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News release takes on conventional wisdom; suggests diet high in saturated fats is ‘good for you.’ But the evidence doesn’t support the claim.

Saturated fat could be good for you

Our Review Summary

A single, brief study from Norway claims to demonstrate that saturated fats are generally beneficial for most people, in contrast to much research that suggests potential heart risks are associated with higher saturated fat intake. The study of 38 men with abdominal obesity took place over a 12-week period and compared the effects of either a high carbohydrate or a high fat diet.

This study, though randomized, only measured markers of risk such as blood pressure and triglycerides (not actual heart disease) for a short period of time. Current recommendations regarding fat intake are based on actual rates of heart disease found in large groups of people followed for years.

It’s not unreasonable to raise questions about the role of saturated fat in heart disease. Researchers readily acknowledge that existing studies on the issue have important limitations. However, this release goes too far in describing the significance of this single small study, and gives no acknowledgment to evidence that cuts the other way. The release also lacks information expected of a solid account of a new nutrition study — such as a measurable benefit, harms, and details of the diet’s contents.

 

Why This Matters

Substantial claims require substantial evidence. This release claims to present data that upends the conventional wisdom on dietary fat, but it doesn’t acknowledge that the study has important limitations. Nor does it acknowledge the many other studies that have addressed the same questions examined by this research. People are already confused enough about what they should be eating. The last thing they need are sweeping claims, like “Saturated fat could be good for you,” that aren’t backed up by definitive evidence.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The release does not mention costs but we won’t fault it for this. We rate this Not Applicable since it would be very difficult to estimate the cost of shifting eating patterns that incorporate more foods laden with saturated fats.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release did not use many numbers to quantify the benefits of consuming one diet over another. For example, it states:

“In the randomized controlled trial, 38 men with abdominal obesity followed a dietary pattern high in either carbohydrates or fat, of which about half was saturated. Fat mass in the abdominal region, liver and heart was measured with accurate analyses, along with a number of key risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

“The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases,” says professor and cardiologist Ottar Nygård who contributed to the study.”

The italicized words reflect where some quantification would have helped the release. What does “high” refer to? Which measuring tools were used to assess fat mass in the abdomen, liver and heart?

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release did not go into any detail on the potential downsides of a very-high-saturated fat diet.

For example: Would most people enjoy and be able to adhere to a diet that includes lots of butter, cream, and cold-pressed oils? Some would no doubt savor such a diet, but others might be turned off.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

This release doesn’t caution that this small study only lasted for 12 weeks and looked only at markers of risk. The results are presented as being much more definitive than they are.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The release does not engage in disease mongering.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not list funding sources or provide any statement regarding potential conflicts for the principal investigators.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The release is about comparing two diets — one high in “lowly” processed fats (butter, cream and cold-pressed oils) and another high in carbohydrates.

The release does not give us details of the diets (what to consume and how much) so it’s almost impossible to compare them.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

Both high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods are widely available.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not establish any novelty for this research. There are a number of studies looking at cardiometabolic markers in response to higher fat diets.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

Unjustifiable language is present in the release, beginning with the headline —  “Saturated fat could be good for you.” This tiny study provides little if any evidence for that claim, and the statement contradicts substantial amounts of conflicting research. Moreover, the release later says that a high saturated fat diet “did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases” — it doesn’t say that it “lowered” risk. So it seems that the best one could conclude, even in a generous interpretation, is that “saturated fat might not be bad for you.”

Total Score: 1 of 8 Satisfactory

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