Dietary and policy recommendations frequently focus on reducing saturated fatty acid consumption for improving cardiometabolic health, based largely on ecologic and animal studies. Recent advances in nutritional science now allow assessment of critical questions about health effects of saturated fatty acids (SFA). We reviewed the evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of lipid and non-lipid risk factors, prospective cohort studies of disease endpoints, and RCTs of disease endpoints for cardiometabolic effects of SFA consumption in humans, including whether effects vary depending on specific SFA chain-length; on the replacement nutrient; or on disease outcomes evaluated. Compared with carbohydrate, the TC:HDL-C ratio is nonsignificantly affected by consumption of myristic or palmitic acid, is nonsignificantly decreased by stearic acid, and is significantly decreased by lauric acid. However, insufficient evidence exists for different chain-length-specific effects on other risk pathways or, more importantly, disease endpoints. Based on consistent evidence from human studies, replacing SFA with polyunsaturated fat modestly lowers coronary heart disease risk, with ~10% risk reduction for a 5% energy substitution; whereas replacing SFA with carbohydrate has no benefit and replacing SFA with monounsaturated fat has uncertain effects. Evidence for the effects of SFA consumption on vascular function, insulin resistance, diabetes, and stroke is mixed, with many studies showing no clear effects, highlighting a need for further investigation of these endpoints. Public health emphasis on reducing SFA consumption without considering the replacement nutrient or, more importantly, the many other food-based risk factors for cardiometabolic disease is unlikely to produce substantial intended benefits.
Keywords: Cardiovascular disease, Diabetes mellitus, Diet, Nutrition, Saturated fatty acids, Fatty acids