Are Saturated Fats from Vegetables Better?

by Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN on July 7, 2009

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about coconut oil–a vegetable source of saturated fat. It’s alleged health benefits are being heavily promoted but there’s not much solid evidence to back up the claims.

It’s hard to say whether saturated fats from vegetables are better than saturated fats from animals–in part because the evidence that saturated fats cause heart disease looks increasingly shaky. Maybe the truth is that the vegetable saturated fats aren’t better than animal saturated fats but that the animal fats weren’t that bad in the first place?

How can people who try so hard to get it right get it wrong so often?

Why is it so hard for us to get it right? As Marion Nestle’s argues in the introduction to her recent book, What to Eat, part of the problem is embedded in the very nature of scientific research. In an effort to reduce the variables, nutritional research focuses too much on the details and not enough on the big picture.

“The range of healthful nutrient intake is broad, and foods from the earth, tree, or animal can be combined in a seemingly infinite number of ways to create diets that meet health goals,” she writes. “The attention paid to single nutrients, to individual foods, and to particular diseases distracts from the basic principles of diet and health…But you are better off paying attention to your overall dietary pattern than worrying about whether any one single food is better for you than another.”

I suspect that the kind of reductionist thinking that Nestle is deploring is exactly what got us into this mess about saturated fat.  We were looking for a culprit for heart disease. We found one in saturated fat…but I suspect we overlooked the critical importance of the context in which that saturated fat was being consumed.

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