We have been indoctrinated over the past 50 years or so to avoid saturated fats – particularly animal fats – as they are supposed to be bad for our health. However, this has been based on epidemiological, so-called science, which has been exposed as critically flawed in recent years, with new evidence offering a different insight. The conclusion drawn from a 2010 meta-analysis of 21 studies stated: “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) or CVD (cardio vascular disease)”.
A great article from The Business Insider in 2014 took a look at how the medical establishment got it wrong.
Saturated Fatty Acids Are Extremely Important For Our Body’s Cells.
Saturated fat is made up of fatty acids that have chains which are all, or predominantly all, single bonds. Each carbon atom is linked together by double bonds, which are attached to (or saturated with) a hydrogen atom to form a single bond. Most animal fats are saturated and have a higher melting point than unsaturated fats. They are considered to be “stable”, meaning that they are generally solid at room temperature and do not create dangerous carcinogens when heated during the cooking process. All fats contain varying proportions of both saturated and unsaturated fat. Beef tallow, for example, is about 50% monounsaturated and lard is about 40% monounsaturated.
With our brain made out of mostly fat (with the majority of that being saturated fat) and cholesterol it stands to reason that eating a low fat diet is not going to be beneficial for health as we need the raw materials to help build, maintain and keep our brain healthy and functioning properly. The cardiovascular system is likewise dependent on saturated fat for many health benefits including the regulation of cholesterol (that dreaded word! – read more about this below to alleviate any lingering fears you may still have about it), and the reduction in levels of lipoprotein(a), which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Our nervous system is made up of nerves (obviously), but the insulation that they require is made up of saturated fats, providing a protective coating that helps to prevent internal and external stress. When we think of our bones we imagine that as long as we consume enough calcium all will be well, however it is more complex than that. Bones require sufficient protein to help build and maintain them but saturated fat is necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into the bone. And then there’s our immune system, without saturated fat our body’s ability to detect and destroy bacteria, viruses and fungi is seriously impaired.
The Many Benefits Of Saturated Fatty Acids:
- Butyrate is required for energy homeostasis (the biological process that regulates our food intake and energy expenditure), and has been linked to beneficial effects for diabetes and obesity. It lowers inflammation and has been shown to mediate the colonic inflammatory response. It helps to boost the immune system, with pronounced anti-microbial and anti-carcinogenic effects. Sources of butyrate are found in animals fats, plant oils, butter and parmesan cheese. It can also be produced via fermentation of fibre in the gut.
- Myristic acid is needed for apoptosis (programmed cell death) which helps rid the body of damaged and dysfunctional cells before they can mutate into cancerous ones. The most common source is butter, followed by cheese and found in smaller amounts in meat fats.
- Palmitic acid is required to help proteins move around and interact with other proteins and also plays a role in regulating neurotransmitter release and memory formation. It is the most prevalent fatty acid found in animal fats, however it is also found in plant foods – most notably vegetable and seed oils. Palmitic acid is often cited as a contributor to raised LDL cholesterol and atherosclerosis risk, but it may be that the harmful effects of the man-made vegetable and seed oils are the likely culprit, since animal fats have been a major part of our ancestral nutrition (and are considered to be the main factor in the development of the human brain), and plant-based oils are a recent addition to the diet.
- Lauric acid is found in coconut milk and coconut oil as well as palm kernel oil (not palm oil), egg yolks, full fat cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Lauric acid increases total serum cholesterol, with most of that being attributed to HDL, which has earned it the reputation for being helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease. Lauric acid has antibacterial properties and is helpful in combatting skin conditions such as acne. It reduces inflammation and has been cited as the most inhibitory saturated fatty acid against harmful organisms, helping to prevent infections, viruses, digestive disorders and chronic diseases. It has been used as a treatment against herpes simplex virus, chronic yeast infections and even HIV/AIDS.
- Stearic acid is involved in cell signalling functions, and without it the mitochondria (the energy powerhouses within every cell) cannot function. Mitochondrial dysfunction is increasing at an alarming rate, and contributes to poor growth, loss of muscle co-ordination, muscle weakness, visual problems, hearing problems, learning disabilities, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory disorders, neurological problems, autonomic dysfunction and dementia. New discoveries regarding the crucial role of saturated stearic acid and dysfunctions in mitochondrial health are putting the finger of blame on diets low in animal fats, due to the fact that stearic acid is found PRIMARILY in animal fats (up to 30%) compared with plant-based foods (less than 5%, apart from cocoa butter and shea butter). And if you are worried about your LDL cholesterol levels, stearic acid lowers this naturally.
But Do You Need To Be Worried About Cholesterol? Well That Depends…
First of all, let’s clear one thing up – there is no “good” or “bad” cholesterol. It is the same substance whether contained in a low density lipoprotein (LDL), high density lipoprotein (HDL) or very low density lipoprotein (VLDL).
Cholesterol is a basic physiological requirement of our body – so much so that every cell can manufacture it if necessary! It is a precursor for all steroid hormones such as progestagens, glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens and oestrogens. These are all powerful signalling molecules that regulate many important functions within the body. Progestagens, oestrogens and androgens are involved in sexual health and reproduction and lack of these can result in infertility – something that is on the rise in recent years and may be linked to the prevalence of a low cholesterol, plant-based diet and the over-prescription of cholesterol lowering drugs such as statins. Glucocorticoids are responsible for the promotion of gluconeogenesis (production of new glucose from the liver) and the formation of glycogen. They also enable us to respond to stress and inhibit inflammation. Mineralocorticoids ensure proper kidney function. Another derivative of cholesterol is the production of bile salts, which are essential for the digestion of fats. Synthesis of vitamin D from sunlight is also one of cholesterol’s functions, which is extremely important for many systems throughout the body.
So, as you can see, cholesterol is an absolute requirement for our health. If we are not consuming much then our body will make it, conversely if we take it in via our diet then our body will down-regulate production. (Funny how the body seems to know what it’s doing huh?!) And yet we still have this innate fear of it, driven by out-dated, flawed “science”. Large studies have found that “overall, an inverse trend is found between all-cause mortality and total (or low density lipoprotein [LDL]) cholesterol levels: mortality is highest in the lowest cholesterol group without exception. If limited to elderly people, this trend is universal…elderly people with the highest cholesterol levels have the highest survival rates irrespective of where they live in the world“. A recent German study linked low serum levels of LDL cholesterol to increased peripheral nerve damage in type 2 diabetic patients. Lead author Felix Kurz MD said “our findings are in line with results of previous studies that found that the intake of statins and a decrease of serum cholesterol level are associated with neuropathic symptoms, microvascular damage, and an accelerated deterioration of peripheral nerve fibers“. This is thought to be because lowering serum cholesterol levels impairs peripheral nerve regeneration because cholesterol cannot be produced in axons.
Saturated fats are often accused as being the cause for raised cholesterol but this may not be cause for alarm unless your cholesterol is glycated and/or oxidised. A diet high in carbohydrates and/or sugar, leads to glycation (where glucose molecules stick to the cholesterol molecule), and processed foods, vegetable oils and smoking cause oxidation of the cholesterol molecules (producing free radicals, resulting in inflammation which is a marker for atherosclerosis). When cholesterol is altered in these two ways it then becomes an issue of concern, transforming from a light, fluffy molecule that moves easily through the bloodstream, into a smaller, denser, stickier one that can then become lodged in the arterial walls. It is theorised that cholesterol is part of the immune system that attempts to clear up any problems within the arterial walls, however if it is damaged and unable to do its job properly it then becomes part of the problem. So, although cholesterol itself is likely not the root cause of CVD, as the lipid hypothesis suggests, damage through glycation and oxidation unfortunately ties it in into the overall process.
Higher saturated fat intake has been associated with LESS progression of coronary atherosclerosis in post-menopausal women whereas carbohydrate intake was associated with GREATER progression. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs – that’s those plant-based oils again) were also positively associated with progression of coronary atherosclerosis when replacing other fats. The Framingham Study found that the people who ate the most saturated animal fats and the most cholesterol weighed the least and were the most physically active, with the lowest major risk factors for heart disease. However, these results were only published in a very small obscure journal and were not submitted to mainstream press! Hmmm, biased much? Another study found that even doubling the amount of saturated fat in the diet did not contribute to blood serum levels of saturated fat, whereas “increasing levels of carbohydrates in the diet during the study promoted a steady increase in the blood of a fatty acid linked to an elevated risk for diabetes and heart disease“.
A really interesting observation has been made between beef fat and the reversal of non-alcoholic and alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD/AFLD). In a rat study that induced alcoholic fatty liver using ethanol and various different fats; beef fat, lard or corn oil, there was no development of the features of the disease when combined with beef fat. With the addition of lard there were minimal to moderate symptoms but with the corn oil there was the most severe pathology. The authors postulated that “linoleic acid facilitates development of ALD“. Another study showed that a dose-dependent application of beef tallow and medium chain triglycerides (MCT) prevented liver pathology in NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), with the suggestion that replacing unsaturated fats such as corn oil with MCT enriched saturated fats such as beef tallow in the diet could be utilised as a treatment for NAFLD. And in yet another study, the findings were described as: “In rats fed the corn oil plus ethanol diet, hepatotoxicity was accompanied by oxidative stress. As dietary saturated fat content increased, all measures of hepatic pathology and oxidative stress were progressively reduced, including steatosis (P < 0.05). Thus, saturated fat protected rats from alcoholic liver disease in a dose-responsive fashion…Dietary saturated fat also decreased liver triglyceride, PUFA, and total FFA concentrations (P < 0.05). Increases in dietary saturated fat increased liver membrane resistance to oxidative stress“.
Despite these findings, if you do an internet search on NAFLD and diet you will be recommended consistently to eat a low fat diet that specifically advises against saturated fat, with many recommending replacing saturated with unsaturated fats – the very opposite of the above studies findings. Admittedly more research needs to be done here, with human trials being added to the accumulating evidence, but with more new data linking PUFAs particularly to deterioration of health (and no data actually showing that saturated fats are harmful to health), perhaps it is time for a re-think?
The highest rates of saturated fat consumption in Europe are in France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Iceland, Belgium, Finland and Austria – countries that eat liberal amounts of animal fats – yet they all have the lowest rates of death from heart disease throughout Europe (of course, they have been labelled as “paradoxes”!) whilst the countries with low rates of saturated fat consumption have higher rates (hmmm – strange, more “paradoxes”!). Sadly, it seems that the countries listed above that have traditionally experienced the lowest rates of heart disease are now being targeted to reduce their saturated fat intake, and increase carbohydrates. How long before the “French Paradox” becomes yet another statistic in the realms of CHD?
Cultures that have thrived on their traditional diets of meat and fat include the Masai tribe in Africa, who live on milk, meat and blood and are free from CHD and have low blood cholesterol levels. The Inuit Eskimos’ traditional diet was one high in animal fats from fish and marine mammals, with minimal to no plant foods, and they were notably free of disease and exceptionally hardy people. Indeed, skull analysis revealed that historically the Inuit had NO tooth decay whatsoever in 100% of the 200 skulls analysed. Why is this relevant? Because tooth decay correlates with overall health due to the connection with the gastro-intestinal tract. However, since the introduction of Western foods into their diet and subsequent reduced consumption of their traditional diet, diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer are now prevalent amongst the population and are on the increase.
Saturated fats are essential for building healthy bones and can protect the liver from the effects of alcohol and other toxins. They enhance the immune system, ensuring proper function and allowing it to reject whatever is foreign or harmful to the body, and thus increasing our resistance to infection. Proper lung function relies on a compound called lung surfactant, which is composed primarily of phospholipids (2 fatty acids joined to a phosphate group), the most common one being palmitic acid. Children on whole milk and butter diets have been found to have less asthma than those consuming reduced-fat milk and margarine and, although there appears to be an increase in intolerances and allergies to dairy products, this seems to be related to pasteurised dairy as those who consume raw dairy often find that they do not experience the same reaction.
Yemenite Jews eating fats solely from animal origin were compared to Yemenite Jews eating margarine and vegetable oils, revealing little heart disease or diabetes in the former group, but high levels of both diseases in the latter group. Similarly, Northern Indians consuming 17 times more animal fat than Southern Indians had 7 times LOWER incidence of CHD. The authors concluded “the harmful effect of dietary saturated fatty acids (SFAs) and the protective effect of dietary PUFAs on atherosclerosis and CVD are questioned“.
Saturated fats are stable and therefore do not become rancid easily, which means they do not use up the body’s reserves of antioxidants, do not initiate cancer and do not irritate the artery walls. Polyunsaturated oils, however, degrade into dangerous oxidation products such as free radicals. These can include aldehydes, including formaldehyde! Aldehydes cause rapid cell death, interfere with DNA & RNA and disturb basic functions of cells. They cause extreme oxidative stress to all body tissues, creating a wide diversity of deleterious effects to health. Evidence is now beginning to implicate aldehydes in the development of Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Studies have shown that polyunsaturated seed and vegetable oils and trans fats predispose both animals and humans to cancer. In traditional societies where vegetable oils are absent and the food is free of additives, meat eating is not associated with cancer. Increased risk of colon and rectal cancer has been positively associated with consumption of bread, cereal dishes, potatoes, cakes, desserts and refined sugars – not with eggs or meat. And it may not be simply consuming the oils that is problematic – even inhaling the fumes could be detrimental to health, as has been demonstrated in a study, revealing a connection between cooking with seed oils and lung cancer in Chinese women.
The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fats used to be around 1/4, however today we are looking at an excess of 16/1!! This huge rise “promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects. In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality“. An excellent article on the harmful effects of manufactured vegetable and seed oils can be found here and I highly recommend reading it, as it goes into far more depth can I could hope to in this blog.
Fat soluble vitamins A, D & K are absolutely essential for good health (and there’s a clue in the description there). The complete and bio-available forms of these are only found in animal products such as red meat, seafood, organ meats, aged cheeses. Although we CAN convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A it takes over 6 units of beta-carotene to convert into 1 unit of Vitamin A – and that’s with optimal conversion. For many people it takes a lot more. Vitamin K1 is found in plant foods but may not be converted to K2 very successfully. Deficiencies of these essential vitamins amongst vegetarians and vegans are extremely common, even with supplementation, and can result in a myriad of health problems. The symptoms of a deficiency of vitamin D can include a suppressed immune function (making you susceptible to infections), fatigue, bone pain, back pain, depression, issues fighting inflammation, impaired wound healing, reduced bone density (which can result in osteoporosis), hair loss and muscle pain. If you are lacking Vitamin A you may experience dry skin, dry eyes, night blindness, infertility issues, delayed growth in childhood, frequent throat and chest infections, acne and other skin issues and impaired wound healing amongst other issues. Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting, bone metabolism and regulating blood calcium levels. Deficiency symptoms include bruising, hematomas, stomach pains, uncontrolled bleeding at wound sites, cartilage calcification, malformation of developing bones in the uterus or children and deposition of insoluble calcium salts in arterial walls. But whatever source you choose to obtain these essential vitamins from, guess what? If you are not eating good quality fats, you won’t be absorbing them anyway!
Chewing The Fat
So whilst I hope you can agree that eating fat – including saturated fat – is critical for good health, one of the main issues with incorporating more fat into your diet is failing to reduce the amount of carbohydrate you are consuming. Both fat and carbohydrate provide the body with a source of energy, however an overload of both will create metabolic issues and obesity. If you are eating a high carbohydrate diet then the glucose entering your bloodstream will need to be removed and deposited around the body as required, because more than one teaspoon is toxic. The pancreas releases insulin to set in motion the removal of the glucose from the bloodstream and depositing it into cells for energy, and the liver and muscles as the storage form of glycogen, which will later be converted back to glucose once the cells have run out. Any extra will be stored in adipose tissue (fat cells) and around the organs as visceral fat. Piling on extra dietary fat in addition to the carbohydrates means that the body will not access this for energy (as it already has plenty from the glucose, thank you very much), and so this will get stored too. See the dilemma? This is why modern processed foods are such a problem for health – they are a combination of carbohydrate and fat (typically using the toxic vegetable and seed oils), resulting in obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. (You can read more about this here).
Burning glucose for energy creates oxidation and free radicals, resulting in inflammation, and it also doesn’t last very long until you run out, creating frequent hunger as the body demands “more please”. Burning fat for energy on the otherhand is a much “cleaner” source, creating fewer issues such as oxidation, and has been shown to lower inflammation, with even the leanest athletes having enough calories stored on their bodies to sustain a longer and steadier fuel source without a need for constant re-feeding. In fact, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academies of Sciences, “The lower limit of dietary carbohydrate compatible with life apparently is zero, provided that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed“. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but as you have read throughout this blog, there is an absolute essential requirement for fat.
If you are still eating low fat spreads, or using plant-based oils here’s what you might like to know about how they are produced…
Manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils – typically soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, which are already rancid from the extraction process – and mix them with powdered nickel oxide. Hydrogen gas is then pumped in via a high pressure, high temperature reactor. What goes into the reactor is a liquid oil, but what subsequently comes out after this process is a semi-solid that resembles grey cottage cheese with a revolting smell. Emulsifiers and starch, which resemble soap, are then added to this mixture in order to smooth out the lumps. High temperature cleaning removes the smell, whilst a bleaching process gets rid of the grey colour. Once it has reached this point it can carry the label “pure vegetable shortening”, but dyes and artificial flavours are subsequently added to make the product resemble butter. Last of all the mixture is compressed into blocks or tubs – and sold to us as food, with the marketing pizzazz of being “heart healthy” and “cholesterol lowering”. Er…no thanks!
Unfortunately none of this information has translated into the government changing the dietary guidelines, which means that many people are still buying into the low-fat dogma. With many researchers and scientists having made their careers out of the low fat paradigm, it is unsurprising perhaps that they are willing now to admit the huge error that has wrecked public health. A news story one week touting the merits of fat often misses the mark by still demonising saturated fats and promoting plant-based products, and is often followed by another news story telling us that fats are still responsible for heart disease and that raised cholesterol will kill you. No wonder everyone is confused! If you would like to learn more about the dietary guidelines and how you can help to bring about change, visit the Public Health Collaboration website and become part of a campaign for better health.
So what can you do to improve your health and conquer the outdated fear of fat?
- Include foods that are naturally fatty – fatty meats, fatty fish, full fat dairy, etc… as part of every meal to make sure you are getting adequate amounts.
- Cook with stable fats such as tallow, lard, butter and suet.
- Stop cutting the fat off your meat.
- Eat the chicken with the skin on.
- Remember to reduce your carbohydrate intake in line with your increase in fats.
Not only will you reap the benefits that these foods will nourish your body with – you will also enjoy the mouth-watering deliciousness they have to offer!