For almost six decades, we have been told that saturated fats clog our arteries and cause heart disease. In 1961, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended Americans to limit their fat intake, especially saturated fats, to reduce the risk of heart disease. To this day, the AHA still maintains the same position. The reasoning is that if a fat is solid at room temperature, it is likely to clog your arteries. Hence, saturated fats, including tropical oils which are very high in saturated fats, and trans fats have been deemed bad fats.
CURRENT AHA GUIDELINES (Some Have Been Proven Incorrect)
THE BAD FATS
1. Saturated fats
– Butter, cream, full-fat dairy, bacon, and fatty meats.
2. Tropical oils
– Coconut oil
3. Trans fats
– Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, and vegetable shortening.
THE GOOD FATS
1. Monounsaturated fats (omega-9)
– Olive oil, avocado, macadamia nuts, canola oil, and peanut oil.
2. Polyunsaturated fats (omega-6)
– Vegetable oils from corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, soybean, safflower, and sunflower.
3. Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3)
– Fatty fish
It has been well documented that trans fats are indeed disastrous for health. But are saturated fats really the villain for heart disease? Are liquid vegetable oils truly as healthy as suggested by the AHA?
One may argue that animal fats have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. As a species, we have survived for generations and generations eating saturated fats from animal sources, like lard, butter, and tallow of pasture-fed animals, and tropical oils. The truth is that humans have never consumed liquid vegetable oils in huge quantities until the 1960s when extraction technology improved and corn and soybean oils became widely available.
This coincided with the AHA recommendation in 1961 to switch from saturated fats to liquid vegetable oils. Since then, Americans have also adopted a phobia for fat, and the low-fat, high-carb craze became a new phenomenon.
What we then witness in the following 50-60 years is skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This has never happened before in the history of homo sapiens! Look at these statistics:
- Two out of three Americans are now overweight or obese.
- Almost one in three Americans are living with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America.
One might ask, what has changed? Looks like our diet has something to do with it!
The dramatic switch to a low-fat, high-carb diet and the increasing use of vegetable oils have resulted in several major health issues:
First, it led to a massive increase in sugar consumption. Saturated fats are tasty and satisfying. When you take out saturated fat and make something low-fat, you have to increase the sugar content to make the food taste good. Sugar is now added to almost every food we eat. Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only two pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, we ate 123 pounds a year. Now, we eat about 170 pounds a year, which is over three pounds per week!
Second, fat is very satiating, so you are much less likely to overeat. When you eat a low-fat diet, you tend to consume a lot more carbohydrates. Most people replace the fat calories with carbohydrate calories, usually in the form of white flour and sugar. Carbohydrates are quick-burning fuel, even if they are whole grains, as opposed to fats which are slow-burning fuel. As a result, you tend to get hungry faster and you are more likely to overeat. All carbohydrates break down to sugar. A diet high in any types of carbohydrates is associated with increased risk of diabetes, and diabetics are prone to heart disease.
Third, as opposed to what the ADA recommends, liquid vegetable oils are really bad for you. They are highly processed oils which have been refined, bleached and deodorized (or RBD for short). They are processed in high temperatures, making them rancid or oxidized even before consumption. Rancid oils promote inflammation in the arteries and the initiation of plaque formation.
Furthermore, vegetable oils contain mostly omega-6 fatty acids. The body uses omega-6 for the process of blood clotting and inflammation. Without it, we would bleed to death when we cut ourselves and wounds would not heal. However, this inflammation-promoting mechanism has to be balanced by an opposing process that inhibits blood clotting and inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids will do just that.
Therefore, when you take in excessive omega-6 of which is not balanced by sufficient omega-3, it becomes a recipe for disaster. The result is chronic inflammation and a higher tendency to form blood clots, leading to heart attacks.
What’s more, omega-3 fats are not merely important for your heart but the brain too. Omega-3 fats contain both DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is vital for the brain as about 90% of your brain is made up of DHA. EPA is essential for heart health.
Flawed Research On Saturated Fats
The piece of research that linked saturated fat intake with heart disease was Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries Study in the 1950s. The study revealed that the countries where fat consumption was the highest had the most heart disease, hence, supporting his hypothesis that dietary fat caused heart disease.
Many years later, reanalysis by other researchers revealed that he intentionally left out vital data, such as:
- Countries where people eat a lot of fat but have little heart disease, including Holland and Norway.
- Countries where fat consumption is low but the rate of heart disease is high, like Chile.
Basically, Keys cherry-picked his data from countries that supported his hypothesis. If he were to include all the data from the 22 countries he had done research on, it would have shown that there was no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
Unfortunately, by then, Keys’ biased research had already been incorporated into public health policy and endorsed by organizations like the American Heart Association. Low-fat, high carb diet became the new paradigm in modern nutrition science.
Subsequent Research Shows No Connection Between Saturated Fats And Heart Disease
Decades after Ancel Keys came out with his diet-heart hypothesis in the 1950s, definitive research supporting his assertion on saturated fats has never been established.
Rigorous data from randomized controlled clinical trials (which can establish cause and effect) has failed to support the allegation that saturated fats cause heart disease or death.
- While saturated fats can be shown to raise the “bad” LDL-cholesterol, this elevated risk factor does not result in higher death rates. This is probably explained by the fact that saturated fats also consistently raise the “good” HDL-cholesterol, which becomes a compensating factor.
- Additionally, saturated fats have a positive effect on the LDL profile. They increase large, buoyant LDL and decrease small-dense LDL. Small-dense LDL particles are more prone to getting dislodged from arteries, raising the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Observational studies (which only show associations) from meta-analyses consistently find no association between saturated fats and heart disease. There is, however, substantial observational findings that low consumption of saturated fats is associated with higher mortality and higher rates of stroke.
The only review of the data that did find a significant negative effect of saturated fats was done by the American Heart Association (AHA), which excluded the more definitive mortality evidence and used only data from studies that supported its preconceived view. It is important to note that the AHA was the original proponent in 1961 to limit saturated fats, hence, it also has a significant interest in defending its long-held position.
In 2015, the US government’s latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer recommends an upper limit on total fat intake. Moreover, cholesterol is no longer considered a nutrient of concern. This is a huge step away from the fat and cholesterol phobia that has dominated the health and nutrition community in the last five decades.
Why The Body Needs Saturated Fats
Saturated fats play many important roles in the body:
Bones. Saturated fats are necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into the bones. Individuals who avoid saturated fats may have lower bone density and at higher risk for developing osteoporosis.
Brain. Most of your brain is made of cholesterol and fat. The vast majority of that fat are saturated fats, which act as an insulation coating for the nerve cells. Saturated fats help improve nerve signaling within the body, resulting in better hormonal control which may affect your ability to burn fat or produce insulin.
Heart. Saturated fats do not clog arteries or cause heart disease. In fact, the fats found in artery clogs are mostly unsaturated (74%) of which 41% are polyunsaturated. The truth is that the preferred fuel for the heart is saturated fats. They raise the “good” HDL-cholesterol and lower lipoprotein A, a very accurate marker for proneness to heart disease.
Immunity. Saturated fats enhance the immune system. Without sufficient saturated fats, your white blood cells may lose their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Liver. Eating saturated fats help the liver release its accumulated fat (a process called lipolysis), whereas excess carbohydrates and sugar consumption result in fat production in the liver (a process called lipogenesis). Fatty liver is associated with high triglycerides, high fasting glucose, low “good” HDL-cholesterol, high “bad” LDL-cholesterol, especially the dangerous type that is small and dense. Fatty liver, in short, increases your risk for heart disease.
Lungs. In order for the lungs to function properly, they must be coated with a thin layer of lung surfactant, which is made of entirely saturated fats. When people consume a lot of trans fats, some of that trans fats get to the lungs where the body normally wants to have saturated fats, causing the lungs to not work as effectively. Some research has suggested that trans fats are causing asthma in children.
Nutrients. Saturated fats carry the vital fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which we need in large amounts to stay healthy.
Eat The GOOD Saturated Fats
If you are getting saturated fats from animal sources, conventionally-raised animals are not the way to go. They are fed a diet of pesticide-laden, GMO corn or soy designed to fatten them as quickly as possible. They are also routinely administered antibiotics and/or growth hormones.
Always choose pasture-raised animals. Their fat profiles are far superior to the conventionally-raised animals. For example, cows that eat grass have a much higher omega-3 to omega-6 ra]tio compared to cows that are fed corn. They are higher in vitamin A and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps with fat loss and cancer and heart disease prevention.
Beef and Dairy
- Best is from 100% grass-fed and organic cows and products derived from them.
- Also, their organ meats are nutritious and rich in vitamins and minerals. Try to have some every week.
- Choose grass-fed and/organic whole milk and cream over low-fat or skim milk.
- Use grass-fed and/organic butter, ghee (clarified butter), and tallow (beef fat) for cooking. Butter and tallow contain 58% and 46% saturated fats respectively.
- Look for traditionally cultured, full-fat yogurt, kefir, and sour cream. Opt for the plain varieties to avoid added sugars.
- For cheese, raw grass-fed cheese is the healthiest.
- Go with pastured pork, which comes from animals that are fed a natural diet and allowed to roam and root. Pastured pigs boasts 300% more vitamin E and 74% more selenium than those raised in confinement operations.
- Enjoy bacon but only those from pastured pork and without added nitrites or nitrates.
- Lard (rendered pork fat) contains 32% saturated fats.
- Best is from those that are pastured-raised and eat a chemical-free forage diet containing seeds, insects, berries, and grass.
- Do not limit yourself to just eating skinless, boneless breast meats. You will be missing out on all the other nutrients from the dark meats, liver, gizzards, skin, cartilage, tendons, and bones from healthy pastured poultry.
- Pastured-raised and/organic chicken and duck fat are delicious for cooking. Chicken fat and duck fat contain 29% and 35% saturated fats respectively.
If you are getting saturated fats from tropical oils, coconut oil is your top choice. Several populations in the tropics and sub-tropics have thrived for generations eating massive amounts of coconuts and they were found to be in excellent health with very low rates of heart disease.
- Always choose organic, unrefined virgin coconut oil.
- Coconut oil contains about 86% saturated fats, hence, it is very stable and can be used for baking and high heat cooking.
- Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are processed differently by the body from other fats. Instead of being broken down by your bile, MCTs go straight to the liver where they are converted to ketones. Your liver releases the ketones into your bloodstream and they are transported around the body to be used as fuel. Ketones have powerful benefits for the brain and are now being studied as treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
- MCTs stimulate the body’s metabolism and help promote weight loss.
- The fatty acids in coconut oil have antimicrobial properties which help strengthen immunity against infections.
SOURCES OF HEALTHY FATS
– Pasture-raised, organic meats and organ meats
– Full-fat dairy from pasture-raised cows
– Grass-fed butter and ghee
– Tallow, lard, and poultry fat from pasture-raised animals
– Eggs from pasture-raised chickens
– Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies
– Organic, unrefined virgin coconut oil
– Olives and olive oil (third party certified that it is not diluted with vegetable oils)
– Avocados and avocado oil
– Nuts and seeds such as macadamia, almonds, cashew, pistachio, pecans, and flax.
SOURCES OF UNDESIRABLE FATS & REASONS
– Highly processed. Likely to be genetically modified.
– Very high in omega-6.
– Peanuts are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Higher in omega-6.
Rice bran oil
– Higher in omega-6.
Saturated fats from conventionally-raised animals
– Animals are given unnatural diet of GMO corn or soy. Pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones in animal feed.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, and vegetable shortening.
– Contain trans fats.
Liquid vegetable oils from corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, and sunflower.
– Highly processed. Likely to be genetically modified. Very high in omega-6.
Carol Chuang is a Certified Nutrition Specialist. She has a Masters degree in Nutrition and is a Certified Gluten Practitioner. She specializes in Metabolic Typing and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition.