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Take a closer look at the facts behind saturated fats

Well, I bet most of you reading this would agree that saturated fats have gotten a bad reputation over the past half of century. Many of you even may have some sort of “fat phobia” when it comes to eating saturated fats found in butter, fatty meats, eggs and dairy.

This is understandable considering that the American Heart Association and several institutions, including the U.S. Department of Agricultural, recommend reducing the intake of saturated fats to a mere 10 percent or less of our total daily calories. That message is strengthened by a similar one from a majority of doctors who advised us to reduce eating fatty meats, bacon, dairy and cheese to lower cholesterol and thus lower the risk of heart disease.

However, just as our body requires cholesterol, it also needs saturated fats for proper function. Saturated fats provide a number of health benefits:

  • They are actually anti-inflammatory, which means they are healthy;

  • They are needed for the building blocks of every cell membrane in the body to make hormones and hormone-like substances;

  • They are instrumental in mineral absorption, provide optimal fuel for the brain and modulate genetic regulation;

  • They help lower cholesterol levels (palmitic, stearic acids) and are carriers of important fat soluble vitamins;

  • They help prevent cancer (butyric acid).

Time magazine featured Ancel Keys on the cover of its Jan. 13, 1961, edition.

So why did saturated fats get such a bad rap and become demonized as the culprit for clogging arteries and promoting heart disease in the first place? The fear of saturated fats began in the 1950s when Ancel Keys, a physiologist published a paper linking saturated fat and cholesterol with rising rates of heart disease. He is credited with developing the Lipid Hypothesis and summarized that cholesterol by itself causes heart disease and the reason why cholesterol elevates is due to dietary intake of saturated fats.

I, too, must admit that I had the same fear of eating saturated fats and clearly remember my parents switching from butter to margarine and the worrisome concern with eating eggs, bacon, dairy and fatty meats. We were told by the federal government along with our doctors that eating these foods would cause hardening of the arteries and subsequently heart disease.

So do saturated fats cause heart disease? In light of several recent scientific studies in the past few years, saturated fats may not be as bad for us as we were led to believe. This theory of eating too much saturated fat and the link with heart disease hit a snag when a meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014 looked at 72 studies from 18 different countries that explored this relationship and found that there was no evidence to support the notion that consumption of saturated fatty acids or levels of saturated fatty acids in the blood increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

In a 2016, a randomized control trial involving 38 men published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared a diet low in saturated fats and high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods to a diet high in saturated fats and low in refined carbohydrates and processed foods. The diet high in saturated fats didn’t seem to cause heart disease, and something that might be quite surprising, it actually reduced fat storage in the liver and heart, improved triglycerides, blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, and lowered blood pressure. What does this indicate? A diet low in refined sugar and processed foods leads to a reduction in heart disease, inflammation, pain and weight gain.

A narrative review that was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017 aimed to provide clinicians with a broad overview of the effects of Low-Carbohydrate High Fat Diets (LCHF) on body weight, glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors while addressing some common misconceptions and concerns. It, too, showed in contrast to common opinion, that this type of diet (high fat, low carb) improved markers of cardiovascular risk by lowering blood sugar, insulin and triglycerides, reducing small dense LDL, lowering blood pressure and body weight. It also increased low HDL and reversed non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Both reports show that decreasing the consumption of refined carbohydrates and processed foods is essential for a healthy lifestyle. Until recently, many of the studies on saturated fats in the diet did not always differentiate saturated fats from what else the participants were consuming. Elevated saturated fatty acid production from over consumption of refined carbohydrates in the form of sugar and flour now is known to be associated with heart disease and diabetes. If you were to consume no sugar and flour, and just eat vegetables, fruit, cheese, bacon, eggs, steak and butter, you would have normal levels of glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol and saturated fatty acids.

In contrast, if you were to consume minimal amounts of saturated fats and replace those calories with sugar and flour, your blood sugar-glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides and saturated fatty acids would rapidly increase. How is this possible? Because the body converts the glucose from sugar and flour into cholesterol, saturated fatty acids and triglycerides. This elevation is not from too much saturated fats but an increase in sugar and flour consumption. However, the blame is always incorrectly placed on dietary saturated fats in butter, bacon, cheese and steak.

Back to the recommendation of limiting our daily calories to 10 percent or less of saturated fat because it caused heart disease. What was the response? First, people increased their consumption of refined carbs and processed foods. Remember all the marketing that proudly stated “no or low fat” on packaged foods? And second, maybe even more destructive was the addition of hydrogenated oils and trans fats found in margarine, baked goods, cookies, cakes, chips and crackers. We thought we were eating healthy by eating less saturated or any fat for that matter and eating foods with trans fat in them. By the way, trans fats were banned from all food in 2015, and the government gave the food industry until 2018 to comply.

Yes, saturated fats have gotten a bad reputation because we normally over consume them with refined sugar and flour. When we reduce or eliminate sugar and processed foods, saturated fats may not be as bad as we were led to believe. Eating high-quality, anti-inflammatory foods such as vegetables and fruits, protein and fat will help extend the quality of our life, drop our body weight and reduce pain and inflammation in our joints and muscles.

How do you want to feel, look and even age? Clean up the diet and see what happens.

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