Dear Mark: Saturated Fat

Dear Mark,

In one of last week’s Cheap Meat discussions, you said something about ratios and saturated fats and how saturated fats aren’t really the issue in your mind. I might have been missing something in the conversation. Can you fill me in?

The issue of ratios within animal fat was raised by reader Jaana as she shared Cordain’s discussion of the varying polyunsaturated fat content and corresponding omega ratios in muscle meat versus different organ meats. Cordain compares wild game (that we can assume are comparable to the meats our pre-agricultural ancestors ate) with the domestically raised livestock we eat today. As a general rule, the muscle meat of conventional livestock today has less polyunsaturated fat than wild game does. Conventional domestic meat also has more saturated fat than wild game.

I’ve said before that the hype over saturated fat is overblown in many respects. Saturated fats are required for many crucial functions in the body. They make up 1/2 of cell membrane structure. They enhance calcium absorption and immune function. They aid in the body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids and provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins. My beef isn’t with the beef fat. It’s with the carbs – the grains that conventionally raised animals are fed as well as the buns, chips and other assorted carbs we modern humans eat with the side of beef.

This is the part conventional “wisdom” doesn’t get: saturated fat in the diet doesn’t directly translate to saturated fats in the blood. It’s all how it’s metabolized. Saturated fat levels in the blood are influenced by the prevalence of carbs in the diet and the subsequent carb-generated lipogenesis process.

And it’s my opinion that CW’s hobby horse takes attention away from the more legitimate concerns surrounding saturated fat intake. An animal’s fat stores carry the highest load of antibiotics, feed pesticides and herbicides, and hormones. Obviously, this didn’t matter 20,000 years ago, but it matters a whole heck of a lot in the modern world. One way to ameliorate the situation is to eat organic meat. (And, to a lesser extent, grass-fed and -finished, but we covered that last week.) Another way is to eat lower fat meats. (Even the best organic, grass-finished meats will still carry dioxins in their fat stores as a result of acid rain in most regions of the country.)

Finally, as reader Charles noted in last week’s discussion (thanks for the lead, Charles), really the polyunsaturated fat content in either grass or grain fed beef isn’t that substantial to begin with. Grass-fed is better, but it’s not worth excessive concern or breaking the bank.

Whether you choose to eat higher fat meats or lower fat cuts, my message is the same. Look for the cleanest meat you can find and afford. Sure, shoot for grass-fed and finished when possible, but clean should trump grass-fed by a long shot. Beyond this, arm yourself with a diet and supplement regimen that offers copious antioxidants and plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to achieve a 1:1 ratio.

Thanks to everyone for all their comments and questions. There’s nothing like a vigorous and spirited discussion! Keep it coming.

Daniel Y. Go, Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

I’m Not Afraid of Fat

Are There Any Good Carbs?

Why the Atkins Diet Works

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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18 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Saturated Fat”

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  1. Mark nailed it. Sat fat is not the cause of heart disease…that’s just something passed down that if you asked someone why…they say something like “Well they say it is bad for you and clogs your arteries”….Ummm, who is “they” and how exactly does it “clog” your arteries.

    The bigger damage is PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats) and Trans Fatty acids that promote inflammation and damage in our artery lining that CAUSE the buildup of plaque. Also sat fat is KEY to cell membrane wall health…the outer gates of the city if you want to look at it that way. Cancer cells were shown to have “soft” cell walls…aka a bad line of defense and easily damaged…a sign of high PUFA intake as well (as it is highly unstable).

    Sat fat is also key to Testosterone production, along with cholesterol…there’s a reason steak and eggs makes you strong.

    But also the quality of the source is also key. Get the highest quality of meat (grass fed organic) and you don’t have to sweat the fat. There are other factors more important in your health. (like excess PUFAs)

  2. I’ve been trying to find data on dioxin levels in soil in various parts of this country, and haven’t had much luck. There’s more data on Europe, though, and there are some pretty seriously dioxin-contaminated areas in Europe.

    Dioxin gets transfered to the soil not just by acid rain, but also through air, through water systems, through past industrial activity, and through past non-organic farming practices. I’m worried about dioxin in meat and dairy fats and, like you, I’m just eating the best quality I can find and hoping for the best.

    Food Is Love

  3. So what about fried(and deep fried) foods, what about those saturated fats from the oils, is a deep-fried brocolli just as healthy than as a boiled broccoli?

  4. Marc (with a C),

    Depends, but in general, no. Most deep-fried foods are fried in canola oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil, so the saturated fatty acids are a small percentage, and, as Mike noted as bad, most will also have high polyunsaturated ratios. Also, high heat degrades most oils that aren’t saturated, which is also undesirable. Now if you were frying your broccoli in rendered, grass-fed organic beef fat, the answer might be yes.

  5. Like Scott said, fried foods are all usually vegetable oils which are PUFA and highly unstable…free radicals gone wild in your body is not good….much like having lots spring breakers in your hotel. Lots of damage. I would say boiling is also not ideal as you may lose alot of the water soluble vitamins (B vitamins mainly) from the veggies in the water, so unless you are using the water/broth as well, I would recommend steaming.

  6. Good post

    Barry Groves recently pointed to an interesting study:

    Cutting down on omega-6 is better than increasing omega-3:

    “For the last quarter of a century we have been advised to choose veteable oils and margarines in place of traditional fats such as butter. As a consequence, the omega-6 fatty acids which predominate in these vegetable fats have overwhelmed their cousins, the omega-3 fatty acids.

    So, more recently, we have been exhorted to increase our intakes of omega-3s to make up for the imbalance between the two. This has led to a much higher intake of these polyunsaturated fatty acids in total — and that is decidedly unhealthy.

    And, as this study shows, we don’t need to, because it doen’t work. Rather thasn increase omega-3s, they say, we should reduce omega-6s. In other words, what we should really do is go back to eating butter and other traditional fats which have the correct proportion of both omega-3 and omega-6”

  7. I am a proponent of consuming saturated fats. I do not think that saturated fats cause atherosclerosis or heart disease. Hindus living in and from the Indian subcontinent have an alarming rate of dropping dead from heart attacks. No. My question is: what WAS responsible for the high heart disease rate during the 1940s, 50s and 60s? And why is the death rate lower now? Is it just drugs? Is it that smoking is less prevalent? If you look at photographs of people back in the 50s they looked really really sick and mostly skinny. They were bigtime smokers. It was unavoidable to draw in secondhand smoke. Interior environments were really badly polluted with it.

  8. Hi Mark;

    Great site, visit on a daily basis.
    Question, would it be possible for you to add a button that would print the daily post. While I know it’s a hassle, I’ve seen some sites that have the ability to print a copy of the post w/o having to print the whole blog.

    I post many of your articles on our company bulletin board.

    Thanks again for doing such a great job.


  9. are there any good sites for grass fed beef recipes? i know they have to be cooked diffrently than grain fed so that’s why i’m asking.

  10. Bubba29, I’ve never cooked grass-fed beef any differently than grain-fed beef, unless you count “more often” or “with exuberance” as differently.

    This week, I cooked some ground, grass-fed beef with browned onions, garlic, tomato puree, nutritional yeast, and broccoli-kale (Italian kale that’s sprouting into flowers). It was delicious.

    Food Is Love

  11. Hi Mark. I really enjoy your blog.

    Regarding fats and Coronary heart Disease and fats and paleolithic nutrition, there are a few points to be made:

    First, on the molecular level, some saturated fatty acids (lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids) decrease LDL receptor activity and increase LDL production.

    I think that this evidence can’t be ignored, as the evidence that most mammals and hunter-gatherer populations have low total cholesterol.

    Nevertheless, when it comes to estimating the intake of saturated fatty acids in the paleolithic era, one has to rely on the animals that still exist, and the data shows that fatty acid composition of wild animal’s fat is different from domestic animals.

    For instance, in wild animals (and I think Dr. Cordain has new information to be released on that) most of the fat in marrow is monounsaturated, which explains why he recommends olive oil (70-80% of it is monounsaturated) to emulate that fatty acid profile (most people, including me, aren’t willing to eat marrow, as most people aren’t willing to eat brain to get their DHA, and rather prefer to eat fatty fish or to take a fish oil supplement)

    In his website, he says: “There is absolutely no doubt that hunter-gatherers favored the fattiest part of the animals they hunted and killed. As far back as 2.5 million years there is incredible fossil evidence from Africa showing this scenario to be true.”

    So, it is true that hunter-gatherers preferred the fatty portion of the animal, but most of the fat was monounsaturated and half the saturated fat they ate was stearic acid, which has a neutral effect on LDL.
    In my opinion, since it is very hard (at least in Europe)to get wild game, and most people aren’t willing to eat the fat and the organs of wild animals, a second choice would be lean animal protein, along with coconut oil and olive oil.

    Bottom line: I don’t think that increasing saturated fat in a very low carb diet will cause any harm, but I’m just not certain of it, and it appears that monounsaturated fat was the main fat consumed by our paleolithic ancestors. There is an interview with DR. Cordain, where he briefly discusses this with DR. Richard Feinman, and where Dr.Feinman talks about a recent study regarding low carb diets and metabolism of saturated fats – you can get it on

    It seems that under a low carb diet, things work in a different manner. In a recent study (Forsythe CE, Phinney SD, Fernandez ML, et al. Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating Fatty Acid composition and markers of inflammation. Lipids. 2008 Jan;43(1):65-77) comparing low carb and low fat diets, it was shown, that despite the three-fold greater saturated fat in the diet for the low carb group, saturated fat in the blood turned out to be higher in the low fat group, so maybe if you eat a low carb diet, a high saturated fat intake won’t harm you, but under the typical american high carb diet, I think that it will harm you, because it downregulates the LDL receptor.

    Regarding butter, I question its safety, not because of the fat that it contains, but because the milk that we are now consuming is quite different from what more primitive people consume. Modern dairy cows are usually pregnant and continue to lactate during the latter half of pregnancy, when the concentration of estrogens in blood, and hence in milk, increases.

    Ganmaa D, Wang PY, Qin LQ, Hoshi K, Sato A. Is milk responsible for male reproductive disorders? Med Hypotheses. 2001 Oct;57(4):510-4.

    Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers. Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(6):1028-37.

    I think coconut milk would be a better choice.

    But when it comes to fats and cardiovascular disease, we know that trans fat are a much bigger danger. Trans fat increases the catabolism of apo A-I and decreases the catabolism of apo B-100, which results in low HDL and high LDL.

    Besides, trans fat increase inflammation, concentrations of lipoprotein(a) and triglycerides, insulin resistance and cancer risk.

    Polyunsaturated lipid has no effect on LDL production but increases LDL receptor activity, so they are promoted as healthy fats. Nevertheless, an Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio above 4/1 increases the risk for many diseases (funny that you could have figured out this, just by estimating the ratio of a Paleolithic type diet – 2/1 to 3/1). This is one possible explanation for the high rates of death from cardiovascular disease in India.

    Another explanation are lectins, and if you check the two last newsletters From Dr. Cordain ( , along with his paper on peanut oil, you’ll have a better explanation of this (I know that he is conducting a human experiment at CSU with peanut lectin and wheat lectin, and after it is finished, he will publish a paper exposing this theory in detail).

    In a nutshell, and quoting him, “elevated LDL and VLDL cholesterol in the bloodstream are necessary to induce the early non-fatal atherosclerotic lesion (the fatty streak), and chronic inflammation is required to cause the progression of a fatty streak into a mature atherosclerotic plaque and the subsequent fatal rupture of the fibrous cap surrounding the plaque.” What causes inflammation? One of the dietary factors are lectins (but I suggest you read the newsletter, to understand this). This explains why the Masai, despite eating an enormous amount of saturated fat, and having extensive atherosclerosis, don’t die from it.


  12. This…

    “This is the part conventional “wisdom” doesn’t get: saturated fat in the diet doesn’t directly translate to saturated fats in the blood. It’s all how it’s metabolized. Saturated fat levels in the blood are influenced by the prevalence of carbs in the diet and the subsequent carb-generated lipogenesis process.”

    Just turned on a light bulb, simple as it is. Animals are fed grain, saturated fat content goes up…

    We eat grain…why the hell would anything else happen?

    Seems this is another way to look at how conventional wisdom has missed the point (stop eating foods that don’t belong in your body in the first place).

  13. The Treasury Department determined that the government did not have the legal authority to block the current payments by the company. ,

  14. I’ve been on the Rosedale diet for 4 days and am having severe leg cramps. Do you think it is related to the diet that I have carefully followed?

  15. Dear Mark

    My husband and I have been following your blog for some time now and have seen the benefits, in particular my PCOS and insulin resistance have improved significantly, just wanted to ask you which oil you recommend for shallow frying, coconut oil, grapeseed oil or rice bran oil? Also, what is your view of the impact of drinking a cup of tea and coffee a day on insulin resistance? Thank you

  16. @jan. Lag cramps are just lack of potassium and magnesium.. when you start the Rosedale diet, you will diresse more in the first 2 weeks thus all you needs is just to take some magnesium and potassium and you will be right as rain in no time! For me, within just 3 weeks I felt amazing, and it is now almost 4 years later!

  17. Hi!

    thanks for this very useful and often misunderstood info. I am unclear on the last paragraph when you say that whether eating higher or lower fat cuts of meat doesn’t matter, but morese go for ‘clean’ meats over grass-fed meats.. what do you mean by ‘clean’?

    ..Whether you choose to eat higher fat meats or lower fat cuts, my message is the same. Look for the cleanest meat you can find and afford. Sure, shoot for grass-fed and finished when possible, but clean should trump grass-fed by a long shot. Beyond this, arm yourself with a diet and supplement regimen that offers copious antioxidants and plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to achieve a 1:1 ratio.