The Trouble with Saturated Fat

David Mendosa Health Guide March 02, 2012
  • Saturated fat is controversial, even among people with diabetes who follow a very low-carbohydrate lifestyle. When we eat very few carbohydrates, we have to rely on fat for most of our energy. Ron Rosedale, M.D., wrote one of the best books on how and why to follow this lifestyle, so his views on saturated fat merit special consideration.

    His website is “The Rosedale Program,” and his book, The Rosedale Diet, came out eight years ago. When I got a chance to talk with him last week, I wondered if he had changed his views on saturated fat in the meantime.

    I especially wanted to talk with Dr. Rosedale because I have become more and more interested in the claims that coconut oil is perhaps our healthiest oil to cook with and to use in our salads. But coconut oil is saturated fat.


    A correspondent named Suresh precisely put the question to me in a recent email. “Just lately everyone is talking about eating coconut oil because it is healthy,” he wrote. “If these remarkable claims are true, I woud like to eat a bucket load of it. Yet when you look at the ingredient of this oil, which is solid at room temperature, it is all saturated fat. So how can this be healthy?”

    The key sentence for me in this context in Dr. Rosedale’s book was this: “Although derived from plants, coconut oil is also high in saturated fat, but of a different kind [not from animal sources] that may even have health benefits.” Since HarperCollins published his Rosedale Diet book eight years ago, I wondered if in the meanwhile he had looked any further into the health benefits of coconut oil.


    Dr. Rosedale told me that he had written a lot more detail about why coconut oil is good. But with his agreement HarperCollins took it out. “They didn’t want to confuse people.”

    But as a result, they introduced a lot of confusion about his saturated fat recommendations. So, to answer my questions about coconut oil he needed first to discuss saturated fat, just as my correspondent Suresh and I were wondering about.

    “I am not adverse to saturated fat,” he told me. “What I have said many times since then, and somewhat in the book too -- but HarperCollins modified it to be not too controversial -- is that I wanted saturated fats to be limited for the first several weeks.”

    After a week or so our bodies get better at burning fat, so it makes less difference whether we use saturated or unsaturated fat. But it remains much more difficult to burn saturated fats as fuel as opposed to unsaturated fats.

    A lot of robust science will support that, he says. For the same reason that saturated fats are not oxidizable sitting on the counter -- so they won’t turn rancid so easily -- that’s a good thing -- but they are also harder to burn -- to oxidize -- inside our bodies. So when we make the transition from a high carbohydrate to a low carbohydrate-burning fat diet, we are learning how to burn fat.

    In this transition period we deprive ourselves of the fuel that we have probably been burning for most of our lives. We know how to burn this fuel, but it is not healthy.


  • In this period our bodies have not yet learned how to burn fat. So Dr. Rosedale recommends that for the first few weeks into a very low-carbohydrate diet that the fat we eat needs to be mostly monounsaturated fat and, as a supplement, omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Our bodies can burn these fats more easily.


    “Otherwise, for the first several weeks you very frequently hear people say how tired they are,” he says. “If you don’t restrict saturated fats for the first several weeks, that is what you are going to hear. It takes a lot more skill, if you want to put it that way, to burn saturated fats than unsaturated fats.”

    Almost four years ago in my article with the punning title, “It’s Low-Carb Weak,” I pointed out the problem. But now Dr. Rosedale points out the solution.

    He told me that he needed to answer my questions about coconut oil with this introduction to fats in general. And this introduction is the first of several posts to come about the health benefits of coconut oil, a special kind of saturated fat.