For well over half-century, a majority of health care officials and media have warned that saturated fats are bad for your health and lead to obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) began encouraging Americans to limit dietary fat in general and saturated fats in particular as far back as 1961.
Like its previously revised version, the current version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid, called “MyPlate,”1 more or less eliminates fats altogether, with the exception of a small amount of low-fat or no-fat dairy.
All the while, studies have repeatedly refuted the wisdom of these low- to no-fat recommendations.
On What Evidence Does AHA Base Their Recommendation?
How did the AHA come to the conclusion that they were right about saturated fat 60 years ago and have been right all along? In short, by cherry-picking the data that supported their outdated view. As noted by American science writer Gary Taubes in his extensive rebuttal to the AHA’s advisory:13
“The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses based on selective interpretation of the evidence …
Taubes, an investigative science and health journalist who has written several books on obesity and diet, points out that this advisory document actually reveals the AHA’s longstanding prejudice and the method by which it reaches its conclusions.
The advisory document reveals how the AHA could conclude they had the “strongest possible evidence.” Then, as now, they methodically came up with justifications to simply exclude the contrary evidence. All that was left — then and now — were a small number of studies that support their preconceived view of what they think the truth should be.
Non-Saturated Fat Recommendations Have Been Followed With Disastrous Results
Since the 1950s, when vegetable oils began being promoted over saturated fats like butter, Americans have dutifully followed this advice, dramatically increasing consumption of vegetable oil. Soy oil, for example, rose by 600% (10,000% from 1900) while butter, tallow and lard consumption halved.
We’ve also dramatically increased sugar consumption, with more than half of Americans consuming over 17 teaspoons a sugar a day in 2021.19 That’s down from the 25 teaspoons a day they were consuming in 2014,20 but it’s still more than the maximum 12 teaspoons recommended by the CDC.
Alas, rather than becoming healthier than ever, Americans have only gotten fatter and sicker. Heart disease rates have not improved even though people have been eating what the AHA suggests is a heart-healthy diet. Common sense tells us if the AHA’s advice hasn’t worked in the last 65 years, it’s not likely to start working now.
As noted by Shanahan, technology that allows us to study molecular reactions is relatively recent, and certainly was not available back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Modern research is just now starting to reveal what actually happens at the molecular level when you consume vegetable oil and margarine, and it’s not good.
Other researchers have shown the PUFA linoleic acid can cause cell death in addition to hindering mitochondrial function.22 PUFAs are also not readily stored in subcutaneous fat. Instead, these tend to get deposited in your liver, where they contribute to fatty liver disease, and in your arteries, where they contribute to atherosclerosis.
According to Frances Sladek,23 Ph.D., a toxicologist and professor of cell biology at UC Riverside, PUFAs behave like a toxin that builds up in tissues because your body cannot easily rid itself of it. When vegetable oils like sunflower oil and corn oil are heated, cancer-causing chemicals like aldehydes are also produced.24
The Cholesterol Argument
Researchers have also laid waste to the notion that having high cholesterol is a primary contributor to heart disease in the first place. This is the basic premise upon which the AHA builds its conclusion that saturated fats are bad for you. The idea is that saturated fats raise your cholesterol level, thus raising your risk for heart disease. But again, they use too broad a brush and ignore the details. For example:
•A recent study33 published in The BMJ reanalyzed data from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (MCE) that took place between 1968 and 1973, after gaining access to previously unpublished data. This was a double-blind, randomized controlled trial to test whether replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil (high in linoleic acid) would lower cholesterol levels, thus reducing heart disease and related deaths.
Interestingly, while the treatment group did significantly lower their cholesterol, no mortality benefit could be found. In fact, for each 30 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) reduction in serum cholesterol, the risk of death increased by 22%. Swapping saturated fat for vegetable oil also had no effect on atherosclerosis rates or heart attacks.
The AHA also does not take LDL particle number into consideration. There are large, fluffy LDL particles and small, dense ones. We didn’t have this information in the 1960s, but we sure have it now.
This is yet another crucial detail that makes all the difference in the world, as large LDL particles have been shown to be harmless and do not raise your risk for heart disease. And guess what? Sugar promotes harmful small, dense LDLs while saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil promotes harmless large, fluffy LDLs.34
Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Not?
The short answer is yes, coconut oil is healthy. It’s been a dietary staple for millennia, providing you with high-quality fat that is important for optimal health. It supports thyroid function, normalizes insulin and leptin function, boosts metabolism and provides excellent and readily available fuel for your body in lieu of carbohydrates (which you need to avoid if you want to lose weight).
Who Pays the AHA?
One of its primary revenue streams is its Heart Check Food Certification Program, which is updated monthly.36 Foods bearing this certification mark are supposed to make it easier for consumers to select products to include in a heart-healthy diet. Companies pay about $700,000 annually for the right to use this mark on their packaging.37
AHA Was Wrong in the 1960s and Is Still Wrong
Heart disease is primarily caused by chronic inflammation, which is caused by excessive amounts of omega-6 (unbalanced omega-6 to omega-3), dangerous trans fats, processed vegetable oils and excessive sugar in the diet. Saturated fats, on the other hand, have been repeatedly exonerated, with studies showing they do not contribute to heart disease and are in fact a very important source of fuel for your body.