Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations From the Heart

Saturated fat is not the major issue

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 22 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6340

Re: Saturated fat is not the major issue

I agree with Andrew Renfree that we need to consider the bigger picture of health in relation to dietary patterns, not just focus narrowly on individual nutrients. Even more important is the issue of the environmental impact of our food choices. Unless we manage to maintain a liveable environment nothing else we do really matters.
Malhotra says that eating saturated fat doesn't matter as it has nothing to do with heart disease. Plenty of good quality observational evidence contradicts this. In addition, plausible mechanisms have been worked out as to how saturated fat causes adverse effects - including increased inflammation through activation of the NF-kB protein complex and promotion of blood coagulation via Factor VII (see As meat and other animal foods are the main source of saturated fat, a wholefood plant-based diet provides the best protection against heart disease.

The same diet also provides major environmental benefits, according to leading experts. Five years on from James Hansen's dire warning about the increasing risk of runaway global warming
(see, no serious effort has been made to limit global emissions of greenhouse gases. Robert Goodland, for 23 years the World Bank's main advisor on the environment, has recalculated the contribution of farm animals to global greenhouse gas emissions and arrived at the staggering figure of 51% (this includes the effects of deforestation to make way for animal feed crops, the very powerful greenhouse properties of methane and nitrogen oxides, animal respiration, etc). The good news is that methane does not persist for very long in the atmosphere, unlike CO2, which lasts for hundreds of years. So a substantial cut in livestock numbers would rapidly translate into lower atmospheric concentrations of methane, offsetting the effects of rising CO2 and buying us valuable time for other measures to take effect.

According to Hansen and other leading climate experts, a major global warming tipping point will probably arrive as early as 2017 unless we start to do something now. And Goodland says that by far the most effective and practical thing we can do is to eat less meat. He states that even a 25% reduction in livestock numbers worldwide would probably be enough to stop the arrival in a few years of the first in a predicted chain of tipping points leading to irreversible global warming.

Here's a link to a talk by Goodland in which he sets out the case for changing our diets, if only for environmental protection. He says that other measures such as switching to renewable energy, while essential in the long term, will kick in too late to prevent a dangerous temperature rise.

Goodland strongly urges everyone who is concerned to improve our chances of maintaining the benign environment on which our civilization depends to get behind the twin goals of reforestation and widespread adoption of a sustainable diet.

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 December 2013
Colin J Walsh
retired GP
Cardiff, Wales