Saturated fat and heart disease – is there a link?

Fiona Greig, Nutrition Manager, B+LNZ IncIs there a link between saturated fat and heart disease? Beef + Lamb NZ Inc’s nutrition manager, Fiona Greig takes a look at the evidence.

Further to last year’s British Medical Journal opinion piece claiming to debunk the myth of saturated fat as a cause of heart disease, the Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a meta-analysis – a pooling of previously published studies, not new research – looking at the association of dietary fat with coronary risk fuelling the debate between the role saturated fat has to play in human health.

We need to keep in mind nutrition science is ever evolving with dietary recommendations continually reviewed against the current evidence, which is often relying on diet self-reporting, a limitation in itself. The latest review concluded saturated fat was not associated with risk of heart disease, but ‘not harmful’ does not mEat Magazine #12 for NZ Beef + Lamb, Winter 2014. Slow cooked meals by Chelsea Wintermean ‘good’, so don’t go hiking up your butter intake just yet – further trials to explore the link are required.

The conclusion is questionable and misleading based on the fact it looked at individual fats in isolation, not the whole picture, which is why national nutrition guidelines are based on lifestyle factors and foods, not single nutrients.

Interestingly, as highlighted by University of Otago’s Professor Mann, in Westernised countries a reduction in saturated fats has occurred in parallel with a reduction with blood cholesterol and coronary heart disease. In New Zealand, a reduction in fat consumption since the 1970s has been associated with a reduction in coronary heart disease death rates by more than two-thirds.

Certainly the beef and lamb industry has played its part. Since the introduction of the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Quality Mark in this country in 1997, beef and lamb contain 30 percent less fat and supply 65 percent less saturated. In addition, about 30 percent of the total fat on beef or lamb carcase is discarded before sale. This in part, can be attributed to Kiwi retailers trimming more fat.

New Zealand can also boast that over 40 cuts of lean beef and lamb get the Heart Foundation’s Two Ticks having been recognised as a core food as part of a healthy diet and having less than four percent saturated fat, further emphasising its place in a heart-healthy diet. Only about half the fat in beef and lamb is saturated, and within that, only about a third is stearic acid, now known to have a neutral effect on cholesterol production.

To date, there is no substantive evidence that saturated fat is good for you in the long-term and World Health Organisation and public health experts currently recommended a degree of fat (and sugar) restriction due to its high energy density.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health is currently reviewing New Zealand’s dietary guidelines.

Watch this space.

For more information or if you are interested in receiving Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc’s quarterly health and nutrition e-newsletter, Nourish, email, or, for hundreds of recipes using New Zealand beef and lamb, visit

This article has appeared in Food NZ magazine (August/September 2014) and is reproduced here with permission.

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