The Skinny on Saturated Fat
It’s one of the most common “aha” moments I see my clients experience. It’s the moment they realize that saturated fat has been demonized for likely unfounded reasons.
They realize they can eat the butter and go for wild fatty fish or a fatty cut of pasture raised meat - not just avocados, coconuts and walnuts (although, these are all wonderful sources as well). They realize that LDL cholesterol isn't actually cholesterol at all, and isn’t “bad” until and unless it is oxidized. They realize cholesterol is critical for brain function, and they realize the food pyramid (now ChooseMyPlate) is driven largely by bias for certain industries and recommends almost 75% of the plate to be made up of carbohydrates! More on this in a moment.
Brows furrow, jaws drop...and then that emoji with the flat line for a mouth sets in.
We’ve been taught for decades that saturated fat is causing heart disease and early death. We’ve been taught that whole grains are an essential part of our diet and should be consumed in the largest amounts of any food group. I’m here to tell you that could not be further from sound advice.
Think about this: grains have only been abundantly available to our species for about 10,000 years. Homo Sapiens have been around for a few hundred thousand, and our first human ancestors have been around for millions. Our genomes have developed and evolved over those millions of years, with our primary source of calories coming (not from grains and other carbohydrates, but) from fat.
Having only had plentiful access to these grains for several thousand, there’s simply not been enough time for our genes to adapt to being able to break down and process them effectively. Changes of that significance take many tens of thousands of years. Further, the types of grains we eat today and in the last few decades don’t closely resemble even the varieties our ancestors began consuming a few thousand years ago.
“Bad Cholesterol” Fact or Fiction?
LDL is not actually cholesterol. It’s low-density lipoprotein, which is a combination of fat and protein that transports cholesterol .
I won’t get into the minutia during this article, but cholesterol is necessary for brain and cellular function, helps our bodies form vitamin D (which is actually more of a hormone) and even serves to protect the brain against free radicals.
LDL is not actually harmful by default, as we are led to believe (with HDL being the golden child, or “good” cholesterol). The problem occurs with LDL when, according to board certified neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain and Brain Maker, free radicals damage the LDL molecule and it can no longer deliver needed cholesterol to the brain. Dr. Perlmutter warns that actually, we should aim to reduce levels of LDL oxidation rather than levels of LDL itself. And what contributes to LDL oxidation? Higher levels of glucose. They can bind to the LDL and change its shape.
And where does glucose come from, folks? That’s right, carbohydrates.
Further, many studies in more recent years have failed to find solid correlations between increased cholesterol levels and heart disease. A 1994 trial even showed no differences in death rates from heart disease between two groups of people with low total cholesterol and high total cholesterol. The same has been true for increased consumption of saturated fats. It has not been shown that more saturated fat leads to heart disease or stroke.
Omegas 3 & 6: How much do we really need, and are Industrial oils heart healthy or silent killers?
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids that our bodies need to function. The 3 main Omega-3 fatty acids are ALAs, EPAs and DHAs. The main Omega-6 fatty acid we hear about is LA (linoleic acid).
Omega-6 FAs are needed in much smaller amounts than Omega-3s, and both are competing for enzymes that convert them into their usable derivatives (for Omega-3, that’s the EPA and DHA mentioned above, and we know these are critical). According to Dr. Perlmutter, “our ancestors consumed omega 6 and omega 3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1,” but today we’ve drastically increased Omega-6 consumption (largely from harmful industrial oils) 10x-25x since then and reduced Omega-3 consumption. This means competition is way up for Omega-3 in the context of a standard American diet - but even very likely, the diet of someone who knows a bit about eating healthy. Omega-6 easily hides in restaurant and processed foods.
Another issue with Omega-6 FA’s is the lipid oxidation that occurs when industrial oils are heated to high temperatures and exposed to air and moisture (and often reused in restaurant fryers). When omega-6 is found in whole foods like nuts and seeds, the essential vitamins and minerals also present in those foods help prevent oxidation of the Omega-6 FAs.
So why does the food pyramid say the opposite?
Why has it been so ingrained into our food labels, government sponsored food pyramids, and diet culture?
Research by some like Ancel Keys in the late 1950s showed a very clear correlation between heart disease deaths and calories from fat across several countries. The problem? He left out countries that didn’t fit his hypothesis. Had some of that data been included, they would have shown contrasting results, making the study less conclusive. He used 7 countries and looked at men aged 55-59. Some other studies showing similar results were done, and a decade or so later, the hypothesis was already deeply ingrained in our culture, though it lacked replicability. The government then stepped in as it does so well, and started it’s campaign against saturated fat. Vegetable oil became the recommended replacement for any animal based saturated fats for cooking and otherwise. We moved from lots of calorie-dense and high-fat foods like butter, fatty meats and milk to processed oils and low-fat packaged foods loaded with sugar and starch.
Studies like Mr. Keys, and others that showed similar correlations tended to be received more favorably for publication if they aligned with mainstream ideas about saturated fat, again, according to Dr Perlmutter's research detailed in Grain Brain.
As we moved into the 70s, a study using 30 countries actually showed a stronger correlation with sugar and heart disease. Several studies since, have supported the sugar correlation, and we haven’t seen a new study in several decades that supports the saturated fat theory.
Yet, the government recommendations and widely held beliefs are still in support of the Saturated fat theory.
Let’s talk about saturated fat, then.
Let’s. Consuming saturated fat in the diet has not been shown to cause increased levels of cholesterol in the blood, for most people. As laid out by functional medicine practitioner, Chris Kresser, Only 1/4 of the cholesterol in our bodies on a given day comes from our diet. The rest is made by our own livers, because our bodies can’t absorb most of the cholesterol present in the foods we eat. We are also quite efficient at regulating the total levels, so when we consume less in the diet, our bodies actually create more.
A Meta-analysis that looked at 21 studies with almost 350k subjects showed no significant evidence supporting the idea that saturated fat is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.
Fat gets a bad rep, but our bodies so desperately need it to function. Our brains are almost ⅔ fat. We need fat for the uptake of critical vitamins like A, D, E and K. Certain fats reduce inflammation (like those omegas in fish and monounsaturated fats found in avocado and nuts). Even Saturated fat is critical. Breast milk has tons of saturated fat in it, and we need it to grow and function as babies. It’s part of the makeup of our individual cells, and is crucial to organ and system function in the body. Industrial oils and synthetic fats like artificial trans fats, however, actually increase inflammation, and should be avoided.
On the flip side, when we eat carbohydrates - including the typical breads, pastas and sugars, but also grains and starches - they are converted to glucose. The pancreas triggers insulin to be released into the blood to transport this glucose to cells as fuel. Excess is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. If there is no more room for glycogen, and we keep the carbs coming through our diet, glucose is converted to fat.
A diet heavy in carbohydrates keeps insulin pumping and keeps fat storage up (as we have plenty of glucose to supply fuel to the cells, and don’t need to use up that stored fat). So when it comes to weight gain, carbohydrates play a bigger role - in combination with a caloric surplus - than dietary fats themselves.
Who to believe and what to do?
First of all, do your own research. The government, corporations, pharmaceutical companies - they all have an agenda. They all have money to make and votes to win. Be your own advocate, because I promise you, these organizations won’t be that for you. Read studies and articles, listen to arguments posed in podcasts and books and then make some assessments, yourself. I’ve cited some pretty solid sources in this article, and I’d encourage you to peruse them!
Second, think critically. Early humans and our hominid friends didn’t have access to fields of wheat, processed cereals, candy bars, soda, or deep fried anything. They weren't sedentary. Instead, they had to sit, stand, run, walk, climb, jump and sit a little more, all day long. They didn’t show signs of the chronic illness that is rampant in our society today. Saturated fat from animal products was available then. High quantities of sugar and processed carbohydrates were not.
Based on that, what’s your best guess as to the biggest threats to our health today? Fat from animals that we craved and needed to survive? Fruit and vegetables in small amounts, largely fibrous? Frequent and varied movement? OR processed and refined grains, excess sugars and industrial oils that we never would have been able to access back then? Long days sat in front of a computer screen, little time with close friends and extended family and even less time in nature? Toxins and chemicals in our air and personal care products we use daily? I bet you can guess my opinion.
Does this mean a stick of butter a day means better health in every way? Of course not. But it means we can cook with it, include fat from pasture raised meats in our diet, eat nut, olives and coconut, and know that these healthy fats are good fuel for the brain. We can also use logic and reason to determine that highly processed (and even lightly processed carbohydrates like whole wheat bread and other grains) are not the staple we once thought they should be. We can enjoy them once in a while in moderation, but they are not necessary to thrive. If consumed in excess, they can even cause major gut health issues, leading to chronic illness and autoimmune diseases.