We are constantly being told to reduce fat consumption and to switch from artery clogging saturated fats to healthier polyunsaturated fats like sunflower oil or monounsaturated fats like olive oil. Butter has been exchanged for vegetable spreads made from nut and seed oils and foods with a naturally higher fat content are being processed to reduce their overall fat content. To help us in the quest to reduce fat, food manufacturers have produced replacement lower fat versions of cakes, biscuits, dairy. But is this advice doing us any good?
Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes are all on the rise despite recommendations to cut fat from the diet. Something is obviously out of balance from the modern diet.
In the 1930s an American dentist called Weston Price was inspired to look for alternative ways of improving health. Price felt that the Western diet was imbalanced and lacking in nutrients. In his day to day job as a dentist, Price was used to dealing with the symptoms of poor dental health. This inspired Price to seek out traditional tribal people around the world so that he could investigate how traditional, unprocessed diets influenced overall health and the health of the teeth. When Price compared traditional diets to the modern diets he found that modern diets were severely lacking in key nutrients like magnesium, essential fats and the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Price realised that a deficiency in key fats had a significant influence on dental health resulting in crowded teeth requiring corrective braces and substantial tooth decay. In contrast the so called primitive diets were found to be rich in saturated fats, fat soluble vitamins and essential fats resulting in excellent bones and teeth with no over crowding of the teeth.
The right fats are therefore essential for good health and it is vital to use the right ones to promote good health. Contrary to the popular opinion of avoiding saturated fats, I recommend the use of clean sourced unadulterated natural whole foods which include saturated fat. I do not recommend the consumption of chemically altered fats like vegetable spreads, margarines, hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated fat and trans fats or cooking with unsaturated fats. My dietary recommendations include the use of clean sources of saturated fats when cooking and to use cold pressed unsaturated oils like virgin olive oil as dressings.
The Importance of Fats
Fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy in the diet. Fats however have many important functions: they provide the building blocks for a range of hormones and hormone-like substances and are used to form the cell membranes. As part of a meal fats helps to slow down absorption so that we feel satisfied for longer without feeling hungry. Fats also act as carriers for the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are also required for many processes such as the conversion of carotene to vitamin A and mineral absorption.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fat
Fats are generally classified as being saturated or unsaturated. It is important to note that in nature plants and animals will contain fats composed of a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats. When a fat contains pre-dominantly saturated fat it is labelled as saturated and when it contains mostly unsaturated fat it is labelled as unsaturated.
Saturated fats are found within nature in both plant and animal sources. Plant based saturated fats include coconut and palm oil where as animal based saturated fats include butter and animal fats like lard and tallow. Unsaturated fats are also found in plant and animal sources and are often found in nuts, seeds, grains, green leaves and animal fat.
Saturated and unsaturated fats are both formed from the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In saturated fats, each carbon atom is linked to another carbon atom by means of a single bond to form a chain. The remaining bonds of each carbon atom are mostly linked to hydrogen atoms and a weakly acidic oxygen containing group which is found at the end of the chain. This chain-like structure provides structural integrity in all the cell membranes. Without saturated fats, our cells would be floppy and lack structure. The straight chain structure of saturated fats also allows these fats to be stored in a compact manner.
Natural unsaturated fats on the other hand are chemically different from saturated fats in that there will be at least one carbon atom linked to another carbon atom by means of a double bond. This type of bonding creates a bend or kink in the chain. This structure helps to keep this type of fat fluid and flexible at room temperature. The downside of this structure is that it is less stable than the single bond.
The chemical structure of saturated fat therefore makes it more stable than unsaturated fat to withstand damage from heat and light. It is interesting to note that as one moves towards the equator, this is where saturated plant oils are naturally found. The saturated plant oils help these plants to withstand the increased temperatures at the equator. When we move further away from the equator into colder climates we will find more unsaturated fats within nature which help to provide fluidity and flexibility to the cell membranes.
Hydrogenation is a chemical process where an unsaturated fat such as sunflower oil is converted to a solid fat. This process is often used to make vegetable spreads from nut and seed oils. From a food processing point of view, hydrogenation and partial hydrogenation allows foods to have a much longer shelf life. However this chemical process converts the oil into an inert food which has very little nutritional value. The body is unable to process and break these types of artificial fats down and dumps them within the cell membranes, which over time disrupts cellular processing and communication.
An interesting experiment which highlights the non-food value of margarine may be done. Place some uncovered butter and margarine in an exposed area to insects etc such as a garden shed. After a certain length of time the butter will decompose and will have been consumed by insects etc. In comparison, the margarine should remain untouched by moulds, small insects and still appear to be fresh. It is interesting to note that if other organisms recognise margarine as non-food, why have we lost touch of the same basic insights?
Fat Consumption in History
All cultures have consumed saturated fats. Weston Price’s work of traditional people confirmed this. For example traditional tropical cultures have a long history of consuming saturated fat plant oils like coconut and palm and in temperate and colder climates, saturated animal fats like butter, lard etc have all traditionally formed part of the diet. However from around the early 1900’s, advances in food processing and changes in farming practice led to the introduction of processed unsaturated fats in the diet. From the 1950s onwards, the traditional saturated fats were shunned by scientists and research to endorse saturated fat as a health hazard and unsaturated fats as beneficial was promoted.
Since then health campaigns have actively promoted the reduction of saturated fats in favour of unsaturated fats. As a result there has been a significant reduction in public consumption of saturated fats. The consumption of butter has reduced in favour of margarine made from unsaturated fats like sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil. Traditional cooking with fats like lard, butter ghee, coconut oil have been replaced with plant-based unsaturated oils like corn, canola, soya, rapeseed and sunflower. It is interesting to note that with the introduction of these oils we have had a massive explosion in diseases like heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes to name but a few.
Flawed Research Regarding Saturated Fats
The common-held belief that saturated fats and cholesterol are damaging to the heart is based on the ‘lipid hypothesis’ which is a hypothesis & not a fact! This idea stems from research conducted in the 1950s by Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota. However this research data had some serious flaws.
In this research study, data was available regarding fat intake and the occurrence of heart disease from 22 countries. However research data was only chosen from 6 countries including US & Japan. The question then is why didn’t Ancel Keys use data from all 22 countries? Did Ancel have a bias? Did Ancel Keys purposely choose data to support his hypothesis?
The other issue with Ancel’s research is that it did not consider any other contributory factors for heart disease apart from fat intake such as smoking, alcohol, other dietary factors, exercise or stress. Eventually when the data from all 22 countries was included, no statistical correlation between saturated fat and heart disease was possible. In other words fat intake linked to heart disease incidence did not show cause and effect. Carefully controlled food intake studies could have provided information on cause and effect.
Subsequent research has also been flawed by labelling an unnatural fat known as trans fat as saturated fat. Raymond Reiser, an American professor in biochemistry, pointed to several errors in research studies where instead of giving the test individuals natural saturated fat from animal food in the experiments, many had used vegetable oils saturated by hydrogenation, which is a process that also produces trans fat. Trans fats are unnatural man-made fats which are not recognised by the body and cause cholesterol levels to rise. The body is unable to recognise, process or digest trans fats and dumps them within the cell membranes. By storing unprocessed trans fats within the cell membranes, cellular communication & exchange becomes disrupted. It is the Trans fats which are contributing towards disorders like heart disease. In many research studies, artificial trans fats had been labelled as saturated fat thus promoting saturated fat in a negative light.
What you need to know about Saturated Fats
Saturated fats are chemically stable to be heated in cooking processes without becoming damaged. These fats have been used by mankind for centuries in the form of saturated animal fats like clarified butter, lard and tallow or saturated plant fats in the form of coconut oil, palm oil or shea butter.
Saturated fats intake is significantly higher (x5 or greater) in many traditional diets. These traditional people have much leaner bodies in comparison to westerners. It has also been shown that when these traditional people start consuming a western-type diet they start to degenerate in a similar fashion to westerners.
Examples of traditional people with high saturated fat intake include the Inuit, Masai and Pacific Islanders:
- The Inuit diet incorporates raw seal and fish,
- The Masai diet consists mainly of raw non-pasteurised milk, red meat & blood
- The Pacific islanders diet incorporates coconut, palm oil and meat
Benefits of Saturated Fats:
- Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of the cell membranes. They help to provide structure and integrity to the cells.
- They play a vital role in the health of our bones. For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats should be saturated.1
- They lower lipoprotiein(a) also known as Lp(a), which is a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease.2 They protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins, such as Tylenol.3
- They enhance the immune system.4
- They are needed for the proper utilisation of essential fatty acids. Elongated omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.5
- The long-chain saturated fats have from 14 to 18 carbons. For example, 18-carbon stearic acid and 16-carbon palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated6 as the heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress.
- Short and medium chain saturated fatty acids have from 4 to 12 carbons and have important antimicrobial properties, which provide valuable protection against harmful viruses, yeasts and pathogenic bacteria in the digestive tract. For example, 4-carbon butyric acid is found mostly in the butter-fat from cows, and 6-carbon capric acid is found mostly in the butter-fat from goats. Lauric acid is found in coconut & palm oils and has immune-enhancing and anti-fungal properties.
Issues to be aware of with Saturated fats
In modern society most of us are not as physically active as many traditional people who consume a greater proportion of their dietary intake as saturated fat. This factor should be taken in to account when looking at the diet as a whole.
In animals, fat soluble toxins will be stored in their body fat. These toxins will also make their way into the fat portion of other animal products like meat, milk, butter, eggs and cheese. Therefore it is important to consume organic animal products and to avoid non-organic sources as much as possible.
When the lliver becomes congested from high levels of toxicity from the diet its ability to breakdown fats becomes impaired. To support the liver, it would be wise to follow a dietary and naturopathic detox whilst avoiding hard to digest foods like fats.
- Watkins, B A, et al, "Importance of Vitamin E in Bone Formation and in Chrondrocyte Function" Purdue University, Lafayette, IN, AOCS Proceedings, 1996; Watkins, B A, and M F Seifert, "Food Lipids and Bone Health," Food Lipids and Health, R E McDonald and D B Min, eds, p 101, Marcel Dekker, Inc, New York, NY, 1996
- Dahlen, G H, et al, J Intern Med, Nov 1998, 244(5):417-24; Khosla, P, and K C Hayes, J Am Coll Nutr, 1996, 15:325-339; Clevidence, B A, et al, Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol, 1997, 17:1657-1661
- Nanji, A A, et al, Gastroenterology, Aug 1995, 109(2):547-54; Cha, Y S, and D S Sachan, J Am Coll Nutr, Aug 1994, 13(4):338-43; Hargrove, H L, et al, FASEB Journal, Meeting Abstracts, Mar 1999, #204.1, p A222.
- Kabara, J J, The Pharmacological Effects of Lipids, The American Oil Chemists Society, Champaign, IL, 1978, 1-14; Cohen, L A, et al, J Natl Cancer Inst, 1986, 77:43
- Garg, M L, et al, FASEB Journal, 1988, 2:4:A852; Oliart Ros, R M, et al, "Meeting Abstracts," AOCS Proceedings, May 1998, 7, Chicago, IL
- Lawson, L D and F Kummerow, Lipids, 1979, 14:501-503; Garg, M L, Lipids, Apr 1989, 24(4):334-9