for private nutrition counseling.
Tags: Cacao, carbs, cholesterol, giinny messina, healthy paleo, healthy vegan, heart disease, Matt Ruscigno, MPH, paleo, RD, research on nutrition, Rich Roll, Strongest Hearts, The Saturated Fat Myth, vegan athlete, vegan science, what are the best foods to eat, Whole EarthPin It
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