Saturated fats in meat and dairy not as bad for health as previously thought, study finds

The study failed to find a link between food containing saturated fats and an increased risk of dying from heart disease, strokes or type-2 diabetes

The saturated fats found in meat and dairy produce are not as bad for health as previously believed, a study has found. However, the scientists who conducted the research have warned against reaching for the butter dish.

A major study into the health implications of dietary fats has failed to find a link between food containing saturated fats, such as eggs, chocolate and cream, and an increased risk of dying from heart disease, stroke or type-2 diabetes.

The study nevertheless did find that industrially-produced “trans-fats” made from hydrogenated oils, and once used in margarine, snack foods and packaged baked foods such as some cakes and crisps, are linked with a greater risk of death from coronary heart disease.

The latest findings, published in the British Medical Journal, appear to confirm the growing realisation that the prevailing health advice for the past half century to cut down on foods that are rich in saturated fats such as butter and cheese may have been misguided.

The study, carried out in Canada by Russell de Souza of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and colleagues found no association between saturated fats and ill health, but did find a link with the consumption of foods containing trans-fats, such as margarine.

Cakes made using trans fats are now linked with a greater risk of coronary heart disease than saturated fats (Getty)

The scientists found that the consumption of industrial trans-fats was associated with a 34 per cent increase in all causes of mortality, a 28 per cent increase in death from coronary heart disease and a 21 per cent increase in the risk of being diagnosed with heart disease.

Despite the failure to establish a link between the risk of ill health and premature death from eating foods containing saturated fats, Dr de Souza warned against taking these findings as a green light to eat more dairy foods, meat, eggs and milk chocolate – all rich in saturated fats.

“For years everyone has been advised to cut out fats. Trans-fats have no health benefits and pose a significant risk for heart disease, but the case for saturated fat is less clear,” Dr de Souza said.

“That said, we aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health,” he said.

Current dietary guidelines recommend that saturated fats are limited to less than 10 per cent of daily energy intake, and trans-fats to less than 1 per cent to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.


The latest findings confirm the conclusions of five previous systematic reviews of the supposed links between coronary heart disease and saturated fats and trans-fats, but Dr de Souza warned that changing the dietary guidelines is still not warranted.

“If we tell people to eat less saturated or trans-fats, we need to offer a better choice. Unfortunately, in our review we were not able to find as much evidence as we would have liked for a best-replacement choice,” Dr de Souza said.

“We could not confidently rule out an increased risk of death from heart disease with higher amounts of saturated fat, and we should not ignore stronger and consistent evidence from better designed studies that eating less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and that diets that replace saturated fat with these fats, as well as whole grains, reduces the chance of developing or dying from heart disease,” he told The Independent.

Professor Tom Sanders, a retired nutritionist at King’s College London, said that the latest study should come with its own health warning as it largely relied on peoples’ memory of what they ate some time ago, which is notoriously unreliable.

“Memory-based dietary recall is subject to substantial bias particularly for food items seen to be good or bad with under-reporting becoming more prevalent among those who are obese,” Professor Sanders said.

Trans-fats were largely removed from the UK food chain ten years ago, while the intake of saturated fats has fallen by about 40 per cent since the 1970s, while polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oil and fatty fish have increased by 50 per cent, he said.

“It would be foolish to interpret these findings to suggest that it is OK to eat lots of fatty meat, lashings of cream and oodles of butter,” Professor Sanders added.

“The idea that we should revert to the Mary Berry diet of lashings of cream and butter is probably not a good idea,” he said.