LDL likely plays a role in causing atherosclerosis, with the majority of the damage coming from the oxidized form of LDL. There are at least two ways to increase the concentration of oxidized LDL (oxLDL) in the blood: 1) increase the total concentration of LDL while keeping the proportion of oxLDL the same; 2) increase the proportion of oxLDL. Dietary fats differ in their effects on these two factors, and the net outcome is also dependent on the species eating the fat and the overall dietary context.
The omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, linoleic acid (LA; found abundantly in industrial vegetable oils), may be a factor in the susceptibility of LDL to oxidation. LDL is rich in LA regardless of diet, yet the amount of LA in LDL still depends on diet to a certain degree. Thus, on the surface, one would expect a diet high in industrial vegetable oil to promote atherosclerosis. Unfortunately, it's not that simple, because LA also lowers the amount of LDL in the blood of a number of species, including humans.
The amount of atherosclerosis produced by feeding different fats depends both on how much LDL oxidation occurs and on how the fat affects the organism's blood lipid profile. For example, if corn oil lowers LDL by 3-fold relative to lard in a rabbit model, yet increases the proportion of oxLDL by 50%, the rabbit will probably develop more atherosclerosis eating lard than eating corn oil. This is because the total concentration of oxLDL is still higher in the lard group. On the other hand, if corn oil doesn't reduce LDL at all relative to lard in a rhesus monkey, yet the proportion of oxLDL increases by 50%, the corn oil group will probably develop more atherosclerosis, all else being equal.
Then there are other factors that influence atherosclerosis independently of oxLDL, such as the fat-soluble antioxidants, micronutrients and omega-6:3 ratio of the diets. It's also important to keep in mind that atherosclerosis is only one factor that influences the risk of having a heart attack.
In the last post, I argued that feeding excessive cholesterol to herbivorous or nearly herbivorous animals elevates plasma LDL greatly. In many species, saturated fat exacerbates the increase in LDL due to dietary cholesterol overload. However, in the absence of added cholesterol, several commonly used models of atherosclerosis do not show an increase in LDL upon saturated fat feeding. This is similar to the situation in humans.
Rabbits are one of the most commonly used models of diet-induced atherosclerosis. They are very sensitive to dietary cholesterol, due to the fact that their natural adult diet contains virtually none.
I recently found a great study from 1967 titled "Relative Failure of Saturated Fat in the Diet to Produce Atherosclerosis in the Rabbit" (free full text). Investigators fed rabbits cocoa butter, coconut oil and Crisco (hydrogenated cottonseed oil) at 45% of calories. They found that neither cocoa butter nor Crisco increased the rabbits' cholesterol (they didn't measure LDL directly but it typically increases in proportion to total cholesterol in rabbits), while coconut oil caused a transient increase that disappeared by 6 months on the diet. Cocoa butter caused slight atherosclerosis in some of the animals while none was detected in the coconut oil or Crisco groups.
Next, the investigators fed the rabbits cholesterol along with the fats. 0.25% cholesterol with corn oil or Crisco caused a massive (10-fold) increase in blood cholesterol, and produced atherosclerosis. They didn't pair the saturated fats with cholesterol, but the point is still clear: feeding dietary cholesterol, not saturated fat, to an herbivorous species, is the culprit.
However, subsequent studies in rabbits have shown that saturated fats can produce atherosclerosis without added cholesterol. How can this be? It turns out that it only works in the context of a highly refined "synthetic" or "semi-synthetic" diet (ref). So the dietary context plays an important role as well.
The ability of saturated fat to produce atherosclerosis in animal models requires it to cause a large enough increase in serum LDL that it overwhelms saturated fat's natural tendency to reduce LDL oxidation (relative to LA). This process is typically helped along by feeding huge amounts of cholesterol. In the absence of a large increase in LDL, atherosclerosis does not result, all else being equal.
Several studies in primates support this concept. van Jaarsveld and colleagues showed that feeding vervet monkeys 28% of calories from palm oil (SFA-MUFA), sunflower oil (PUFA) or lard (MUFA-SFA) resulted in similar LDL concentrations in the three groups. After more than two years, the palm oil group had the least atherosclerosis and the sunflower oil and lard groups were similar. It's notable that palm oil was the most saturated fat used in this study.
In another telling study by Mott and colleagues, baboons were fed diets containing 40% of calories from a predominantly saturated fat or a predominantly polyunsaturated fat. Each group was further subdivided into two groups: one receiving a small amount of cholesterol in the feed, and one receiving a large amount. Cholesterol feeding increased LDL and atherosclerosis, while the type of fat had a modest effect on LDL and no effect on atherosclerosis both at high and low cholesterol levels. I've noticed that baboons seem to throw a wrench in the gears of the mainstream conception of blood lipid metabolism.
Rudel and colleagues fed african green monkeys and cynomolgus monkeys lard (MUFA-SFA) or safflower oil (PUFA) for 40% of calories, with or without added cholesterol. Without cholesterol, both LDL and the degree of atherosclerosis were low in both monkeys fed both types of fat. Cholesterol feeding raised LDL in both species by 2-3 fold, and caused significant atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis was more severe in monkeys fed lard plus cholesterol than in monkeys fed safflower oil plus cholesterol, correlating with their considerably higher LDL.
In sum, the ability of a fat to contribute to atherosclerosis depends in part on its ability to increase oxLDL. One way to do this is to massively raise LDL. This can be accomplished by combining dietary cholesterol overload with saturated fat in certain susceptible species. Saturated fat, in the context of a somewhat normal diet, does not appear to raise LDL very much if at all in most species, in the long term. This includes humans.
Animal models of diet-induced atherosclerosis are useful for studying the disease, but they do not support the conclusion that humans should avoid foods containing natural amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat. "Saturated fats" such as lard, palm oil, beef tallow and coconut oil probably have little or no connection to atherosclerosis in humans, or in most species eating a somewhat natural diet.