IS SATURATED FAT & CHOLESTEROL REALLY BAD FOR YOU?

ARE YOU confusED ABOUT FATS?

Due to so much conflicting information and opinions the topic of healthy eating has become very controversial and confusing. Dietary fats is perhaps one of the oldest and most debated areas in nutrition. 

 

In the 1960's low fat/no fat diet dogma, as advocated by the U.S government, became conventional wisdom and has pretty much dominated the press ever since. This dietary misinformation has persuaded hundreds of thousands of people to make changes to the types and quantities of fats eaten.

 

The aim of the post is to help you better understand where these recommendations have come from and give you a better understanding of the types of fats you should eat.

 

American physiologist Ancel Keys on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961 claiming saturated fats clog arteries and cause heart disease.
American physiologist Ancel Keys on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961 claiming saturated fats clog arteries and cause heart disease.

The dietary advice provided from the US government in the 60's persuaded people to replace perfectly healthy saturated fats like butter, lard and coconut oil with refined, adulterated vegetable oils and margarine spreads.Why? Well according to the diet dictocrats, such as Ancel Keys the American physiologist behind the low fat, low cholesterol movement, replacing saturated fat and cholesterol with grains and refined vegetable oils, like corn, sunflower and canola oil,  protects us against heart disease and stroke. 

1984; Time magazine demonizes cholesterol as unhealthy and to be avoided.
1984; Time magazine demonizes cholesterol as unhealthy and to be avoided.

Interestingly heart disease was virtually unheard of prior to the 1920's but increased dramatically when people started switching out saturated fats, like butter and tallow, for the margarines and refined seed oils that the U.S government were recommending as healthy. 

Fat Consumption in USA

 

 

The graph above from Stephen Guyunet, PhD, shows that people started replacing butter with margarine around 1940 - the same time heart disease started becoming epidemic. In fact between 1910 and 1970 the consumption of margarines and refined vegetable oils increased a whopping 400%! 

 

Interestingly the obesity epidemic started around 1980 which is when low fat diets really gained traction and people started consuming a lot more polyunsaturated oils such as sunflower oil, canola oil and corn oil. Now, correlation does not prove causation but it is strikingly clear that heart disease and obesity hiked up around the same time saturated fats were being replaced with refined vegetable oils and margarine spreads.  

Low Fat Guidelines and Obesity Epidemic

Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show the proportion of adults who are obese has more than doubled from 15% in 1971 to 34% in 2006.

 

Today heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death worldwide and were the cause of 15 million deaths in 2015 alone!

 

Although fat has made a bit of a come back in recent years, the big fat lies regarding saturated fat and cholesterol just won't go away.  Just 10 days ago the American Heart Association (AHA) demonized saturated fat once more, claiming coconut oil is unhealthy because it is packed with saturated fat which raises "bad" LDL cholesterol, clogs the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease. This is a gross oversimplification of the true mechanism behind heart disease. 

 

The soft margarine spreads which the AHA promote as healthy tend to be loaded with hydrogenated/trans fats which cause inflammation  and increase the risk of disease. Furthermore refined vegetable oils oxidize quickly and easily in the presence of light, heat, oxygen and moisture. These polyunsaturated oils are usually in a rancid state before they even leave the clear plastic bottles which they are packaged within - let alone after using them to cook with! Consuming rancid polyunsaturated oils is like drinking pure free radicals! Not good considering oxidation and inflammation are the root cause of numerous diseases, including heart disease. 

why saturated fat and cholesterol are not your enemy!

Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, noted there has never been a single study proving saturated fat, on its own, is unhealthy. It is only when saturated fat is consumed alongside poor diet and lifestyle habits that create oxidation and inflammation that problems may occur. 

 

The conventional, old school hypothesis that saturated fats and dietary cholesterol raise blood cholesterol and cause heart disease grossly oversimplifies the true heart disease mechanism. Oxidation and inflammation are the real culprits behind heart disease and what we should be avoiding - not saturated fat and cholesterol. 

 

A low fat, very high carbohydrate, junk food diet can create a chronically high output of insulin, which can trigger inflammation within the body. Additionally the damaged, refined and oxidized vegetable oils such as corn, canola, and sunflower oil, create extensive oxidative damage to the body when consumed. 

 

 

A VERY basic Understanding cholesterol

 

Cholesterol is transported around the body in little protein bags called lipoproteins, such as HDL and LDL. You have probably heard of these before, but what you may not realize is that lipoproteins are not actually cholesterol they are simply the vehicles carrying it around your blood stream. 

 

HDLs; High-density lipoproteins are known as the "body's garbage trucks" or "good cholesterol" because they move harmful, oxidized cholesterol out of the bloodstream from where it can cause damage and into there liver where it is eliminated from the body. Saturated fat and sensible exercise raise HDL levels, margarines and refined vegetable oils do not.

 

LDL's; Low-density lipoproteins are commonly categorized as "bad" cholesterol which is only partially correct. LDLs can either be large and fluffy or small and dense in their make up. The small, dense LDLs are problematic whilst the large, fluffy LDLs are un-problamatic - even in large numbers.

 

Large, fluffy LDLs; Also known as buoyant LDL, are harmless. These lipoproteins are formed when the levels of insulin and triglycerides in the blood stream are low. Eating more dietary fats and less refined carbs and sugars is what keeps blood insulin and triglycerides levels down. It is only in the presence of oxidation and inflammation within the blood stream (which can be caused by a high insulin stimulating diet - ie. lots of junk and carb rich foods), or in the presence of other risk factors, such as smoking, abdominal obesity or chronic stress (including the stress that can come from overzealous, chronic exercise regimes), that large, fluffy LDLs may become problematic. 

 

Small, dense LDL's; The bad guys! When the levels of triglyceride and insulin within the blood stream are elevated small, dense LDLs are formed. These LDLs are dangerous because of their high propensity to lodge onto artery walls, oxidize and cause inflammation. 

 

The true heart disease culprits - oxidation and inflammation - are generally unrelated to eating healthy saturated fats and cholesterol rich foods. The consumption of refined vegetable oils (which oxidize quickly and easily) that have been heavily promoted from health authorities are far more to blame. 

Sunflower oil is an example of a polyunsaturated fat which readily and easily oxidizes in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture and heat.
Sunflower oil is an example of a polyunsaturated fat which readily and easily oxidizes in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture and heat.

10 reasons to eat saturated fat and cholesterol

When included as part of an overall healthy diet, saturated fat and cholesterol provide an array of health benefits. Here are 10 quick reasons you should eat them;

  1. Saturated fat is required to properly absorb calcium into bones.
  2. Saturated fats helps lower a substance called Lp(a) in the blood which in turn reduces the risk of heart disease.
  3. Short chain and medium chain fatty acids - like those found within butter and coconut oil - have antimicrobial properties which protect our digestive tract against damage from harmful microorganisms. 
  4. Saturated fats like butter, coconut oil, lard and tallow are highly resistant to oxidation making them very safe and tasty fats to cook with.
  5. Saturated fats provide a slow, steady supply of energy and help regulate the energy absorption from carbohydrates.
  6. Saturated fats and cholesterol are required for the proper structure and functioning of cell walls. At least 50% of our cell walls are comprised of saturated fats. Cell walls allow nutrients to enter and toxins to exit and are therefore vital to good health.
  7. Cholesterol serves as a precursor to important sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone as well as corticosteroid hormones that help combat stress and protect against heart disease and cancer.
  8. Cholesterol is required for the production of bile salts. We need bile to break down and absorb fats.
  9. Cholesterol is required for the proper formation of vitamin D which helps build healthy bones, improves mineral absorption, and aids insulin production and immune system function.
  10. Cholesterol acts as an antioxidant within the body so it protects us against heart disease, cancer and general free radical damage.
Time magazine finally promoting healthy fats in 2014!
Time magazine finally promoting healthy fats in 2014!

the big picture

Its important to note that whilst saturated fat can be perfectly healthy it should be consumed within the context of an overall healthy diet. Avoiding excessive amounts of refined sugars and carbohydrates whilst simultaneously incorporating nutrient dense vegetables and good quality sources of protein into your diet provides a safe platform for saturated fat to be consumed. Read this post for an overview of healthy eating. 

 

Saturated fats react differently within the body depending upon the types of foods eaten alongside it. Simply adding saturated fats to an existing high carbohydrate, sugary, junk food diet is a recipe for disaster. Don't do it!

 

When it comes to nutrition we tend to categorize foods as either "good" or "bad" whilst disregarding context. All too often a "good" food is eaten in excess whilst "bad" foods are completely eliminated. For example you don't need to drop numerous tablespoons of coconut oil or butter into your coffee to gain the benefits of healthy fats, in fact doing so may displace other important nutrients and create imbalances in your overall fatty acid intake. A smarter approach is to switch out the unhealthy trans and hydrogenated fats and oxidized polyunsaturated oils for appropriate amounts of natural fats such as saturated and monounsaturated fats like butter, coconut oil, avocados and olives/olive oil, as well as omega 3's, 6's and 9's from oily fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, blackcurrant seed oil, almonds and almond oil, hazel nuts and hazelnut oil, etc.

 

Optimal nutrition requires us to respect our individuality and avoid a cookie cutter approach to our diet. What works for one person may not work quite as well for the next - we are have different lifestyles and food preferences.

 

Thanks for reading!