There is a lot of controversy surrounding saturated fats. So much so that today the average American has no idea what foods are truly “good” and which ones are “bad.” So what’s the deal? Are saturated fats bad for us? Well, for centuries, top health organizations and doctors told us they were. They told us to avoid this type of fat because consuming it could lead to heart disease. Then, of course, there is the fear that eating saturated fat will make us fat. Today, though, leading health care officials are debunking those beliefs.
What Are Saturated Fats?
In general, fats are a macronutrient that our bodies need in order to function properly. As you probably already know, there are several different types of fats – some are considered “good” while others are labeled “bad.” The difference between fats lies in their molecular structure. To put it scientifically, saturated fats are molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules. Rather, they are saturated with hydrogen molecules.
From a non-scientific standpoint, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. They are commonly found in animal meats, butter, cream, cheese, milk, coconut oil, palm oil, and dark chocolate (just to name a few sources).
When Did Sat Fats Become The Enemy?
It all started back in 1953 when a man named Dr. Ancel Keys published a study that compared saturated fat intake to heart disease mortality. He had a theory called the “Diet-Heart Hypothesis.” He believed since saturated fats raised cholesterol, and high cholesterol levels increased a person’s chance of heart attack, consuming saturated fats must lead to heart attacks.
Keys went to several different countries to view diet trends and heart disease rates. He found a few that seemed to support his belief. However, he ignored data from upwards of 16 other countries that didn’t fit his theory. In fact, to date, there are a number of tribes around the world that are living proof his theory is incorrect. Despite Keys not having any hard science-backed evidence (he based his findings on assumptions/ observational data), his theory became a popular one. It was even backed by the American Heart Association and turned into public policy, as pointed out by journalist Nina Teicholz. Watch her fascinating TED Talk to find out more about Keys’ theory and why the government still insists that saturated fats are the enemy. This truly is a revealing video and I recommend watching it to the end.
Let’s Talk Cholesterol
Here’s the thing about cholesterol – just like fats, not all cholesterol is created equal. There is Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol and linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Then there is High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is known as “good” cholesterol and linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Your body needs HDL cholesterol to function properly. In fact, having too low cholesterol levels has been linked to poor brain health, heart disease risk, hormone imbalance, and much more.
When researchers first noticed that consuming saturated fats raised cholesterol levels, they were referring to “total cholesterol,” which is somewhat of a skewed marker. You see, “total cholesterol” refers to both LDL and HDL. It’s important to note that saturated fats do contain good cholesterol. So when Dr. Keys created the “Diet-Heart Hypothesis,” he was actually including beneficial cholesterol in his findings.
But that’s not all.
New research shows that LDL cholesterol may not be that harmful all the time. Researchers have found that eating saturated fat can actually change the size of LDL particles from small and dense to large. This is very important because while small and dense particles can easily penetrate the arterial wall, become oxidized, and increase your risk of heart disease, large particles can’t. Since large LDL particles cannot easily penetrate the arterial wall, they are considered benign and don’t generally increase your risk of heart disease.
What Researchers Are Really Saying About Saturated Fats
Now that you know more about the cholesterol found in saturated fat, let’s take a look at a few studies.
In 2014, researchers looked at data from 76 different studies and more than half a million participants. Despite the large pool of people, they found absolutely no link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease.
A similar review was done in 2010 where researchers reviewed the findings from 21 different studies and nearly 350 thousand participants. They didn’t find a link between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular disease.
In one 2011 study, researchers found that participants who replaced saturated fats with unsaturated fats experienced a reduced risk of cardiovascular events by 14 percent. There was no clear impact on death rates, though. These findings don’t prove that saturated fats are harmful or lead to cardiovascular events, rather, they simply show that unsaturated fats have a more protective effect.
There are countless other studies that have been conducted on the relationship between saturated fats and cardio events. Researchers keep reaching the same conclusion — there really is no link. Despite all of these findings, though, the governments and federally funded health organizations are still telling people to lower their intake of saturated fats. They recommended people consume less than 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fats, which many researchers argue is simply not enough. Well-respected doctor Joseph Mercola pointed out several healthy tribes around the world who eat diets filled with between 60-70 percent saturated fats. He also noted that human breast milk, which is extremely healthy for developing newborns, contains 54 percent saturated fat.
So If Saturated Fat Isn’t The Real Problem, What Is?
Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. With how prevalent it is now, it’s hard to believe that years ago it really wasn’t a common disease. So why the rise?
Between our pasta, pizza, cookies, cake, and soda, today, the standard American diet is loaded with carbohydrates and sugar. According to researchers:
“Replacement of saturated fat by carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates and added sugars, increases levels of triglyceride and small LDL particles and reduces high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.”
The body reacts to carbohydrates much differently than it does to fats. Science shows a diet high in carbohydrates and sugar leads to heart disease, obesity, insulin resistance, inflammation, poor gut health, and a slew of other health problems.
It’s interesting to point out that since the low-fat guidelines were put into place, heart disease and diabetes have skyrocketed.
Not All Fats Are Friendly
As I mentioned earlier, there are several different types of fat. We can break them down into four different categories.
Saturated Fats – This is the type of fat we’ve been discussing. It’s typically solid at room temperature and is found in aminal meats, butter, cream, milk, cheese, and some tropical oils. While it’s been known as a “friendly fat” for decades, new research shows saturated fats aren’t harmful.
Polyunsaturated Fats – These are your omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats (found in fish and seeds) are extremely healthy and have been known to support heart health, improve mental health, and boost mood (among many other positive things). Omega-6 fats, on the other hand, are found in vegetable oils, such as corn oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oils. They are also used in commercial snack foods and salad dressings. While Omega-3 fats fight inflammation, Omega-6 can cause it. I don’t want to make it seem like you should never consume Omega-6 fats. In fact, Omega-6s do have a place in a healthy diet. They just have to be eaten in a healthy proportion to Omega-3s. Most experts agree the Omega 6:3 ratio should range from about 1:1 to 5:1. Unfortunately, though, the ratio of the current American diet ranges from about 10:1 to 15:1. This can lead to a slew of health problems such as cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory conditions like arthritis.
Monounsaturated Fats – Olive oil is one of the most common monounsaturated fats. This type of fat is also called a “good” fat.
Trans Fats – Trans fats are the bad guys that you want to stay away from. They can negatively impact your body’s cells and are linked to health issues. Unlike the other fats mentioned on this list, trans fats aren’t natural. Rather, they are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil during food processing in order to make it solidify. This process is known as hydrogenation and lengthens the shelf life of food.
Tips To Keep Your Heart Healthy
- Ditch the processed foods that are loaded with carbohydrates/sugar.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners.
- Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruits.
- Always go organic if possible.
- Limit unhealthy fats and focus on eating healthy fats/protein.
- Eat fermented foods that are rich in probiotics.
- Take a daily probiotic supplement.
- Workout regularly. Just 30 minutes of cardio a day can make a huge difference!
- Work to repair your gut.
- Stay hydrated.
How To Check Your Cholesterol
Checking your cholesterol levels is easy. All you need to do is go for a basic blood test, which can be ordered by your doctor. If you need to check your levels regularly, there are also at-home kits that you can buy.
If you are 20 years or older and have not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, it’s recommended to have your cholesterol levels checked every four to six years.
Always Think Of Your Own Body
Whenever you are making changes to your diet, it’s best to consult with your doctor first. While researchers call saturated fats harmless for the average person, not everyone’s body is the same. What works for one person may not work for another. Perhaps you are on a medication that doesn’t react well with fat. There are also certain medical disorders that require people to eat a low-fat diet. Always think of your own body and health status first.