Saturated or not: Does type of fat matter?

Saturated fat has long been considered detrimental to health, so when a recently published research paper suggested there is no evidence supporting the recommendation to limit saturated fat consumption, media outlets reported extensively on the subject.

Even after errors in the paper were identified and corrected, popular media coverage touted the benefits of saturated fat despite nutrition experts’ warnings. This media coverage – often based on sensationalizing study results – surrounding saturated fat may be detrimental to public health, as it contributes to a haze of confusion rather than offering sound scientific clarification.

In order to set the record straight, Harvard School of Public Health convened a panel of nutrition experts and held a teach-in, “Saturated or not: Does type of fat matter?” The panel discussion was moderated by Corby Kummer – Senior Editor of The Atlantic, and restaurant critic at Boston Magazine – and presenters included:

  • Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health



  •  Frank Hu,Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology,Harvard School of Public Health; Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Director, Boston Obesity Research Center Epidemiology/Genetics Core

Slideshow: Types of fat and risk of CHD: Epidemiologic Evidence


  • Frank Sacks, Professor, Nutrition Department, Harvard School of Public Health; Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School;Senior Physician, Brigham & Women’s Hospital

Slideshow: Dietary Fats and Oils: Relation to Blood Cholesterol


  • Dariush Mozaffarian, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, BWH/HMS; Department of Epidemiology, HSPH

 Slideshow: Food Sources of Saturated Fat and Risk of Heart Disease


  • Alice Lichtenstein, Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University

Presentation not available

The overarching message was that when it comes to the health values of various fats, it’s about substitution. If you remove one type of fat, what are you replacing it with? Cutting back on saturated fat can be good for health if people replace saturated fat with good fats, especially, polyunsaturated fats. If you remove saturated fat and replace it with refined carbohydrates, there will be a detrimental effect. Moreover, we need to think about food quality – including food sources, and dietary patterns – rather than on nutrients alone.