New study puts final nail in the “saturated fat causes heart disease” coffin

January 15, 2010 in Heart Disease | 18 comments

coffinFor more than five decades we’ve been brainwashed to believe that saturated fat causes heart disease. It’s such a deeply ingrained belief that few people even question it. It’s just part of our culture now.

Almost every day one of my patients in the clinic tells me proudly that they have a “healthy” diet because they don’t eat butter, cheese or red meat or any other foods high in saturated fat (nevermind that red meat isn’t particularly high in saturated fat, but that’s a subject for another post). Or I might overhear someone at the grocery store saying how much they prefer whole fat yogurt to the low-fat version, but they eat the low-fat stuff anyways because they want to make the “healthy” choice.

What most people don’t realize is that it took many years to convince people that eating traditional, animal fats like butter and cheese is bad for you, while eating highly-processed, industrial vegetable oils like corn and soybean oil is good for you. This simply defied common sense for most people. But the relentless, widespread campaign to discredit saturated fat and promote industrial oils was eventually successful.

What if I told you that there’s absolutely no evidence to support the idea that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease? What if I told you that the 50+ years of cultural brainwashing we have all been subject to was based on small, poorly designed studies? And what if I told you that a review of large, well-designed studies published in reputable medical journals showed that there is absolutely no association between saturated fat and heart disease?

Well, that’s what I’m telling you. We’ve beed duped. Blindsided. Lied to. And we’ve suffered greatly as a result. Not only have we suffered from being encouraged to eat packaged and processed foods made with cheap, tasteless vegetable oils, but these very oils we were told would protect us from heart disease actually promote it! See my article How to Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease for more on that.

The recent review I’m talking about is a meta-analysis published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It pooled together data from 21 unique studies that included almost 350,000 people, about 11,000 of whom developed cardiovascular disease (CVD), tracked for an average of 14 years, and concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.

Let me put that in layman’s terms for you:

Eating saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease.

There. That’s it. That’s really all you need to know. But if you’d like to read more about it, John Briffa and Chris Masterjohn have written articles about it here and here.

I wonder how long it will take for this information to trickle down into the mainstream culture? Unfortunately it’s not going to happen overnight. Paradigm shifts don’t work that way. But I’ve seen some positive signs, and I do believe the tide is turning. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 50 years.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Marek January 18, 2010 at 10:03 am

Totally agree with your comments. The only problem is that the margerine manufacturers don’t, and guess who has more money to buy more influence?


Suzi March 31, 2010 at 9:34 am

I’ve been doing low carb for about 15 years, and whenever I go off, I feel terrible. When I go off, I notice swelling and my joints hurt – I’m wondering how many people with fybromyalgia (or who think they have it) might be helped with a low carb diet. The gluten thing may be related too. What it all comes down to for me is that Nature or God or whoever you believe in seems to provide the best food for all animals – we would naturally eat meat and vegetables. Bread, rice, pasta (especially refined ones) are not a natural source of food – we created them, not to mention the fake fats, as you mentioned. Sure, the best way is to eat a balanced diet, but if I’m going to cheat, I think I’m better off with something high fat than something high carb. I think we’re going to see a lot more of these studies refuting the high fat myth.


mary October 14, 2010 at 4:27 pm

high carb. diet
and too much sugar intake, makes my body ache.

if i eat a lot of sweets before bed, i wake up with a back ache


Anonymous April 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Not sure what research you’re reading but I think you’ll find there’s good evidence that diets high in sat fat OR processed foods are equally detrimental to health. Fresh ingredients, cooked from scratch in moderate amounts is the way to go – not very exciting I know but that’e where the REAL scientific evidence leads.


Anonymous April 2, 2011 at 2:12 am

KTJS–most of the studies of which you speak are epidimiological studies–studies that demo correlation, not causation. If people are told year-in, year-out that saturated fat is bad for them, the only people that will eat saturated fat are people who are otherwise unhealthy (smoking, drinking, leading sedentary lifestyles, etc.) In other words, it is unhealthy people eating saturated fat, not saturated fat making people unhealthy that leads to study results that perpetuate a myth that had very little to do with promoting human health in the first place.


Sam June 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Why are you not sure what research Chris is referencing? It’s right in the article above. Numerous studies show NO link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Do a search…..there is literally NO legitimate study that links saturated fat to heart disease.


Bryan Stell June 24, 2011 at 12:06 am


I am 4 days into my 80-100 grams of sat fat per day diet. I got the bloodwork you recommended PRE diet but I will have to pay out of pocket to get it post. I may knock a few of the more expensive tests off of there sadly. It’s going well though feeling good. I just have to eat coconut milk to help me get the numbers because I am not hungry enough to eat that much grassfed beef. I will post an epic video of my feasts and the numbers as they come in. Thanks for all you do.


Chris Kresser June 24, 2011 at 10:39 am

Looking forward to it!


Dwayne June 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

Not to mention how good coconut oil is for you and its a saturated fat. But heres the kicker theres no cholesterol in it what so ever. And people that consume it loose huge amounts of weight.


Dave James July 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Please, PLEASE show me a diet that includes SATFATS and is PROVEN to stop and reverse my heart disease.

I am 51 years old and have TWO stents in my arteries after two “mild” heart attacks. I ate the usual fast food, american diet. Whether, my CVD was caused by SATFATS or REFINDED FLOUR? or TONS OF OIL? …I dunno. Probably all three. Please read on.

After my first sent, in 2003, I started on the usual statin, low-fat lifestyle. But, after reading The Great Cholesterol Con and visiting I was CONVINCED (just what I wanted to hear) this SATFAT thing was BS and I went on to joyfully eat copious amounts of butter, burgers, steaks, chicken, pork and any other kind of meat. Burgers twice a day? Why not? SATFAT is not gonna harm me. It’s ALL been a lie. Gorge yourself in SATFATS because they are harmless AND as the study shows above, there is “no relationship” between SATFATS and CVD.

Last month I had another mild heart attack and another stent put in my RCA.

Good times.

Now, AGAIN, was it the SATFATS? GENES? WHITE FLOUR? REFINED OILS? Not sure. But, after reading the above article, I am “reassured” that I can go right back to eating fatty as I can get them. Right?

Isn’t that what the study and article implies?

I am currently following a low-fat NO OIL (none period) vegan diet promoted by the book PREVENT and REVERSE HEART DISEASE by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. Vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Only.

I won’t go into detail here, but his LONG TERM study of 18 patients with SEVERE, heart disease showed that following this way of eating STOPPED and REVERSED, yes I typed REVERSED, their heart disease. PROVEN. PERIOD. END OF STORY.

Trust me, I am NOT a “pro-animal” nut job. (although I do love my two german shepherds) In fact, if you (Chris) or any one else can show me a PROVEN diet, PROVEN, that allows me to eat beef, fish, chicken, pork or any other creature and will STOP and REVERSE MY HEART DISEASE, I will start chowing down on the nearest animal near me. (except my two german shepherds)

Unless and UNTIL there is such a diet that includes saturated fat (and oils) and can CURE me of my CVD. Then I don’t want to even BOTHER with the debate anymore. This diet will CURE me. Period.

For those of you who will undoubtably respond with, “..I never said that SATFATS are harmless!” or “…well you ate TOO much SATFAT.” Well, I say which is it? Moderation? Which could mean a moderate amount of CVD? Or, if you think it was the OILS and not the SATFATS, well olive oil has 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. So are oils good or bad?

If you go by studies using the brachial artery tourniquet test, oils and satfats DO harm the endothelium of the the arteries.

Look, it may be unclear what EXACTLY are the foods that cause or contribute to heart disease, but, this diet that I am on is the ONLY diet, that I am aware of, that will stop and reverse heart disease.



Chris Kresser July 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm

You became aware of the WAPF and then ate burgers with refined flour buns cooked in vegetable oil twice a day, and you blame your subsequent heart attack on saturated fat? Sorry, that does not compute.

There is no “END OF STORY” from a study of 18 people. Period.

There are copious studies – which I’ve written about all over this blog – showing that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. Please show me a single study that shows a causal relationship between the two. You can’t, because there isn’t

You can’t even show me long-term studies indicating that saturated fat consumption raises cholesterol levels. They don’t exist.

I have many patients – including my father – who have reversed all indicators of heart disease by following a high saturated fat Paleo-type diet.

Want proof this is possible? In this study in American Clinical Journal of Nutrition, they separated women into 4 groups according to saturated fat intake. Guess what? The women who ate the least saturated fat (and the most carbs) had the highest rates of heart disease, and the women who ate the highest amounts of saturated fat actually reversed their atherosclerosis.

I’m sorry to hear of your struggles with heart disease, but you can’t blame it on a high-fat diet free of refined flour and seed oils, since that’s not what you were doing. There are many, many people doing just that who are thriving without heart disease.


Dave James July 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm

They study concludes: “In postmenopausal women with relatively low total fat intake, a greater saturated fat intake is associated with less progression of coronary atherosclerosis, whereas carbohydrate intake is associated with a greater progression.”

Less progression. Not halted.

Chris, I have documented heart disease. You are comfortable with telling me that I can choose a diet high in saturated fats, (but with no refined carbs or sugars) and my disease will stop and reverse?



Dave James July 16, 2011 at 10:24 pm

BTW, Chris Esselstyn’s program forbids simple carbs (flour) and vegetable oils. Not just saturated fat. So he is trying to eliminate all factors.

I agree, I turned a blind eye to the “white flour buns” and “vegetable oils”, and I do agree with the studies you mention above. In fact, Anthony Colpo and I have exchanged emails often on the SATFAT/HEART DISEASE paradigm.

I made an attempt in my original post to acknowledge that I am UNSURE about what dietary factors continued my CVD. Plus, I do miss eating animal fats.

Still its hard for me to ignore studies that show, “The consumption of high-fat foods causes damage to the endothelial cells, inhibiting nitiric oxide production, and begins the cascade of events leading to heart disease.” ~ Dr. Esselstyn

Read more at Suite101: A Single High-Fat Meal Impairs Cardiovascular Function |

It’s hard to keep a clear path with so many conflicting studies.



Chris Kresser July 17, 2011 at 8:44 am

That is exactly why Esselstyn’s program works to the degree that it does: because it removes flour and vegetable oils.

And that is why you can’t draw any conclusions from studies that don’t control for confounding variables, like Esselstyn’s and Ornish’s. Sure, if you take a bunch of people on a Standard American Diet and put them on a vegetarian diet that removes flour, seed oils and sugar, they’re going to feel a lot better. But that doesn’t prove it had anything to do with removing saturated fat. In order to know that, you’d have to have a control group that also removed flour, seed oils and sugar, but continued to eat saturated fat. And guess what? We do have a few studies like that. They compared the Mediterranean Diet with the Paleo diet, and the Paleo diet produced more significant improvements in blood lipids, blood sugar and other cardiovascular risk factors. Here’s one, and here’s another.

Esselstyn’s claims don’t hold water, because they’ve never been verified in well-controlled studies. If saturated fats “lead to the cascade of events causing heart disease”, then why (after more than 40 trials) are there no studies that show any causative relationship between the two? And how is it possible, then, to have traditional cultures like the Inuit and Masai who get between 70-90% of their calories from saturated fat, and have no heart disease whatsoever? There are so many problems with Esselstyn’s argument it’s hard to know where to start.


Chris Kresser July 17, 2011 at 8:36 am

It was halted and reversed. Read the full text.


Chris Kresser July 17, 2011 at 8:49 am

Here’s a slide from one of my presentations with a chart from that study. Notice that in women in the fourth (highest) quartile of saturated fat intake, the progression of atherosclerosis reversed.

Yes, I’m completely comfortable telling you to eat saturated fat with heart disease. Heart disease is caused by inflammation and oxidative damage – not by saturated fat. I’ve written an entire series on how to minimize dietary and lifestyle risk factors that cause inflammation and oxidative damage. That is what you should be focused on. But you have to make your own decision, of course. I don’t provide medical advice to individuals over the Internet, and this should not be construed as such. I am simply educating you and explaining what the (good) research says.


Ali July 18, 2011 at 2:00 am

I’ve listened to your long podcast on cholesterol and sat. fats. It was good, but i am concerned that there might be some information missing that readers might need to be aware of in order to make an informed decision about consumption of sat. fats. In the podcast, your guest explains that the problem essentially starts in the membrane of the LDL particle. He says that polyunsaturated fats in that membrane incur oxidative damage which then makes them a danger. But he then skips to talking about the relative safety of sat. fat anf doesn’t fully address PUFs. If PUFs are in the membrane, are they there naturally? What is the normal composition of the membrane and how does eating sat. fats improve the membrane’s resistance to oxidation? Because if the membrane is normally composed of PUFs, then i am concerned that eating sat. fats isnt really helping anything, and may actually harm you because of the increase of cholesterol in circulation.


Ali July 18, 2011 at 2:28 am

I would also like to ask whether there are clear “PREREQUISITES” for eating sat. fats. I feel there are a lot of people out there debunking “conventional wisdom” on the issue, but not providing clear guidanceas to what you need to do BEFORE it is safe to consume a half pound of bacon at breakfast. And if we, in our modern world, are simply unable to meet all those prerequisites, can we still say it is safe to consume sat. fats beyond a certain level? For instance , if driving daily in LA consistently and predictably elicits a stress response that negatively impacts the true causes of heart disease, then would it be better for those people to avoid eating a lot of sat. fats? Or if a person is unable to keep a proper balance of Omega 6 & 3 because of cost and unavailability of healthy foods, should he or she be consuming sat. fats? Or would other dietary recommendations be more appropriate.


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