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Should You Avoid Saturated Fats This Thanksgiving?

If individuals decide to also include some animal-derived foods in their diets, they can do so healthfully. Just ensure that your foods come form sustainable methods, with minimal processing and with production that proceeds in a manner as close to what occurs in nature as possible.
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Several months ago, colleagues and I published a journal article on nutrition myths and dietary advice. The journal recently received a letter to the editor regarding our article; its author questioned our handling of saturated fats. We have already submitted a formal response to the journal. But given the glacial pace of academic publishing, it will likely be many months before our response appears in print. And Thanksgiving is in just a few days!

For the benefit of those planning holiday feasts now, I thought I would review some considerations regarding statured fats.

First, we agreed with our critic that animals raised under ‘natural’ conditions (e.g., ‘organic,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘wild’) produce food that may be superior in terms of fatty-acid profiles. This is true for both milk and meat. But ‘organic,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘wild’ foods are healthier choices for many reasons; fatty-acid profiles are largely beside the point, at least with regard to saturated fats.

Our critic was most concerned that we did not set a limit for saturated fatty acid (SFA) intake in the diet. Indeed, we did not.

The argument for limiting SFAs is that intake of these food constituents may increase the risk of heart disease and early death. At least that was our critic’s contention. But we disagreed based on a careful reading of the evidence. We did not set a limit for SFA intake in our article for this and other reasons:

  1. SFAs are a heterogeneous group of compounds having non-uniform effects.
  2. People eat foods, not food constituents.

Regarding point #1: while some SFAs raise levels of “bad cholesterol” (putatively detrimental to hearts and health) other SFAs do not, and some SFAs improve the ratio of total-to-“good cholesterol” (with likely cardiovascular benefit). Setting a blanket limit on all SFAs would not make sense in light of this variability and nuance.

Regarding point #2: foods provide mixes of different constituents like SFAs, and may contain other components that matter to health like fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. Notably, nuts contain SFAs. Yet nuts are convincingly associated with better health and longer life. Should we eat fewer nuts to keep SFA intake down?

In fact, we should not focus on SFAs at all, or any other food components for that matter. We should focus on whole foods and broader diets, whose effects are the results of constituents in combination.

When we focus on diets, patterns like those seen in the Mediterranean—which famously include fish, but which do not exclude sources of SFAs like dairy and meats (e.g., items that might appear on Thanksgiving tables)—these dietary patterns are associated with decided health benefits. In fact, some of the longest-lived people in the world—e.g., from Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy—include SFA-containing animal flesh and/or milk in their diets.

Additionally, some populations show decreased mortality with meat consumption (irrespective of SFA content). And evidence suggests potential health benefits from dairy foods (including protection from obesity, diabetes, and heart disease) that may be due specifically to the SFAs they contain.

Thus, I do not advise setting a limit on SFA intake. Nor do I advise paying any attention to SFAs at all. I advise eating real foods.

Among real foods, plant-based foods have well-established benefits for people, populations, and the planet. But if individuals decide to also include some animal-derived foods in their diets, they can do so healthfully. Just ensure that your foods come form sustainable methods, with minimal processing and with production that proceeds in a manner as close to what occurs in nature as possible.

So this Thanksgiving, please enjoy some seasonal vegetables, like sweet potatoes, squashes, and kale (organic varieties preferably). Eat traditional fruits like pomegranate, clementines, and cranberries. And exercise no restraint with whole-grain stuffings and sides. Got some nuts? By all means, throw them in. And if so inclined, should some organic butter or cream find its way into your gravies and sauces, please enjoy them without guilt. There is no need to worry about the saturated fats they contain (likewise for any unprocessed pastured or wild meats that might grace your table).

This holiday, please enjoy good food, good company, and chewing the fat (saturated or otherwise) with friends and loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving.