This three-part series will uncover the truth about some of the most widespread and frankly, dangerous myths about fat. Join me as we journey through the magical world of lipids. It’s honestly a close second to Game of Thrones. Let’s start the party with saturated fat!
Isn’t Saturated Fat a Clog Maker?
It’s easy to believe our bodies work a little like a kitchen sink (“wrong pipe”, anyone?) complete with garbage disposal. Pour bacon grease down the pipes and over time, that stuff hardens up and makes your tubes smaller, right? That drain is actually our esophagus and luckily it isn’t made of metal. The slick tissue in our muscle works with a motion called peristalsis, which helps move food down toward the stomach with wave-like contractions. Unless you’re choking (like I did on cotton candy, true story) things don’t stick around in the esophagus for too long.
Saturated fat, outside of a science classroom sounds a lot like thick, sludgy, blob-fat, it’s the name that keeps us believing it’s what makes our thighs touch. The term saturated, however, is referring to the bonds in the molecule, not the viscosity of the fat. It’s all sciency, but it’s called saturated because the bonds of the molecule are all full with hydrogen, no room for double bonds. So the fat is saturated with hydrogen, not with magical chubby-making components.
Saturated fats are also considered stable fats, meaning they aren’t easily altered under changing conditions. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can wind up with broken bonds, leading to rancidity and free radical damage within the body. Enter inflammation and disease.
Okay, back to the fat in the drain idea.
Once it leaves the stomach, the supporting digestive organs help break the food up into minuscule compounds. It’s gotta get teeny tiny before it heads into the bloodstream and it ain’t there yet. Next, the pancreas and intestinal enzymes break the molecules down further into either glycerol or fatty acids.
Wait! There’s more!
From there, they’ve still gotta fit through the small intestine walls to be transported throughout the body. If our body were truly pipe-like, that bacon grease would find its way to the end of the tube, you guessed it, at your colon. And trust me, you’d KNOW if that was happening.
Hold on, we’ve still got some science left, don’t reach for a hall pass just yet.
Any of the fatty acids that our bodies can’t put to use immediately for energy get stored for later. When the fatty acids are called out to be put to work, their BFF has to come to retrieve them.
Fats get all squeamish around water and need a friend to hold their hand before they start traveling. This is where the little Kevin Costner bodyguards of lipoproteins enter the building. LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, often referred to as “good” or “bad” cholesterol. It’s a little bit of a misnomer, LDL and HDL are actually protein shuttles for fatty acids and cholesterol. They aren’t scared of water the way fatty acids are, so they wrap themselves around bodyguard style and transport fatty acid and cholesterol through the bloodstream.
This is what is supposed to happen, all is going as planned! It’s how our bodies were designed. Our bodies are shockingly adept at processing things it recognizes. When stranger danger lurks, the body isn’t so great at knowing what to do. I’ll get there in a second.
Now that fatty acids and cholesterol have made their way into the bloodstream, it can be easy for them to pack and stack together, forming plaque in our arteries. Did your ears perk up? Saturated fats pack together easier than unsaturated fats. It’s because of how their bonds are situated. They can’t help it, they are big boned, ugh!
This is a natural occurrence and something our bodies can handle.
Can we decide together to do away with worrying we will be clogged up by eating fat from animal and coconuts? We don’t need green juice, cheerios or oatmeal to come in and scrub our artery walls down, that’s just marketing. Our bodies are highly efficient machines that know how to handle real food. It isn’t the eggs fresh off the farm that we need to worry about, it’s what has come straight from the factory.
The Ugly Step-Sister
You know what our body doesn’t do so well with? Trans fats! Spoiler alert: Trans fat raises your LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL. They are literally the worst. Transfats have double bonds, stack even better than saturated fats AND have some serious conflict issues when they interact with cholesterol. These fats have been hydrogenated, meaning some of those bonds that were not saturated in “vegetable” oils get some hydrogen pushed in. That’s why hydrogenated fats (another name for trans fat) are often called Frankenfats, they are pieced together to create something new. Just as with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, nature just ain’t happy with the results. Things start gettin’ ugly. Trans fat is like a wedding crasher who punches your grandma, kisses the bride and steals a few gifts on the way out. (Read: Super bitches.)
I am still shocked that people continue to buy margarine. Especially, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Girl, what do you think it IS then? And why are you eating it? When saturated fat began to get a bad wrap, companies pulled the stable fats out and added unstable and modified vegetable fats. Fat adds flavor, so along with modifying the structure, gotta add some sugar or other chemicals. So no, that ain’t no butter.
*A 2% daily increase in trans fat corresponds with a 23% increase in heart disease. (SciShow, 2015)
The American Heart Association and Shaky Science
The idea that a diet high in saturated fat causes heart disease is called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis and it has never been proven. Yeah, I’m serious like…never, you can look it up, For the first time in US history, the concept of a low-fat diet was recommended in 1961 by a Pathologist from the University of Minnesota, named Ancel Benjamin Keys. Keys had a fierce ego that didn’t like to be criticized. With sketchy science that cut some pretty darn big corners in his Seven Countries study, Ancel Keys cherry picked his findings and spun them in a way which worked in his favor.
His study compared about 13,000 middle-aged men in U.S, Europe and Japan. Keys documented that men who ate more saturated fat were more likely to wind up with heart disease. He didn’t study men in France though, where heart disease is rare and daily butter intake is not!
“Critics have pointed out that Keys purposefully left out Switzerland, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany because these populations consumed high quantities of animal fats and yet exhibited low rates of heart disease. The data from these countries simply did not match the lipid hypothesis so they were excluded. Conversely, data from countries such as Chile where fat consumption was low, but heart disease was high, was also left out.” (Schneider, 2015)
Keys loved the data he found within the island of Crete. It was post-WWII and people were still eating a poverty-stricken diet with hardly any saturated fat. Because you know, animals cost money. He visited this island three times, each for a week and published the collected data in some obscure German medical journals. One of these weeks that was studied took place during Lent, which for a Greek Orthodox country means no animal products were consumed. Keys defended his research by brushing off the whole bothersome idea of Lent and people bought it!
The major problem was that Keys based his findings on correlations, which is not the same as causation. A famous example of correlation is different than causation is the example of how in New York City, when ice cream sales increase when murder rates rise. What if we then banned ice cream sales? Would the homicide rate drop?
“When researchers went back and analyzed some of the data from the Seven Countries study, they found that what best correlated with heart disease was no saturated fat intake but sugar” (Teicholz, 2015 )
All of this happened at a time in history when middle-aged men began dying from heart disease and the public was desperate for solutions. The number one cause of death in 1900 was Pneumonia and the average life expectancy was 47. By 1300, life expectancy had jumped to 60 but heart disease had taken over, especially in men. This left government officials desperate enough to allow for some shady science or at least not examine it too closely.
When Keys presented his hypothesis to the US government, they ran with it. By 1978, the concept was adopted completely by the USDA and placed into the first set of dietary guidelines given to the population of the US. The core members of the governing health groups like the American Heart Association and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reviewed each other’s papers and sat on all the expert panels. Oops, can’t forget that they also controlled all the funding! That means no money for those who didn’t hop on the cholesterol bandwagon.
“And over the course of 25 years, this Diet-Heart Hypothesis, it became ingrained in institutions, there was an institutional bias; the media, there was a kind of bias that fell into the media; and everybody kind of lined up behind this hypothesis. You really couldn’t be a scientist if you didn’t get on board. And by 1986, the critics had basically been silenced.” (Teicholz, 2014)
Dolla’ Dolla’ Bills
The American Heart Association still stands by the outdated and flawed science of Keys’ study. The tide is slowly turning and I’m confident we will be in a very different place within the next ten years. I am not sure how many studies it will take to change the policies of the AHA, but a pretty damning one was published in April 2017 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Yet, the group still marches on with its recommendation to avoid saturated fats and eat more “heart-healthy fats” like canola oil. (Wait until your father gets home. We’re gonna talk about this later).
Once upon a time, the AHA was a small group of Cardiologists. Then in 1948, Crisco makers, Proctor and Gamble helped the group catapult into a force not to be reckoned with after sponsoring a radio contest which paid the AHA about $17 million. Most recently, $500K was given to the AHA by the Soybean industry to tout the wonders of “vegetable oils”. Well, that isn’t completely fair, the money was given by LibertyLink AND Bayer. Bayer doesn’t sell soybeans, just coincidentally some cholesterol-lowering drugs.
So…Is It OK to eat?
“Lumping all saturated fats into one category over-simplifies things much like claiming all carbohydrates are bad. Broccoli and a hot fudge sundae are both carbohydrates, yet you know one benefits you and the other doesn’t” – Mark Hyman, M.D.
We need saturated fats to keep our immune system functioning, brain health, improving skin health, stronger bones, liver health, and proper nerve signaling. Know what else we need it for? Making Estrogen and Testosterone. So, I’m gonna say it’s pretty important.
We also need saturated fat to make cholesterol. Cholesterol is a useful and vital hormone, we have to have it to build cell membranes amongst other vital functions, but let’s not read that too quickly. Cell membranes are the walls of a cell and folks, that’s what we are, a freaking mass of cells. Different types of fats affect our cholesterol in different ways, saturated included.
Paula Deen Was Right
In addition to being a good dietary source of cholesterol, butter is one of the most nutrient-dense animal foods we can buy.
Butter is America’s best and most easily absorbed source of vitamin A. Itcontains lecithin, a substance that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol and other fat constituents. Butter also contains a number of anti-oxidants that protect against the kind of free radical damage that weakens the arteries. Vitamin A and vitamin E found in butter both play a strong anti-oxidant role. Butter is a very rich source of selenium, a vital anti-oxidant–containing more per gram than herring or wheat germ. (Sally Fallon)
That said, eating butter from a cow who spent its life eating soy byproducts and grain will have a profoundly different effect than eating from a grass-fed cow. The animal you are eating is made up of cells which are made up of the food it ate in its lifetime, be it soybean sludge and antibiotics or alfalfa and grass. You know the saying “You are what you eat.”? It is more accurate as “You are what you eat ate.”
* Taking a second to apologize for two Nacho Libre memes in one post, that movie really shaped my life. In my defense, the second is a quote, so….it’s different. Also, it didn’t shape my life, but I think it’s just so funny.
Serious time again.
“It’s a matter of balance. If one were to eat only saturated fat day in and day out, then yes, they would indeed become imbalanced. But nobody ever eats all saturated fat even if one’s diet is comprised solely of bacon and eggs. All fats and oils are in fact a combination of different types of fatty acids…Avoiding saturated fat is not the goal. The focus should be on getting a variety of healthy fats from good sources (note again, however, that each of the following foods contain a variety of fats; they are simply listed by which kind of fat forms the majority):
- Saturated Fats: coconut oil, palm oil, grass-fed meat and dairy.
- Monounsaturated Fats: olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, lard, and poultry.
- Polyunsaturated Fats: wild caught fish, fish oils, and flaxseed.” (NTA, 2019)
Truth: Avoiding saturated fat will not decrease the risk of heart disease. Eat the steak. Eat the butter.
Need more proof? Put on your party shoes and read through these references.