Should I Be Concerned About Saturated Fat in the Carnivore Diet?

Because the carnivore diet consists only of only animal meat and meat products such as egg and butter, a common question is whether people should be concerned about saturated fat. After all, you might have heard about saturated fat being bad for your health because it raises your cholesterol. The assumption is that when cholesterol rises, this leads to high blood pressure and then heart disease. 

Meat is one of our biggest sources of saturated fat, which is partly why it’s gotten a bad reputation. 

However, this doesn’t match up to research. Several studies have pointed out that saturated fat isn’t associated with heart disease or even mortality, and what we consider common knowledge might actually be questionable.

Let’s delve into the science behind it: 

What is Saturated Fat? 

First off, there are generally two types of fats: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. The difference lies in their chemical structure. All fats contain carbon and hydrogen, but unsaturated fats have double bonds, while saturated fats only have single bonds. This allows saturated fats to have more hydrogen atoms attached to each carbon atom, which is why they’re called saturated. 

saturated vs unsaturated fat

As a result, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They’re commonly found in these foods:

  • Beef, pork, and lamb 
  • Processed meat such as bacon and sausages
  • Chicken skin
  • Butter, milk, and cheese
  • Coconut oil 
  • Ice cream, chocolate, pastries, and biscuits 

In contrast, unsaturated fats tend to be liquid or semi-liquid, and they’re also more unstable. Here are some common examples:

  • Avocados 
  • Olive, canola, peanut, and vegetable oil 
  • Sardines and salmon 
  • Most nuts and seeds

Saturated fats were labeled as unhealthy because they increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which was considered the bad kind of cholesterol. LDL’s job is to bring cholesterol to different parts of the body when they need it, and larger amounts of it are found clogging the arteries of people with heart disease. On the other hand, unsaturated fats lower LDL, so they were thought of as healthier.

Ancel Keys: The Seven Countries Study 

The idea that saturated fat is unhealthy can be traced back to a 1960s study that had a massive effect on what we thought about nutrition. Ancel Keys came up with the Seven Countries Study, which studied the connection between diet and heart disease in seven countries: Greece, Italy, Japan, Finland, Africa, and South Spain. The study looked at more than 12,000 men, and Keyes concluded that there was a high correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. 

Afterwards, other research discovered increased LDL in people’s clogged arteries–and saturated fat increases LDL. These pieces of the puzzle combined to form the notion that saturated fat causes heart disease, going on to shape our nutritional guidelines even until today. 

But while Ancel Keys’ study was groundbreaking when it was published decades ago, its flaws are more apparent today. Ancel Keys studied 22 countries rather than 7, and he only picked out the countries that would fit his original hypothesis. When all 22 countries are included, the correlation is much weaker. At the same time, the seven countries he originally considered have rates of sugar consumption that parallel their fat consumption, so the same study could have connected sugar to heart disease instead.  

Is There Really a Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease? 

From the 1960s up until today, additional studies and trials were done to confirm the link between saturated fat and heart disease. Contrary to expectation, many of them conclude that there isn’t enough evidence to implicate saturated fat. 

A 2019 meta-analysis of 43 studies found no correlation, an outcome that echoed those in other meta-analyses from 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, a 2017 study that examined more than 135,000 people from 18 countries concluded that not only was saturated fat not associated with heart disease, there was also no association with stroke, heart attack, or heart-related deaths.

Even more surprisingly, saturated fats might be beneficial. An extensive 2016 trial that looked at 42 countries in Europe noted that low cardiovascular disease was significantly correlated with high total fat and animal protein consumption. Ketogenic diets that are high in saturated fat have been repeatedly shown to have health benefits such as reversing diabetes, improving inflammation, and enhancing memory

The failure to link saturated fats with heart disease might seem jarring, given that saturated fats do increase LDL and total cholesterol. However, for all the Statin that’s being prescribed today, research doesn’t show consistent evidence that higher LDL levels cause heart disease.

A 2009 national study by UCLA found out that almost 75% of patients who had a recent heart attack had normal or even low LDL levels. In other words, they wouldn’t even have been considered at risk, given the conventional notion about cholesterol. As early as 1997, a follow-up study noted that those who had normal cholesterol were more likely to have a heart attack than those with higher cholesterol. In the “Minnesota Coronary Experiment,” a major clinical trial from the late 1960s, lower cholesterol levels were linked to greater rates of death. 

Much of the misunderstanding comes from not differentiating between types of LDL. LDL particles come in different sizes, with big LDL particles seen as harmless while smaller LDL particles would be the harmful variety. Saturated fat increases the large, benign LDL particles but not the smaller ones. 

Getting Saturated Fat from the Right Sources 

Because of the mounting evidence, many scientists and researchers have been calling for changes in dietary guidelines about saturated fat. While we still have a lot to learn about how our bodies interact with different kinds of food, many studies, including those mentioned above, the latest evidence points to saturated fat as being part of a healthy diet. As one scientist said: “Dietary saturated fat is not the villain we thought it was.” 

It’s important, though, to choose the right sources for it. Saturated fat is also present in pastries, ice cream, milkshakes, and other desserts. These are definitely unhealthy because of the sheer amount of sugar in them. In a carnivore diet, you would be eating mainly meat and animal products, which are healthier sources of saturated fat.