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Masai People and Heart Disease on a High Saturated Fat Diet

bread with butter

If you are interested in nutrition and have access to the internet, it is highly likely that at some point or another you came across views that are contradictory to everything you ever learned. There is a highly vocal group of people that claims that saturated fat is actually good for you. When you first look at the sites the evidence seems convincing, but if you look further you will see that they all reference each other and the few carefully picked studies that support their ideas. Let’s discuss two of the most cited arguments.

The Masai eat lots of dairy and do not get heart disease

The Masai are a people in Kenia. They use lots of dairy products and there arteries show for it: The coronary arteries showed intimal thickening by atherosclerosis which equaled that of old U.S. men (Atherosclerosis in the Masai). It is true that they do not get heart disease, but keep in mind that the life expectancy of the Masai is below 50 years. Many people in western countries don’t get heart disease either, even if they are living on a chips and cheese diet. That is not the only explanation though: the researchers conclude that their exceptional level of fitness is probably an important factor: it makes the arteries expand so that blood can still flow, even with all the plaque.

The Masai get away with eating an artery clogging diet but that does not mean you can too. They have been eating lots of vegetables and herbs their entire lives. They have been physically active their entire lives. They have lived their entire lives in a natural environment and they are generally happy people. Even if you eat healthy now, chances are you grew up with refined grains and not enough exercise. Your arteries likely are already clogged and much less able to withstand the saturated fat than the arteries of the Masai. On the other hand: you will hopefully live much longer than most Masai. There also may be other factors at play that we do not know yet. Maybe the Masai eat a diet that is naturally rich in plaque removing substances. Maybe they have good genes.

Contradictory studies

The saturated fat - heart disease connection is very strong. It is untrue that the real experts do not believe anymore that saturated fat is bad: this is only a handful of doctors and other people that promote shabby research or take good research out of context. If you look for it, you can find studies that support every controversial opnion easily. The Japanese smoke much more than people in Europe and the US, yet have much less heart disease. Does this mean that smoking is actually good for you? There are people that think so.

Polyunsaturated fats are the real bad fats

Most of the pro saturated fat research concludes that extracted polyunsaturated oils are even worse than saturated fats. I agree that polyunsaturated oils should be severely limited as well (and the fact that trans fat is bad for you is already undisputed), but that is irrelevant. Two wrongs don’t make a right.


All that said, I don’t think saturated fat is actually poisonous. Nuts and seeds also contain saturated fat and I do not think there is anything wrong with eating coconuts every once in a while. No naturally occurring nutrient is totally good or bad. If you are lean and active and eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables, I would not worry about saturated fat. Just do not think about it as health promoting.


  1. Miriam said,

    September 13, 2006 at 3:52 pm


    you are great!!!
    Just the other day I was thinking about the Masai and that I wanted to know about their health, considering they eat sooo much animal products.


  2. helena said,

    September 14, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks Miriam! I am afraid that there really is no loophole when it comes to eating lots of animal products and health.

  3. The cooking oil issue said,

    September 15, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    […] When I wrote earlier this week about the dangers of saturated fat, I said that one of the arguments of people that say saturated fat is good for you is that polyunsaturated oils are really bad for you, and that I agree with that statement. That raises the question: what cooking oil should you use? In the coming series I will discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of various cooking oils. […]

  4. Miriam said,

    September 15, 2006 at 1:40 pm


    I wonder …. when eating animal products is clearly not good for human health, why do almost all humans eat animals? I’m not talking about people in industrialised countries, but I think I have heard that there are/were NO tribes who eat totally vegan, right? Maybe, because eating animal products is bad for you long term, but is an easy way of getting calories short term??


  5. helena said,

    September 26, 2006 at 11:12 pm

    This is a good question, I have thought about this for a while. I think the issue is too complicated to address here in the comments, but I will address it in a further post.

    I do want to note already that most long living successful civilizations and societies do not eat lots of animal products. They are part of their diet, but have never been the focus.

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