Saturated Fats- Friend of Foe? By: Stephanie Polis

What if I told you that 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States is due to heart disease1? What is everything we have been taught about what health means needs some major reevaluating? Since grade school we are taught a healthy plate consists primarily of meat, vegetables, dairy, and a small serving of starch. Robust data over the past decades has shone a light on just how nutritious these foods are. Most meats, dairy products, and oils have something in common: saturated fats.

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Creative Commons Credit: Stuart Webster


Armed with this information what is a consumer to do? We are constantly bombarded with competing information. One week we are told butter is a cardinal sin, the next it is touted as the perfect vehicle to wellness. Let’s look at what the experts say.


Author, physician, and researcher at Cleveland Clinic for over 35 years, Caldwell Esselstyn has profoundly stated, “heart disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never exist.2” It is a bold statement worthy of exploration. His extensive research supports dietary changes to drastically decrease the incidence of heart disease2. The link between a diet high in saturated fats has been shown repeatedly to strongly correlate with heart disease.

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Creative Commons Credit: Danielle Segura


Interestingly, the widely spread remedy to heart disease is surgeries such as stents for example, medications, and lifestyle changes. All but lifestyle change come with side effects varying from mild to severe. Researchers such as Dr. Esselstyn, purport that a diet overhaul can negate the need for these risky and invasive interventions2.

In his study, Dr. Esselstyn sought to examine this further by using dietary changes to combat cardiovascular events. In his article in The Journal of Family Medicine, he successfully demonstrated the use of a plant based diet to arrest and reverse coronary artery disease in adults3. The study took 198 participants with cardiovascular disease and counseled them in plant based nutrition. The counseled diet excluded fish, meat, dairy, and added oils3. The study found that over the course of 3.7 years’ adherent participants experienced a low rate of cardiovascular events. Most notably, the dietary changes not only addressed symptoms but was shown to prolong life and protect from future adverse cardiac events3.

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Creative Commons Credit: Mashhiro Ihara

Esselstyn et. al attest that the traditional Western diet high in saturated fats (primarily in fish, fowl, added oils, and meat) causes damage to our bodies after ingesting. Of the 177 participants who followed the dietary protocol, 93% of them experienced improvement or resolution of adverse symptoms during the follow up3. These findings provide strong evidence of the link between a diet high in saturated fats and reducing heart disease in adults.

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Creative Commons Credit: Windell Oskay

Another study sought to further investigate which type of fats played a role in heart disease. In a conference summary from the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association, ‘megatrends’ were present in data, especially relating to saturated fatty acids4. These acids have been shown to raise total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels; i.e. the ‘bad cholesterol.’4 Increased risk of coronary artery disease was found in connection to saturated fat intake in epidemiological studies.4 These findings are backed by other studies such as The Lyon Diet Heart Study and the Indian Heart Study3.

Both studies concluded that in those with cardiovascular disease, diet has the power to prevent fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular events.4 In many of these studies that saturated dietary fats are replaced with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Most shockingly, this summation found that after only one meal high in saturated fats damage is seen and linked as a precursor to adverse cardiovascular events5. This damage manifests in our body as blockages. These blockages, also known as plaques, are what cause the heart to stop.2

One meal high in saturated fat, say a hamburger with cheddar cheese and a milkshake could potentially cause damage to our bodies and stack the deck against us in protecting our hearts5. It is safe to assert that adopting a diet low in saturated fats and high in whole plant foods such as rice, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, the possibilities are endless- we give our bodies the ultimate chance at protection6.


Photo courtesy of Flickr: Creative Commons Credit: Helen Campo

Given this information, what should we do? Run home and throw out all the meat, dairy, and oils in our kitchens? Perhaps not. But, the next time we shop should we make some swaps for more meals focused on around whole grains, legumes, fruits, and nuts whilst reducing our consumption of foods high in saturated fats? That sounds like a fair plan to me. Nixing the beef in our chili, throwing together a burrito bowl with crisp romaine, avocado, and black beans, a teriyaki brown rice stir fry…are you hungry yet? Our hearts will surely thank us later.


  1. Nichols H. The top 10 leading causes of death in the US. Medical News Today. Published September 21, 2015. Accessed January 31, 2017.


  1. Freston K. Heart Disease: A Toothless Paper Tiger That Need Never Exist. Huffington Post. Published March 18, 2010. Accessed January 30, 2017.



  1. Esselstyn C, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD? The Journal of Family Practice. 2014;63(7). Accessed January 29, 2017.


  1. Kris P, Daniels SR, Eckel RH, Engler M, Howard BV, Krauss RM. Summary of the Scientific Conference on Dietary Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health. AHA Conference Proceedings. 2001;103. of the scientific conference of dietary fatty acids and cardiovascualr health%3A Conference summary from the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association&rft.jtitle=Circulation& Kris-Etherton& R Daniels& H Eckel& Engler& Heart Association%2C Inc&rft.issn=0009-7322&rft.eissn=1524-4539&rft.volume=103&rft.issue=7&rft.spage=1034&rft.externalDocID=73752436¶mdict=en-US. Accessed January 30, 2017.



  1. Hooper L, Martin N, Abdelhamid A, Smith GD. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015;(6). in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease&rft.jtitle=The Cochrane database of systematic reviews& Lee& Nicole& Asmaa& Smith%2C George&¶mdict=en-US. Accessed January 30, 2017.


  1. Chowdry R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, Crowe F, Ward HA, Johnson L. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. March 2014. Accessed January 31, 2017.




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