Recently we discussed one of the biggest nutrition myths of the last five decades, The Calorie Fallacy. It’s a tie for first place however, with The Saturated Fat-Heart Health Myth, the topic of today’s discussion.
For five decades, health authorities have been telling us that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. But did you know that this theory has never been proven?
How did this happen?
It’s quite a long story involving the words “conspiracy”, “spin doctors”, “brainwashed” and “political decisions”, but essentially it all started with the scientist Ancel Keys, back in 1958, who cherry picked the data from seven countries and noted a correlation between increased saturated fat consumption and heart disease. But we all know that correlation doesn’t equal causation right? You also can’t exclude the data from 14 countries simply because it doesn’t fit your hypotheses. Thank goodness science has come a long way in the last five decades!
Saturated fats do not cause heart disease. In fact, in 2010, 21 past studies were included in a meta-analysis of 347,747 individuals. The results of this study clearly state there is “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease”. For an epic debunking of the science, I highly recommended this article.
It is also important to note that much of the initial research was conducted on rabbits, whose natural diet does not include cholesterol-containing food. Our cholesterol metabolism is essential for human life and of course, vastly different to rabbits. Prior to the industrial revolution, saturated fats were the most prominent sources of fat in the human diet and sustained our ancestors for centuries. Our ancestors may have died young, but it certainly wasn’t due to the consumption of margarine, seed oils, fried foods or refined sugar. I’m pretty sure lack of shelter, the absence of modern medicine and hunting for your dinner would kill you off early too!
Dietary cholesterol only raises blood levels by 1-2%, so its effect is only ever going to be mild. The even better news is that saturated fat actually exerts a positive influence on our high density lipoprotein (HDL). The role of HDL is to transport cholesterol away from our arteries and towards the liver, where it may be either excreted or reused. Cholesterol is essential to human life – without cholesterol, we would die… and our bodies have developed elaborate mechanisms to manufacture it, to make sure we always have enough.
The benefits of saturated fats
Saturated fats provide an abundance of health, and heart health, benefits. Lauric and stearic acids (found in saturated fats) help to regulate cholesterol levels and reduce lipoprotein A, a known risk factor for heart disease. Caprylic acid, found in MCT and coconut oil has many antibacterial and anti-viral properties, providing essential immune support. Saturated fats acts as “nervous system insulation” decreasing your susceptibility to internal and external stress. Not only is your brain predominately made from saturated fat, but it provides the building blocks for our cell membranes and hormones, and acts as a carrier for our fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Pretty essential huh? Saturated fat is a concentrated source of energy and is therefore blood sugar and insulin steadying. These are the keys to energy, satiety, mental clarity, cognition and weight control.
The best sources of saturated fats
Saturated fats are found in coconut oil, MCT oil, butter, ghee, cocoa butter, beef fat, lamb fat, shellfish and in our full fat dairy foods – milk, cream and cheese. Choose from these. In case you haven’t already, throw your low fat products in the bin please! If you choose to drink dairy, choose full fat, unpasteurized and organic wherever possible. To turn skim milk white, it is often fortified with powdered skim, which is liquid sprayed under heat and high pressure, a process that oxidizes the cholesterol. In animal studies, oxidized cholesterol triggers a host of biological changes, leading to plaque formation in the arteries and heart disease. Need I say more?
The truth is that inflammation causes heart disease.
Inflammation is created by:
- Refined sugar
- Trans fats
- Gluten, for many individuals
Instead of examining total cholesterol from a lipid panel, the blood markers we should be using are:
- TC:HDL-C, where <3.5 is ideal
- Triglycerides – where <1.0 mmol/L is ideal
- C-reactive protein – where <1.0 mmol/L is ideal
- Homocysteine – where 7.0-7.5 mmol/L is ideal (also indicative of methylation status)
What you need to know:
- Cholesterol is not the problem. We do not need to artificially lower a vital substance that virtually every cell in your body naturally produces and requires to sustain optimal function.
- From a blood lipid panel, high total low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is not the most important factor, but rather it’s the size of the LDL particles that counts.
- High total cholesterol (TC)/high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol ratio (TC/HDL-C ratio) indicates small LDL particles and correlates strongly with incidence and extent of heart disease.
- Low TC/HDL-C ratio indicates minimal small LDL particles and a reduced risk of heart disease.
- High carbohydrate diets and the presence of insulin are responsible for small LDL particles. Statin drugs do nothing to change LDL particle size, but the pharmaceutical industry would rather you didn’t know this.
Harris WS et al., 2009. Omega-6 fatty acids and risk for cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the AHA Nutrition Subcommittee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism; Council on Cardiovascular Nursing; and Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Circulation, 119, 6, 902-7.
Kraus R et al., 2006. Saturated fat in the diet does not raise serum cholesterol. American Journal Clinical Nutrition, 84, 6, 1550.
Siri-Tarino PW et al., 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91, 3, 535-546.