Chapel Hill: Opinion

Holly Hough: The skinny on saturated fats

For decades, adults have been advised to steer clear of saturated fats like butter. Research published in 2010 and 2014 revealed that early studies may have been wrong.
For decades, adults have been advised to steer clear of saturated fats like butter. Research published in 2010 and 2014 revealed that early studies may have been wrong. MCT

What’s in a cube of cheese? If that cheese comes from the local artisans at Chapel Hill Creamery, the answer is the rich milk from Jersey cows.

And what’s in rich milk? Fat. Saturated fat, to be exact. All animal products – like meat, ice cream, butter, cheese – contain saturated fats, a type of fat molecule that is usually solid at room temperature. Saturated fat can also be found in a few plant-based oils, such as coconut and palm oils.

For years, fat, and especially saturated fat, has been viewed as the enemy of a healthy diet, particularly for adults. A fact that Portia McKnight, co-owner of the Creamery, often observes.

“I know that parents certainly feel fine about their children eating dairy products and full-fat dairy products,” she says, “but I think there are an awful lot of adults who are really terrified of fats.”

So why are we so afraid of fats?

For decades, adults have been advised to steer clear of saturated fats. Several research papers published in the early 1950s implicated dietary fat as a key player in the development of heart disease. By 1961, the American Heart Association (AHA) published dietary guidelines that advised reduction of saturated fats and, in 1982, the Nutrition Committee of the AHA recommended that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from fat.

Research published in 2010 and 2014 revisited the role of saturated fats in cardiovascular disease and revealed that early studies may have been wrong. In fact, researchers found no relationship between dietary saturated fat and heart disease risk. 

Rather than supporting the widely accepted “low consumption of saturated fats.” the new evidence actually revealed that a “low-carbohydrate diet was more effective for weight loss and cardiovascular risk reduction than a low-fat diet.”

For the cheese lovers of the world, and especially those in the Chapel Hill and Triangle areas, this could be great news. But let’s take a closer look at why we might be able to nosh on a slice of Carolina Moon cheese with a newfound sense of relief.

Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist, recently authored a book entitled “The Big Fat Surprise” that corroborates recent findings regarding saturated fats. She spent eight years sifting through previous research on the connection between heart disease and saturated fats. According to her, the research that was the basis for our current dietary guidelines was severely flawed.

In the 1950s, Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota, became interested in heart disease. Following some small studies, Keys developed his theory that fat, particularly saturated fat, caused heart disease.

In 1958, Keys launched what came to be known as the Seven Countries study. He collected data on dietary habits and heart attack rates in the Netherlands, United States, Finland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, and Japan. Keys reported that greater consumption of animal fat led to a higher rate of heart attacks. However, there were a few problems with the study, for example, Keys intentionally left out countries such as Holland and Norway where residents eat a lot of fat but experience little heart disease.

In spite of the flaws, Keys’ research received a great deal of media attention and he ultimately persuaded both the AHA and the U.S. government that saturated fats not only cause heart disease but also play a major role in the development of obesity and cancer. What followed are the national dietary guidelines that are still accepted today.

In a recent WebMD article, Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., at Harvard University said “we can’t judge the healthfulness of a food (only) by how many grams of saturated fat it has,” and that he believes our current dietary guidelines need to be revisited.

Other experts disagree. Walter Willett, MD, and Mozaffarian’s colleague at Harvard, says the conclusions of recent studies should be disregarded because there were major errors and omissions, such as failure of the researchers to point out the type of fat consumed during their studies.

It is unknown when or if the current dietary guidelines will change and it will take more research and discussion to alter a long-held belief. If you have questions regarding these findings and wish to revisit your own nutritional habits, please to talk to your doctor and/or a nutritionist. And if you need recommendations on tasty Chapel Hill Creamery cheeses, let me know.

Holly Hough, Ph.D., works with the Clergy Health Initiative at the Duke Divinity School. You can contact and follow her at facebook.com/drhollyhough.

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