Did you ever stop to think about the fact that despite being advised to follow a low fat diet we are heavier and sicker than ever before? Would you be surprised to learn that the rise in obesity corresponds to the demonization of fat and cholesterol? Have you tried a low-fat diet only to find yourself hungry and irritable, or craving fatty foods so intensely you can hardly focus on anything else? If you can relate to any of this, you’ll want to read on.
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Our bodies need fat to function properly. Here are a few of the ways fat works in our bodies:
- Saturated fats act as carriers for fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
- They don’t trigger insulin release, helping to stabilize blood sugar
- Increase satiety because they slow down absorption
- Provide a long burning consistent source of energy
- Saturated fats provide building blocks for hormones and cell membrane
I want to investigate the different types of fats, but before I do, I feel like I must answer your burning question:
Doesn’t saturated fat cause high cholesterol and lead to heart disease?
And the answer appears to be… Nope!
In 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted a meta-analysis where they pooled data from 21 studies. These studies followed over 350,000 people- 11,000 of whom developed cardiovascular disease- over an average of 14 years. The analysis concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.
In fact, dietary cholesterol has very little impact on overall cholesterol in most people. While there are those considered to be “high responders” it is important to note that while increasing dietary cholesterol did raise overall cholesterol, it did not affect the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol, nor did it increase the risk of heart disease.
Did you know that our bodies actually produce cholesterol? It serves as a building block for cell structures and hormones. Cholesterol also plays a role in Vitamin D and serotonin production, as well as brain function. It is also supports the immune system and is a powerful antioxidant. Another fun fact: breast milk is high in cholesterol. (If cholesterol were so bad for us, why would nature supply it to babies?) The fact is, people with higher cholesterol tend to be healthier and live longer.
There are risks to having too little cholesterol in the body. Low cholesterol is a risk factor for heart arrhythmia. (This is what kills you when you have a heart attack) There is also an association between low cholesterol memory loss (also a well known side effect of Lipitor). Alzheimer’s patients with the lowest cholesterol have the worst symptoms.
Where did we even get the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease?
How did this happen? It’s called the diet- heart hypothesis. And it was based on faulty research from the start. It is described in this fun little clip:
While my research unearthed conflicting dates regarding the first heart attack, there is no questioning the fact that the rise in heart disease has raised serious concern. Rates of heart disease began to rise in the 1920s and have skyrocketed to a point where 65 million Americans are afflicted. Despite fat watching and cholesterol obsessing for well over half a century, heart disease and obesity rates continue to climb. What’s going on? Have we villainized the wrong player? I’d say so. I am convinced that real foods contain the perfect ratios of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and fatty acids to nourish our bodies. The real villains are the food-like substances that are highly processed and loaded with unrecognizable ingredients. I will write more on that later.
Researchers at UCLA recently discovered that 75% of heart attack victims didn’t have high cholesterol. Rather than questioning their theory, they simply lowered the threshold of what was considered high cholesterol. As Liz Wolfe wittily describes in her book, Eat the Yolks, this practice successfully sells more statins but hasn’t done a thing to stop heart disease.
Let’s look at the 3 different types of essential fatty acids:
All fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms.
- Saturated Fats: Have the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom, making them resistant to oxidative damage caused by light, heat, and air. They are more stable than the other types, making them the preferred choice for cooking. (lard, tallow, butter, full fat dairy, coconut, palm)
- Monounsaturated Fats: When a pair of hydrogen atoms in the middle of a chain is missing, creating a gap that leaves two carbon atoms connected by a double bond rather than a single bond. It has one gap making it less stable than the saturated fat. Liquid at room temperature but may start to solidify in the refrigerator. (olive, avocado)
- Polyunsaturated Fats: When there are two or more unsecured bonds, so there is more than one gap. These are even less stable. (safflower, sesame, corn, soybean)
Almost all fats are a blend of saturated and unsaturated but the ratio varies. For example, tallow (beef fat) is 54% unsaturated, lard is 60% unsaturated, and chicken fat is about 70% unsaturated. Dr. Mary Enig, in her book Know Your Fats, reminds us that totally unsaturated fats are nonexistent in natural foods.
Beware Trans Fats
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (Crisco) was developed in the early 1900’s to prolong shelf life. Production increased during WWII and butter consumption dropped to ¼ of what it was. At the same time hydrogenated vegetable oil consumption increased 200%. We now know that Trans Fats are associated with cancer, heart disease, inflammation and infertility. And yet, according to WebMd, they are in 40% of the products on supermarket shelves. They can be found in items such as cakes, cookies, pies, crackers and margarine.
A law was passed in 2006 that required labeling of Trans Fats. This was good news… if it weren’t for the loophole. A food product can contain less than .5 gram per serving and still be labeled free of trans fat. So, rather than relying on the “No Trans Fat” label, make sure partially hydrogenated oil isn’t listed as an ingredient.
Canola Oil: Healthy Alternative?
Here’s a clip describing how canola oil is made. Ask yourself if you consider this healthy.
Solvent wash and bleaching… How in the world is your body supposed to recognize that as food?
When it comes to choosing your fats consider:
- How processed is it
- Is it stable
- What nutrients does it contain
It is time to question what we’ve been taught. Let’s return to a time when we were in tune with nature and followed our instincts instead of listening to food “experts” who are heavily influenced by manufactures. Your great grandmother didn’t need a commercial to help her decide what to eat. And neither should you.
Healthy fats come from healthy sources
It is important to choose your fats from organic pastured animals. Toxins are stored in the fat so you want to make sure you are getting the best quality that you can afford.
To learn more about which fats are best for cooking and which should be used cold, here’s an excellent chart put together by Diane SanFilippo, BS, NC.
Another reason to avoid processed seed/vegetable oils: GMO’s. In the US, 93% soybeans, 88% corn, 94% cottonseed and 90% canola is genetically modified. So if you must continue to eat these, at least make sure they are organic.
I still remember the trepidation that came with those first (glorious) mouthfuls of fat. I found myself eating avocado by the spoonful and scooping butter and coconut into my coffee wondering “Could this all be true?” And then, “Mmmmmm, I sure hope so.” That was over three years ago and I have never looked back. I was someone who was always snacking, if I didn’t eat for awhile I felt shaky and irritable. I left that behind along with my non-fat latte. The low-fat dogma is so ingrained in our culture that few people question it, I know I sure didn’t. But once you do, your body will thank you.
Have you increased your fat intake? What were the results? Share your experience, I’d love to hear all about it.
Eight doctors talk about the myths of Saturated Fat and Cholesterol in this video
Chris Masterjohn speaks about Saturated Fat and Cholesterol in this podcast
Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe