Are Saturated Fats from Vegetables Better?

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.

4 thoughts on “Are Saturated Fats from Vegetables Better?

  1. Are there any references to support this information? You seem to present opposing points of view, but do not resolve them. I am on the side of saturated fats being good for you and NOT causing CVD – primarily because I have not been presented with true scientific evidence to prove otherwise. I often find opinion articles that link to other opinion articles (which is how I wound up here) but none that point to conclusive science-based research and studies that prove out that original theory. What did you base these statements on, if you don’t mind me asking?
    In search of science fact, not science fiction or science opinion, 😉
    Thank you for your time!

    1. There’s a lot of science…everything from huge epidemiological studies to careful mechanistic studies to carefully controlled interventions. There’s a ton of evidence. The problem is that it does not all point in the same direction.

      The answer you get will depend in part on how you frame the question, how you design your study, which endpoints you choose to measure, and how you interpret your data. And even then, your findings may not be reproducible, or be overturned by the next study.

      So, if you want to prove that saturated fats are good (or bad) for you, you’ll find plenty of research to support that conclusion. But you’ll have to ignore a lot of other research that doesn’t.

      But consider the possibility that saturated fat is neither categorically good nor categorically bad. It may have the potential to be both helpful and harmful. The degree to which it is either is likely to depend on the quantity (and quality) consumed, what the rest of the diet comprises, which measures of health or harm you are focused on, not to mention genetics, lifestyle, and health history.

      This particular blog post was more of an op-ed on the answerability of this sort of question, which is why I didn’t cite a bunch of research.

      However, here are some articles that include links to the sorts of studies I think you’re craving. But be forewarned that–despite a lot of “true scientific evidence”–the question is far from settled.

    2. 1) Learn how to read scientific literature yourself. You can Google this. Learn the difference between case studies, epidemiological studies, mechanistic studies, meta-analyses, etc. Research which publishing institutions are reputable, and have high standards. Research the authors of the studies, where the funding for the studies has come from, and what their biases might be.

      2) Search for the scholarly articles yourself. You can Google these as well, just put “scholarly articles” before your search terms.

  2. This article is completely devoid of substance. In order to determine how things function, they need to be broken into their constituent components to determine how those things work individually, and with each other, in whatever systems they affect. Hand waving this off as mere “reductionist thinking” is scientifically ignorant.

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