For many people, the word “fat” strikes instantaneous fear of heart disease and weight gain. Add the word “saturated”, and the brain sounds alarm bells. But, if Mother Nature made saturated fat so delicious, how could it be death-inducing? And, if saturated fat kills, how did humans survive for so many generations without margarine, fat-free yogurt and skim milk? And why has heart disease, obesity and diabetes increased as saturated fat intake has decreased?
The easy answer is: Sometimes Science makes mistakes. A few examples:
• Science waffled between eggs being healthful and deadly (it turns out eggs are a health food).
• Science recanted its decree that eight 8-ounce glasses of water are necessary for health (it turns out someone made that up).
• Science admits it was wrong that high-salt diets cause high blood pressure (turns out only some people are what they call salt sensitive).
Science’s most recent adjustment is its position on saturated fat. There have been rumblings about this for a few decades now, and Time Magazine has finally brought the truth into the spotlight with a June 12, 2014 article by Bryan Walsh called Ending the War on Fat (http://time.com/2863227/ending-the-war-on-fat).
The first step to understanding why saturated fat is a health food is to know the chemical difference between the different types of fats. Fatty acids are the smallest building blocks of fats. They are chains of 4-18 carbon atoms (C-C-C-C), each studded with one or two hydrogen atoms. Fatty acids are categorized as saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and hydrogenated. Every fat includes a combination of different types of fatty acids, but some are present in larger quantities than others.
• Saturated fats have 2 hydrogen atoms on each carbon atom (H-C-H). The carbons are saturated with hydrogens. This makes the bonds between each carbon very stable. Examples include butter, ghee, coconut oil, palm oil, pork lard and beef tallow.
• Monounsaturated fats are like saturated fats except that one carbon has only one hydrogen bonded to it (C=H). This particular carbon’s bond is vulnerable to damage by free radicals, which try to steal that weakly-held hydrogen. Examples include olive oil, avocado and pork fat (lard).
• Polyunsaturated fats have two or more carbons with only one hydrogen atom attached. These bonds are more susceptible to damage by free radicals. The more heat, light and air that contacts these fatty acids, the more rancid they become. Examples include: Canola oil, safflower oil, soy oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and sesame oil.
• Hydrogenated (aka. trans fats) can be found naturally in small amounts in cow’s milk and meat, but most sources are man-made. To make hydrogenated oil, vegetable oils are bombarded with nickel atoms in a machine until they are more saturated with hydrogen atoms. The body mistakes hydrogenated fats for natural fats and incorporates them into cell walls, which become stiff and less pliable (which is bad). Margarine and baked goods are the most common sources.
Here are the top 7 reasons why saturated fats are part of a healthy diet:
1. The body makes saturated fat… on purpose! The body uses fat for many crucial tasks (such as fuel, cell membrane material and insulation). Your liver manufactures fat from scratch, or recycles fat sourced from food. When the liver does this, it makes saturated fat on purpose (specifically stearic and palmitic acids). Molecules made by your own body cannot be bad for your health because your liver is not trying to kill you! The fats your liver makes are also available in foods like olive oil, dairy, beef, chocolate, butter, lard and chicken fat. In addition, breast milk contains high levels of saturated fat.
2. Non-saturated fats are likely rancid. If you chew on a vegetable or seed, oil doesn’t spurt out onto your teeth. It takes a lot of work to get oil out of vegetation. That work creates heat and exposes the oils to a lot of oxygen and light, all of which damage polyunsaturated fatty acids, the main kind of fat in seed oils. Two important steps of most vegetable oil processing are degumming and deodorizing. Once bottled, those oils sit on the shelves in clear plastic containers, where light further damages the fragile fatty acids. In order to detoxify that rancid oil, your body needs to go through acrobatics that take energy and resources best used elsewhere. Saturated fats are very stable and don’t get damaged as easily by heat, light or air. Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, are less vulnerable but should still not be cooked with.
3. Saturated fats, paired with a decrease in refined carbohydrates and sugar, encourage weight loss. Too much of any food can be converted to fat in the body, but excess refined carbohydrates and sugar are the biggest culprits in weight gain and inflammation. Inflammation causes the body to store fat in and around the belly, as visceral adiposity. Refined carbs include anything made with flour, such as bread, pasta, pizza, crackers, pretzels, tortilla chips, bagels and baked goods. An Atkins-level of avoidance is not the right approach, either. It’s best to treat carbohydrates like condiments and focus on small portions of potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole grains (ideally soaked overnight).
4. Saturated fats make cholesterol bigger, fluffier and safer. Small, dense cholesterol is one cause of heart disease. It’s called Lp(a) (say “el pee little a”). Other forms of cholesterol are actually both healthful and beneficial. Individuals with high levels of Lp(a) can blame genetics as well as excess intake of refined carbohydrates. But Lp(a) isn’t as dangerous unless inflammation is on board. Inflammation causes sores and scratches on the insides of arteries. Lp(a) lodges into those crevices where it encourages plaque accumulation. A diet that contains sufficient saturated fat and lower refined carbs encourages big, fluffy cholesterol, which is less apt to get stuck and cause trouble.
5. Saturated fats are the preferred fuel source for the heart. In fact, fatty tissue surrounding the heart is highly saturated by design. In times of stress, the heart uses those saturated fatty acids as an energy reserve.
6. Many physiological processes depend on saturated fat.
• Strong bones require minerals, and saturated fat must be present for minerals to be absorbed.
• The liver is protected by saturated fats as it detoxifies alcohol, sugar and medication.
• Delivery of biochemical messages between cells requires saturated fats, such as when and how much insulin to release.
• Immune cells are dependent on both saturated fats and cholesterol. Some saturated fats kill microbes directly (such as lauric acid in coconut oil).
• Lung surfactant, a coating that regulates pressure in the lungs’ air sacs and prevents them from sticking together upon exhalation, is made of saturated fat. Without it, we would suffocate.
7. Foods containing saturated fats are delicious! Coconut oil, butter, eggs, meats and dairy products contain delicious saturated fat. It’s as if Mother Nature wants you to enjoy her bounty! However, as humans continue to develop larger-scale agriculture, not all animal products are created equal. When shopping, be as vigilant as your budget allows in buying organic dairy products, pasture-raised eggs and meat that’s free of hormones & antibiotics. Animals store their toxins in their fat. Since animals raised in factory farms contain more toxins, their fat is a concentrated source. It’s often cheaper to buy large cuts of animals directly from farmers to be stored or shared with friends.
It’s hard to believe that despite all these health benefits, saturated fat’s reputation became sturdily negative. As with most things, the confusion originated in politics, marketing and money. In the 1950s and 60s, a man named Ancel Keys represented efforts to redirect consumer choice from traditional fats, like butter and lard, to new products like margarine and vegetable oil. Keys was highly ridiculed by doctors and the scientific community when he began his crusade because the science did not support his claims. However, he was a handsome, charismatic, well-spoken man and as industry backed him, his message became louder and more persuasive. To make matters worse, the opposing scientists were named Jacob Yerushalmy and Herman Hilleboe. Their more complex names, softer personalities and lack of funding diminished their impact.
There are many studies that indicate that saturated fat causes health problems. Ironically, there are also various studies that prove that dietary studies are notoriously inaccurate, mostly because they rely on food recall questionnaires that require year-long memory of intake. While science can’t be discounted, the proof in the pudding lies in a peek back in time.
Before fat was extracted by machines or constructed in factories, humans ate saturated fat. If it were bad for us, humans would not have survived as a species. The two true enemies of health that deserve the spotlight, are sugar and stress. But equal focus must be put on nutrient deficiencies, either due to decreased consumption of vegetables, fats and sea salt or inadequacy of our soil.
The decades-late recognition that saturated fat is not the enemy is very exciting! Beyond the benefit to our tastebuds, our waistlines, hearts, brains and livers will get a boost in health and vitality as more saturated fat is consumed. The biggest hurdle for many will be the psychological barrier of fear that’s been built around fat in general, but especially around saturated fat. Just add butter and coconut oil slowly, teaspoon by teaspoon. Your body will enjoy and encourage the shift to a diet that includes more saturated fat.
Anne Buzzelli is a Registered Dietitian with a private practice in Staunton, Virginia, called BuzzNutrition. She offers integrative nutrition consulting to connect how you feel to what you chew, as well as a cutting-edge stress-relief technology called Neurofeedback (www.StauntonStressRelief.com). She can be reached at 540.414.7525 or [email protected].