CBS News, one of the most-watched news programs in the world, recently ran a report questioning whether animal fat is as bad as ‘conventional wisdom’ would have you believe.
It most certainly is not.
The vilification of fats go back to the early 1950’s, when Dr. Ancel Keys published an influential paper comparing fat intake and heart disease mortality in six countries.
Americans, who ate the most fat had the highest heart disease mortality rate, while the Japanese, who ate the least amount of fat had the fewest heart disease deaths.
However, this was a perfect case of statistical cherry-picking to support a position.
Statistics were actually available for 22 countries, and when all 22 were analyzed and included, the link between fat consumption and heart disease was nonexistent.
The Danger of Turning a Misguided, Unproven Hypothesis into Dogma…
Unfortunately, the hypothesis presented by Dr. Keys quickly turned into the dogmatic belief that saturated fats increase your risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Today, it’s been well-established that the only really dangerous fat out there is trans fat (margarine, vegetable oils), which initially, and ironically, were touted as the answer to that heart-harming saturated fat.
Despite this, the general belief that fat is bad for you lingers even in the highest echelons of medicine.
The truth is that your body requires saturated fats, and the ‘substantiating evidence’ pointing toward saturated fats being harmful is flimsy at best.
Gary Taubes discussed this lack of evidence in an interview I did with him a few months ago. Taubes is a science and health journalist, and author of several books, including Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, and Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. In that interview, he argued against the notion that the saturated fat-heart disease hypothesis has any scientific merit:
“Those previous studies never actually confirmed the hypothesis,” he says. “… I lectured at the NIH a couple of years ago and… talked to a guy who ran an NIA-funded childhood obesity research program. He said their primary concern with obese kids is to keep their saturated fat content down… He said there are thousands of studies… confirming the evils of saturated fat.
I said to him, ‘The difference between you and I is I actually spent a significant portion of my life reading those studies and ‘getting’ them all.’
In 1984, when there was a consensus conference by the NIH saying every American over the age two should eat a low-fat diet, there were actually about eight or nine studies… [but] they could never show that eating a reduced saturated fat diet would make you live longer. It might reduce heart disease rates; it did in some studies, but it increased cancer rates… When you look at the meta-analyses that have been done looking at these issues, and a couple of them came out in the last two years, the results are always the same.
There is not enough evidence to say that saturated fat is bad for you, and there has never been that evidence.”
Most of us (including most doctors and health professionals) do not have the scientific training and/or the time to read and digest large amounts of scientific research, which is what makes the likes of Gary Taubes so valuable. Reading and really understanding the research was and still is his primary job. And what he and many other well-versed health experts are telling us is that saturated fats are good for you, and that shunning fats can cascade into a number of health problems.
Why Your Body Needs Saturated Fat
Saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources (such as meat, dairy, certain oils, and tropical plants like coconut) provide the building blocks for your cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone like substances that are essential to your health. Fats also slows down absorption of your meal so that you feel satiated longer.
In addition, saturated fats are also:
•Carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and required for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes
•Useful antiviral agents (caprylic acid)
•Effective as an anticaries, antiplaque and anti fungal agents (lauric acid)
•Useful to actually lower cholesterol levels (palmitic and stearic acids)
•Modulators of genetic regulation and prevent cancer (butyric acid)
Fats also provide a highly concentrated source of energy in your diet—a source of energy that is far more ideal than carbohydrates, which is why I recommend increasing healthy fat consumption in combination with severely restricting refined carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains).
There is emerging evidence that your diet should be at least half healthy fat, and possibly as high as 70 percent. Part of the reason for this is that there are powerful adverse hormonal changes that typically occur when your body burns non-vegetable carbohydrates like grains and sugars. This does not occur when you consume fibrous vegetables or healthy fats. This likely explains the mountain of scientific evidence showing that calorie restricted diets extend lifespan. Mostly likely it is not a calorie issue per se, as it is the type of calories, specifically non-vegetable carbohydrates.
As a general rule, when you cut down on carbs, you need to increase your fat consumption. Replacing it with more protein is not a wise choice as it will also have similar problems. And, while this also works in the opposite way; meaning when you cut fat, you need to replace that lost energy source with carbs, this strategy has the unfortunate effect of promoting fat storage and weight gain.
Nearly 10 years ago, I published one of Taubes’ articles on this site, in which he expounded on the misguided dietary advice to “eat less fat and more carbohydrates,” stating that this advice just might be the cause of the skyrocketing rates of obesity in America. Today, there’s no shortage of evidence supporting the claim that excessive sugar and carb consumption is indeed the primary driving factor behind obesity. Many of my articles touch on this each and every week. Another puzzle piece is the lack of healthful fat (or simply the wrong kinds of fats) in many people’s diet.
Not All Saturated Fats are the Same…
It’s unfortunate, but in today’s world of processed food-like products, it’s more important than ever to really understand what “real” food is, and not fall for the idea that you can substitute real foods with “new and improved” alternatives. Doing so can have severe health consequences. Trading naturally-occurring saturated fats for trans fats is just one example. Not understanding the inherent nutritional differences between grass-fed, organically-raised meats and that from cattle raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) is another.
They’re simply not interchangeable. Neither are organic vegetables and conventionally grown—or worse, genetically modified—varieties…
That said, let’s get back to fats.
As I just mentioned, when you cut carbs, you need to replace those calories with healthy fats. Both are sources of energy, but healthy fats are far more ideal than carbs. (In fact, saturated fat is the preferred fuel for your heart.) However, not just any kind of fat will do. The Atkins Diet is one popular example of a low-carb, high-fat diet that has helped many shed unwanted pounds. Unfortunately, Dr. Atkins didn’t pay much attention to the QUALITY of the fats, so while his recommendations worked in the short-term, many who tried it ended up experiencing long-term problems.
It’s important to understand that not all saturated fats are the same. There are subtle differences that have profound health implications, and if you avoid eating all saturated fats, your health will likely suffer as a result.
There are in fact more than a dozen different types of saturated fat, but you predominantly consume only three: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid.
It’s already been well established that stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) has no adverse effects on your cholesterol levels, and actually gets converted in your liver into the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. The other two, palmitic and lauric acid, do raise total cholesterol. However, since they raise “good” cholesterol as much or more than “bad” cholesterol, you’re still actually lowering your risk of heart disease.
So, What is “Healthy Fat,” and How Much Do You Need?
Sources of healthy fats include:
Olives and Olive oil
Coconuts and coconut oil
Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
Raw Nuts, such as, almonds or pecans
Organic pastured egg yolks
Grass fed meats
Unrefined Organic Palm oil
Unheated organic nut oils
Another healthful fat you want to be mindful of is animal-based omega-3. Deficiency in this essential fat can cause or contribute to very serious health problems, both mental and physical, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year. For more information about omega-3’s and the best sources of this fat, please review this previous article.
Personally, my diet consists of close to 70 percent fat. I recently published a discussion between Paul Jaminet, PhD., author of the book, Perfect Health Diet, and Dr. Ron Rosedale, an expert on insulin and leptin metabolism, which compares their individual low-carb, high-fat diet recommendations. While there is mild controversy whether or not you can safely include starches like rice and potatoes in your diet, both do recommend consuming somewhere between 50-70 percent fat.
This is in stark contrast to conventional dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. government, which advises you to consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats!
Saturated Fat Does Belong in a Healthy Diet
Such a low recommendation is illogical when you consider the evidence available today, which supports saturated fat as a necessary part of a heart healthy diet. For example, as discussed in a recent article by Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD, a number of indigenous tribes around the world are living proof that a high-saturated fat diet equates to low mortality from heart disease.
Maasai tribe in Kenya/Tanzania
Meat, milk, cattle blood
Inuit Eskimos in the Arctic
Whale meat and blubber
Rendille tribe in NE Kenya
Camel milk, meat, blood
Tokealu, atoll islands in New Zealand territory
Fish and coconuts
And then there’s human breast milk, which contains 54 percent saturated fat. Since breast milk is the most perfect diet in existence for developing infants, the presence of high amounts of saturated fat cannot easily be construed as a “mistake.”
•A meta-analysis published last year, which pooled data from 21 studies and included nearly 348,000 adults, found no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.
•In a 1992 editorial published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. William Castelli, a former director of the Framingham Heart study, stated:
“In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol. The opposite of what… Keys et al would predict…We found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.”
•Another 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a reduction in saturated fat intake must be evaluated in the context of replacement by other macronutrients, such as carbohydrates.
When you replace saturated fat with a higher carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrate, you exacerbate insulin resistance and obesity, increase triglycerides and small LDL particles, and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol. The authors state that dietary efforts to improve your cardiovascular disease risk should primarily emphasize the limitation of refined carbohydrate intake, and weight reduction.
I believe that last point is very important, and is likely a major key for explaining the rampant increase in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And once you can pinpoint the problem, turning it all around becomes that much easier