Confusion Around The F-Word

Our philosophy on eating goes like this  – If something is good more is better; if too much is bad then none is best. Fiber is good, into everything it goes! Saturated fat is bad, consume at your own risk.

If saturated fat’s not the most vilified “natural” nutrient in the food world, it’s pretty darn close. But it just may be that we have a few things wrong when it comes to this fat.

The common belief (and what I’d always believed) is that animal products contain 100% sat fat, while non animal products that contain fat, contain almost 100% unsat fat (with a few known exceptions like coconut which is 90% sat fat and hence why we have in the past, been told to avoid it.) But this over-simplification of fat, in fact, is just that. Most foods that contain fat contain a combination of saturated and unsaturated fat.

I spent some time on the surprisingly addictive USDA food database, and discovered that the majority of fat in many animal products like eggs and beef is actually unsaturated fat (ground beef is about 60% unsaturated fat).  Wild chinook salmon surprisingly has about the same percentage saturated fat as bacon and some foods like cashews contain their fair share of sat fat. (See more foods  here including eggs, cashews and others and get the link to the dbase to look up any food you want.)

And what about the part about sat being bad for us regardless of what food it’s in…

Several studies have come out recently overturning the assertion that sat fat has negative health implications. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition recently conducted an analysis of several studies and stated that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease.” * (Link at the bottom if you really want to dive in.)

Many doctors and nutritionists are starting to tout the benefits of low to moderate levels of saturated fat, including its positive impact on bone health, immunity, liver health and even heart health.

This is clearly a heated topic with vested interests at play, dollars at stake, decades of experts saying one thing and a theory that is extremely hard to prove or disprove. But leaving all the studies and debates aside, I personally feel from all my eating, reading and plugging into common sense, that saturated fat in whole, natural foods (coconut, cashews, yogurt, organic (ideally pasture-raised) meat etc), consumed in moderation, should not be feared or avoided.

Translation: “If You’d Like Fresh Meat, Place Your Order By Sunday Morning”. I picked this old butcher’s sign up at a flea market in Paris. I said to the vendor, “I’m going to hang it in my kitchen.” He said, “It’s actually for the bedroom.” Ah, the French.

As an homage to my local beef vendor who raises cows with care, I created “Chile Hold The Beans Add the Vegs“, and in a nod to springtime, I loaded up on the vegs. There are no beans in this chile because I find chile usually has way too many beans and not enough vegs, so here the beans take a break and the vegs are the stars. I’m also into “layering” flavors, so rather than just tasting chile, I added a smokey note which you can do with a little bacon or a chipotle pepper.

Link to recipe and photo.

Your views on saturated fat?  On eating chile after April?  On your favorite ways to break the rules when cooking chile?

If you’re reading this in email, click on the title to comment or click here.

Congrats to the two winners of the Wholly Guacamole giveaway: Meredith K. and Carmila V. !

Related Posts
Leek with Sausage and Mustard
(Another fab meat and vegs dish)
Vegetable Curry with Coconut Milk (Scroll down half way to see recipe)

* From AJCN website: “AJCN is the most highly rated peer-reviewed journal in ISI’s nutrition and dietetics category and publishes the latest worldwide basic and clinical studies relevant to human nutrition in topics such as obesity, vitamins and minerals, nutrition and disease, and energy metabolism.” Link to the study’s conclusions.


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  • Michellea

    Well the F’s I’m most worried about are factory farming and filler (that nasty stuff they add to the hamburgers).   I’ve been reading a while about saturated fat not being as bad as we’ve been told.  On the same sites I first read about cholesterol not being as bad as we were told.  I used to consider these kinds of doctors and websites as being outside mainstream thought and therefore quackery.   I no longer do.  But after watching food inc and a couple of other things about food processing,  it’s hard to eat meat.  I don’t really miss burgers as much as I MISS hotdogs!!!!

    • Michelle Madden

      Could not agree more that those “Fs” should be far more of a concern that the sat fat/unsat “F”!  Cholesterol for a long time was villainized but now the majority of “experts” are starting to agree that the cholesterol in foods has LITTLE bearing on the cholesterol our bodies make. (I personally eat about 2 eggs/day.)

      As for giving up hot dogs … my farmers market (and now Whole Foods) sell them without any fillers – what makes them taste so great is the spices. Have a look around as the no-filler hot dog is having a come back…

      • Fifty

        Well, what I’ve always held against ground meet (beef, for us) and hot dogs, is that they really have so many risk factors, it’s not just the sat fat and cholesterol. 

        A steak that becomes contaminated in processing, the outside germs are killed in cooking.  With ground meat, the outside becomes the inside and cooking must go all the way thru. Ground meat is also often not what you think, as scraps of all sorts are added (sometimes from the floor, from people I talked to), sometimes from different species.  Anything left over is added, because it’s profit.  Also, ground meat can become contaminated from almost an infinite number of animals (as the grinding machines may contain matter from thousands of animals in a day), while whole pieces are from a smaller number of animals.  For hot dogs, these factors are even more.

        Having said all this, I can’t resist the occasional burger, or even the better hot dogs (think Nathans or Jewish national), but the average dogs I can’t stomach.

        • Michelle Madden

          When I do eat meat, its from a small farm that I know. They sell all cuts of meat incl hot dogs that are made with as much care as their other meats and are 100% pure meat. Some meats may not be made this way and I encourage people to ask their vendor about the meat to be ensured its, at a minimum, 100% pure meat! If one is able to, I highly recommend buying from a small farm that has high accountability.

          As for the contamination, I agree one has to be careful but then again, look at the spinach contamination and egg contamination. Sadly, there is no guarantee anywhere in our food chain that our food is guaranteed to be safe. I think each of us has to make decisions that feel right for each of us individually, that are healthy and taste good and then not be overly concerned about all that things that “could” go wrong.

        • Sunsi

          We just tried Nathans and what a difference in flavor.   My hubby was born and raised in Poland and didn’t care for American hotdogs but just loves this Nathan hotdogs. :)

  • Carrie

    Yes! I was actually “corrected” by my instructor in a nutrition class last year when I included chicken in a short list of foods that were good sources of mono-unsaturated fat. I pointed out the actual fat composition percentages (which I don’t have handy right now), and she semi-relented. I was surprised myself at the time to see chicken had more mono than sat fats, but the proof was right there waiting to be pointed out.

    And coconut oil rocks. The writer of the blog for the CSA I belong to just got attacked for writing about the health benefits of coconut oil. The commenter said something akin to “saturated fats are bad for you, and everyone knows it.” Ah-ha, perhaps not, as it turns out.

  • Foodie

    Eggplant is also a good veggie to add to chili.  Just scoop out the insides and chop it up, and by the time the chili is done, you probably won’t be able to recognize it as eggplant.  It will just soak up the spices and darken and add a nice ‘secret ingredient’ character to the meal.

    • Michelle Madden

      Love that idea … I am a HUGE eggplant fan and agree, it pretty much takes on the flavors of its neighbors …

      • Liz

        I also add eggplant to curries and beef stew, since it does the same thing- you can’t detect the acutal eggplant pieces, but it adds a silkiness and richness to the dish. 

    • Sunsi

      Thank YOU!   I just planted about 10 eggplants in our garden and hubby said how are we going to use that much.   I was thinking the same thing but all the seeds sprouted and I won’t throw a plant away.  Plus, there’s alway the local food pantry if we have an overflow in produce.   I don’t think you can freeze eggplant–should check that out plus more recipes like Foodie’s chili idea.

  • Fred

    Excellent information….thanks!  Here’s an enlightening statement from the Bristish Lancet: “May 2010 The Lancet, scientists point out that countries with
    the highest saturated fat consumption have lower cardiac mortality
    rates than countries that consume the least fat.”  Whoa….interesting!

    Actually, usually if it is ‘natural’ (beef, butter, etc) without processing, harmful additives (especially commercial salt….”real” salt we need), etc. and is used with ‘moderation’ and  ‘common sense’ (your words) it can be extremely nutritional…..our natural bods recognize natural stuff and can handle it quite well.

    My favorite is butter, which is about 80% saturated fat if purchased from commercial manufacturers with no conscience or about 65% when done right and proper.  Google “butter”  at the right health websites and you will see how awesomely nutritional it is.  Oh, and the taste!  No wonder it is a favorite of the French (loved that sign!).

  • Three-Cookies

    Great post, even though its stating the obvious unfortunately its not the obvious for many. Vested interests, dollars…well put. There is also fashion/fad. I remember coconut oil being branded as bad and now its healthy so more recipes are incorporating it. I suspect lard may creep back into fashion.

    • Michelle Madden

      I think you’re right on the lard – yes, coconut is having its time in the sun again and I’ll bet within the next couple years, lard will be the fat of the day …

      • Sunsi

        I always add a dollop to my homemade apple pies.    

  • 6512 and growing

    You rock. Thanks for being an impeccable researcher so we all can learn.

    Also, can you talk about the connection between fat and high cholesterol, if there is even such a link.


    • robpatrob

       If you wish to know more here is the first of 5 videos that explodes the Fat kills you idea and the Cholesterol linkage

    • Michelle Madden

      Meaning, is there a link between high sat fat and high cholesterol? I’m not going to go deep into this as tons has been written and its not my expertise … my own personal take from what I’ve read and learned is that there is a potential link but that most people’s body’s will vary the level of cholesterol they make, based on the cholesterol that’s coming in from what they’re eating. If someone eats WAY too much fat (incl sat fat) then I do believe that cholesterol levels can get too high … but a quick google search should turn up some deeper insights than I can give you.

  • Megan Henderson

    My favorite chili rule-breaker:  cocoa powder. 

    • Michelle Madden

      Interesting … Do you actual taste the cocoa once its in the chile?

      • Stacy @ Every Little Thing

        I’m not the original commenter but I just made a chocolate chili (blogging it tomorrow actually!). The dark chocolate adds kind of a smoky flavor to it, so it’s paired with chipotle chilis in adobo and the recipe I used actually called for strong coffee! I could taste a bit of the chocolate but it worked really well with the “smoky” taste!

        • Michelle Madden

          The chocolate I can see, the coffee, hmmm… but then again I tend to stop my coffee drinking at about 11am…

  • Deirdre

     Life is so much better since I saw through the non-fat myths and returned to full fat eating.  I love telling my clients about this because their eyes invariably turn from disbelief to full on joy. A website I really like for more information on sat. fat (as well as truths about cholesterol) is Sally Fallon’s cookbook, “Nourishing Traditions” is also a great resource.

    And, I agree, coconut oil rocks!

    • Michelle Madden

      Love Sally Fallons cookbook. So many great insights and tidbits along with the wonderful recipes!

  • Tomas

    I think you are correct…fat, along with just about anything else, will not kill you if used in moderation.  And with plenty of  exercise.   Lots of anecdotal reports to back this up-  my mother lived to 89 years, my father is 91 and still going.  Both were farm folks, ate lots of bacon, lots of eggs, and of course , a lot of vegetables.  (And if rutabagas and  Brussel sprouts don’t kill you, nothing will.)

  • Andrea Nakayama

    Hello friend by association (we have them in common). Have you checked out the Replenish PDX Fat or Fiction class? You would love it!
    Until we meet in person. . .
    Andrea Nakayama

  • Rick

    I’m curious – how does this fits in with the general recommendation to limit Fat to under 30% of our diet (by caloric intake), Sat Fats to under 10%, limit Carbs to no more than 55% but to eat at least 20% Protein.

    • Michelle Madden

      Sounds reasonable, though I have to admit I don’t count my % nutrients OR my calories … I eat whole foods and high nutrient foods and that’s it … I eat 2 eggs in the late morning (usually a veg omelet of some sort) which is more like brunch. I then usually have a bowl of whole milk yogurt in the late aft (w fruit and flax and hemp), more vegs for dinner (maybe with some meat or fish or lentils) though I may skip the meat/fish and have quinoa with vegs) Oh and pick at almonds all day long as well …

  • Michele

    There is something inherently satisfying in eating small amounts of fat contained in delicious natural food. It keeps one from overeating.

    I feel that much of obesity we see today comes from a lack of satisfying taste and fat in one’s diet which leads to never feeling satiated. A small amount of both types of fat is all you need. Plus it is great for the skin.

    • Michelle Madden

       Agree. Much (if not most) of the eating “we” do is mindless and done not because we’re actually hungry but b/c we’re bored, stressed, angry, name the emotion … or b/c there’s a Burger Kings at the next Exit…

  • Jonathan David

    It seems that the American diet is rather thoroughly F-ed. Much of this is thanks to our obsession with shortcuts. In the American imagination, and particularly when it comes to nutrition, there always has to be briefer way from A to B than a straight line. I quite appreciate your ingenius simplicity, Michelle, in asserting that health is a matter of eating healthy foods, rather than of doing nutritional math that would make the California state budget proud. 

    • Michelle Madden

       Jonathan you crack me up …. Yes, on some level its very simple but I am also profoundly aware that had I not been conditioned to eat whole foods and avoid junk, over a long period of my life, it would not be so simple, and for many, it is not …I deeply believe though, that people can, by learning more about whole foods and their powerful role in our health, share the joy in taking this “simpler” approach to eating well.

  • earthtoneone

    Fat: bring it on! I’m more worried about sugar/carb intake. As a teen I cut out most fat and lived on carbs. When i started showing signs of hypoglycemia, the Dr. told me to add fat and protein. I obliged and was surprised to lose weight. I’d agree with the poster who said a lack of satiety may be one of America’s big problems. When I was high-carb, I snacked on cereal and bread all the time; when I switched to almonds as my main snack, I found I wasn’t going home and tearing through boxes of cereal anymore. I’m not low-carb now, but more balanced.

    Interesting that studies have been showing people with a couple extra pounds live longer, as do people with higher cholesterol… Seems like more and more health problems are boiling down to inflammation, and sugar seems a bigger culprit than fat. It’ll take decades for the mainstream medical community to come around, though.

  • Fred

    Uhhh oh….he’s back!  Smiling, well, I just had to look into this a lit’l further because there are obvioiusly ‘good’ saturated fats (natural beef, (organic) butter, etc.) and ‘bad’ saturated fats (deep fried french fry oil for example). Here are portions of an excellent article @ / :

    7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat

    1. Improved cardiovascular risk factors

    2. Stronger bones

    3.  Improved liver health

    4. Healthy lungs.

    5  Healthy brain

               the lion’s share of the fatty acids in the brain are actually
    saturated. A diet that skimps on healthy saturated fats robs your brain
    of the raw materials it needs to function optimally.

    6  Proper nerve signaling

    7  Strong immune systemWhew…I’m done!   

    • Michelle Madden

      Thanks Fred, great list! Though with your french fry example, as far as I know most fries are fried in veg oil which would be predominantly unsaturated (McD for ex used to use lard but I believe that has ended due to an outcry from vegetarians) … but I think the main issue with FFs is simply the AMOUNT of fat that gets absorbed into the potato, regardless of what type it is!

  • Nancy

    Finally had a chance to read the blog and wanted to share this book with the group. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a great read and contains a lot of info to help us be better educated food shoppers. “What To Eat” by Marion Nestle. Talks about sat fat and trans fat besides how the “food” industry works. Tons of research went into it and well written and funny.

    • Michelle Madden

       I’ve always had an issue with sat fat and trans fats getting lumped into the “bad” fat category. TF- yes, avoid, it is not natural and does harm to the body. Sat fat is natural and VERY good (in moderation) for the body!

  • Fred

    Ok, I’m back for one last hooray, and yup, you are right about my example of the FF oil. I then tried to find an example of a true “bad” saturated fat but couldn’t.  I  then wondered what causes plaque buildup if saturated fat is actually good for you. Further ‘investigation’ did reveal that there are  a LOT of studies confirming it truly is, even beyond the 7 reasons I listed earlier.  So, what is the culprit?

    Interesting enough, the culprit for plaque build up is “abnormal” plaque, and it has nothing to do with natural saturated fat. Normal plaque in our veins is natural and necessary. Bottom line: here is a partial list of probable causes of “abnormal” plaque which leads to the narrowing of blood vessels:

    1. Trans fats
    2. Free radicals
    3. Oils turned rancid or oxidized
    4. Lack of exercise
    5. Sugar and other refined carbohydrates
    6. Carbon monoxide
    7. Nutritional deficiency
    8. etc.

    This excellent article can be found at

    • Michelle Madden

      Couldn’t agree more … I think part of the reason that sat fat got this reputation is that when you see sat fat on meat or on cream it’s easy to imagine that that is what is causing our own fat to grown or that those are the foods that are creating plaque on our heart. Surely non-fat “looking” bagels and chips and candy and soda cant be responsible for it!

  • Vee

    “It’s actually for the bedroom.”

    I LOL’d!

    I am a huge chili fan, and the chili recipe you posted looks like a must-make. I like beans in my chili, but but to replace them with more veggies is even better. Also, my husband is not a huge bean eater, so I know he’ll love this!

    • Michelle Madden

      Or settle for the middle ground – half the beans, double the vegs!

  • KimJabal

    Michelle I love your blog!!  You are officially now the only news source I read – no joke. :-)  I felt compelled to comment on this one – although I am a huge believer in “everything in moderation” I do think there is pretty strong agreement in the medical community that large amounts of saturated fat are linked to heart disease (and possibly other things like cancers).  I met the author of this book at Google and he was pretty compelling – it’s worth perusing at least his website (  Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Dr Walter Willett: .  All that said I will never give up butter or bacon…in moderation of course!  :-)

    • Michelle Madden

      Thanks Kim! The sat fat debate is heated with very strong opinions on all sides. I personally feel that any nutrient (sat fat included) that comes from natural foods is not in and of itself “harmful” in moderation. ANYTHING eaten in extremely large quantities (except maybe kale :) is not good for our bodies. I also feel strongly that high levels of sugar, processed food and (the biggest culprit of all) excess pounds on the bod, are FAR stronger contributors to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer … than a low level of sat fat in an overall healthy diet.

      I also feel that many docs and researchers who have been saying for decades that sat fat leads to heart disease, find it very hard for obvious credibility reasons, to now say, even if new studies challenge old assertions, “Ya know maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe sat fat’s not the leading cause of heart disease as we’ve been saying.”

      The other thing I always try to look at when I hear about “findings” and expert’s assertions, is: who is funding them …. I don’t have evidence on this, so I could be wrong, but I’m not entirely convinced that The School of Public Healtth at Harvard (which this dr is with) is neutral ie unbiased in their assertions. The school gets only a fraction of their funding from the university’s endowment (a recent article stated 13%) and the rest comes from donors – they don’t disclose who their largest donors are but i would love to know, as I would not be at all surprised if it were from some food companies that had a vested interest in keeping the “sat fat is bad” mantra alive. (ie those co’s that produce corm soy etc…)

      So bottom line, there are a lot of opinions out there, and it often comes down to what just feels “right”. For me it feels healthy to eat coconuts, cook with their oil, eat salmon which has a fair bit of sat fat and on occasion, high quality organic beef which has some as well.

      So all that to say, thank you for the comment! And I dont mean to slam Dr Willet at all, as I’m sure he’s an exceptionally smart man with some very wise advice, I just think that it’s too simple and misleading to single out sat fat as the “bad fat” when there are more evil villains in the food world than the humble sat fat.

  • Sj Sebellin-Ross

     I have no problem with the wickedest “f” word of all – fat! We lived and died by it at culinary school (here, if you’re interested: “Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood” on Kindle) adding butter and oil to nearly everything for that wonderful taste and mouth feel. The trick for the eater, then is to eat small portions. Then fat is not a problem for the waistline and delicious food is yours to enjoy.

    • Michelle Madden

      Right on! I think one of the biggest challenges we have with food and weight in America is that most of the eating we do is mindless and the food satisfies emotions and habit more strongly than it does taste buds. I also think when you cook with and eat natural fats you’re more likely to be satiated and NOT reach, an hour after a meal, for a bag of baked, fat free potato chips.

  • Fifty

    As far as modern animal fat goes, I think it’s more complicated.  Many moons ago, I read of studies of European countries during WWII.  One of them showed that deaths from heart disease went down a lot during the war because meat consumption was rationed.  This study was the one that prompted further studies and warnings on sat fat.  It was important because it was a large population that reduced its intake of meat at one time.  Something that’s hard to replicate in modern studies.

    But the study I really remember (and memory is subjective) is the one about Finland.  Before WWII, Finland was a country of dairy farmers.  And a huge part of their diet was dairy products.  Families had lots of butter, cheese, and whole milk at all meals.  And the cardiac death rate was huge.  So huge, in fact, that people just accepted that most men would die in their 40’s and 50’s from heart attacks.  And that most women would die about a decade later.  After the war, gradually, the population migrated to cities and modern factory and office jobs.  Their diet changed.  The death rate for heart attacks reduced and people lived longer.  Studies showed that it was because the consumption of fatty dairy products declined.

    Also, thruout human history, there have been very successful human populations that lived on mostly meat.  Think the plains Indians of America that subsisted mostly on bison.  Or Inuit cultures around the arctic world that lived almost exclusively on sea mammals like whales and seals.  Not to mention most pre-civilization European peoples from after the last ice age, whose diet has been estimated by archeologists as 2/3 animals (mammoths, giant rhinos and sloths and the like).

    Meat and fat aren’t bad.  But maybe certain modern meat and fat is.

  • Sunsi

    That’s why I like coming here here–you break through all the you-know-what and educate.  I never did cut out meat fat from my diet because of all the hoopala–always believed in moderation.