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The Skinny on Saturated Fat

By Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS

Fat’s Bad Rap

During the last quarter of the 20th Century, medical professionals increasingly discouraged the consumption of saturated fat because it was widely believed to contribute to obesity and heart disease. The low-fat trend was fueled by the United States Congress, who adopted Senator George McGovern’s initiative to establish Dietary Guidelines for Americans, after numerous members of Congress suffered and died from heart disease. The labeling of saturated fat as unhealthy was not supported by scientific research, but was influenced by longevity guru Nathan Pritikin, who believed dietary changes would reverse heart disease. It was thought that adopting a low fat diet and replacing dairy, eggs and meat with bread, pasta and rice would lead to decreased obesity and a reduced incidence of heart disease. The Guidelines recommended consuming the bulk of daily calories from grains, fruits and vegetables, and only a small percentage from proteins and fats. Very quickly, Americans switched from protein-based meals to carbohydrate-intensive eating patterns.


food pyramid broken

Against the Grain

Concurrent with the low-fat revolution was the assertion of Dr. Robert Atkins, author of “The New Diet Revolution,” that saturated fat was not harmful to human health. Labeling the campaign against fat as misguided and futile, Atkins outlined a plan wherein a liberal consumption of animal fats along with generous portions of fresh produce and zero grains and sugars resulted in healthy weight loss and increased longevity. Millions of believers followed his guidelines and realized amazing results, so long as they stuck with the plan. However, successful followers of the Atkins plan often reverted to old lifestyle patterns upon reaching their weight goals, reintroducing grain-based carbohydrates and sugars, and rapidly regaining their weight.

Lack of Evidence

While the emphasis on reducing saturated fat consumption has dominated the thinking of mainstream medicine into the 21st Century, new research suggests that moderate consumption of animal fats is no more harmful to heart health than excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates. A 2014 meta-analysis of 76 studies involving over 600,000 subjects found little evidence to support the link between fat consumption, obesity and heart disease. With an alarming increase in population-wide obesity since the inception of the Dietary Guidelines, the tides are slowly turning toward a new perspective on saturated fat.

george mcgovern

Where Things Stand

The United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are responsible for updating the Dietary Guidelines every five years. But as Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States notes, industry has a powerful influence on government generated reports. Every five years, the dairy and meat industries face off with the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, or GMA, to earn the blessings of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

What Really Works

As fitness professionals, we can only hope that the revised Guidelines will do more good than harm when it comes to consumer food trends. Meanwhile, we can help our clients manage their weight by providing exercise programming, nutrition monitoring and education. For successful weight loss, restrict or eliminate all grains, sugars and processed food from your diet. Eat an abundance of whole organic vegetables and fruits, and consume humanely raised organic animal protein in moderation. To attain your healthiest weight, Dr. Steven Mercola advocates intermittent fasting, along with bouts of vigorous exercise throughout the day.


Putting This Information to Use

Weight management is the number one reason individuals seek out a personal trainer, join a gym, or enroll in group exercise. As a fitness professional, you need to understand how your body stores fat, and how it uses it for fuel. As with fitness, new research on nutrition and weight management emerges on a regular basis. Staying abreast of the latest findings will help you guide your clients to successful results. Be sure to get your information from reliable sources like peer reviewed research articles and college-level textbooks. Do not rely on the mainstream media for information, as they tend to misinterpret research studies to promote a specific agenda.


You cannot rely on the latest nutrition fads to help your clients achieve results. To be a top trainer, nutrition education is an ongoing requirement. W.I.T.S. is here to help you succeed with our Nutritional Concepts course, available online.

References and Credits


Atkins, R C (1992). Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.


Chowdhury, R et al (2014). Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk. Annals of Internal Medicine, 160 (6),


Gregor, M: Against the Science, Meat Pushes Back into U.S. Diet.


Mercola, S (2014). Systematic Review Finds No Grounds for Current Warnings Against Saturated Fat.


NPR: Why We Got Fatter During The Fat-Free Food Boom.


U.S. Department of Agriculture: Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Overweight and Obesity Statistics.


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