What about fat? {part one: the cholesterol myth}

One of my clients came to me concerned about the saturated fat she was eating in the meal plans that we prepared for her. She was eating more meat, animal fat and coconut oil than she was used too. While she felt she was eating healthy, she was raised to believe that saturated fats would give her heart disease and as an older client this worried her. This is a common misconception that is promoted as a general nutritional guideline and causes a lot of confusion and fear when trying to get back to eating real foods.

For 50 years our society has been taught that FAT is an evil to avoid at all costs. We’ve been taught that saturated fats increase cholesterol which in turn increases our risk of heart disease. This is a myth that has been perpetuated by our society for years and is based on assumptions made from a study almost 50 years ago. It was made into public policy in 1977 even though it was never proven and still continues to advise the nutritional guidelines we are taught.

In the past 10 years or so FAT has been slightly less vilified as we began to talk about ‘healthy’ fats versus ‘unhealthy’ fats. But even now there is confusion and misdirection about what kinds of fat are ‘healthy’ and which kinds are ‘unhealthy’. This is especially true when it comes to the understanding of saturated fats. Governmental health bodies like the UK’s National Health Service and the American Heart Association claim that because saturated fats increase your cholesterol levels consuming it will increase your risk for heart disease.

I, like my client, had heard these claims but intuitively I felt that these saturated fats couldn’t be all bad. I felt there were so many benefits from eating the foods that are high in the saturated fats that it would outweigh all the risks. But I wanted to understand the science behind it and see if my instincts were correct.

This post has taken me a while to put together because it is so heavily based on research, but I have learned so much and hope that this information will clear up some of the confusion around fats and heart disease.

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There are four main types of fats and each type come with their own benefits and downsides. There are saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats and trans fats. While below I have listed types of foods that generally fall into those categories, it is only because the majority of the fats found in that food are from that category. Most real foods contain a mix of the three main dietary fats (not including trans fat).

 

Unsaturated Fats

These are commonly viewed as the ‘healthy fats’ by mainstream nutritional bodies. These are considered essential fats that act as a source of energy, boost moods, build cell membranes and nerve sheaths, aid in nutrient and vitamin absorption, are essential for blood clotting and muscle movement and help with inflammation. These fats are divided into two groups:

  • Polyunsaturated Fats are found in fatty fish (salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, etc), flax/linseed and walnuts.
  • Monounsaturated Fats are often found in olives, olive oil, eggs, avocado, most nuts and vegetable oils (like soybean and canola, but check out this article to find out why these specific vegetable oils are not the ‘healthy’ choice that food companies market them to be).

 

Saturated Fats

Foods high in saturated fats include those fats that are often solid at room temperature. These include:

  • Animal products like meat, poultry, butter, ghee, tallow, lard and duck fat
  • Other dairy products
  • Coconut oil

These are the fats that are touted to be unhealthy for your heart because they raise cholesterol levels and thus increase the risk of heart disease, but that link has not been proven by experimental evidence but instead based on researchers assumptions, observational data and animal studies. Check out this article from Authority Nutrition for more in-depth information about the studies that formed the misguided public policy that has dominated our standard nutritional guidelines for almost 50 years.

There are 2 types of proteins that carry cholesterol–HDL and LDL. When your cholesterol is monitored, it is these proteins that are measured not your actual cholesterol levels. HDL particles are often viewed as ‘good’ and the LDL particles as ‘bad, but again is not quite that simplistic.

There are 2 types of LDL particles–large fluffy ones which have been found to be mostly benign and then the small dense ones. It is these small ones that cause the problems that can lead to heart disease like oxidation and penetration of arterial walls.

Saturated fats do raise your cholesterol as so often claimed, but it raises your HDL levels which are the good particles and it changes the small dense harmful LDL particles into the more benign large and fluffy LDL particles.

Simply put, saturated fats are pretty neutral when it comes to heart health, but many of the foods high in saturated fats have many other health benefits that we would miss out on if we avoided them. Unprocessed meat, poultry and dairy are great sources of protein and other nutrients (especially when organic and grass-fed). Meats contain all of the essential amino acids. Coconut oil is great as a cooking oil. It provides a great source of quick energy, is an anti fungal and anti microbial that boosts the immune system, helps ease inflammation/arthritis and has a plethora of other health benefits.

 

Trans Fat

This is the only truly ‘bad’ fat that we should all avoid as there are no benefits whatsoever from consuming it and many risks. Trans fat is a by-product of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils (canola and soybean) during the processing. This type of fat lowers the levels of the HDLs or the ‘good’ particles and increases the levels of the dangerous LDL particles which creates inflammation that is linked to heart disease, strokes, diabetes and insulin resistance.

Here are some foods high in trans fats that should be avoided:

  • margarine, shortening and other imitation butters/spreads
  • processed baked goods (cookies, biscuits, crackers, etc)
  • deep-fried foods
  • chips/crisps
  • ready-made pie crusts, cookie dough, pastries, frosting, etc
  • anything that has partially hydrogenated vegetable oil

 

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The truly ‘bad’ fats come from industrially made or altered foods, so if you get your fats from natural ‘food’ based sources you can rest assured you are getting the ‘good’ ones that won’t damage your heart. Simply put unsaturated fats protect your heart, saturated fats are neutral and trans fats are damaging to your heart.

Fat in general is so misunderstood by our society and has so many health benefits that we as a society are missing out on. Not only are we misinformed when it comes to the effects of saturated fats on our bodies, but most of our society is still under the false impression that we get fat from eating fat.

My next post in this series on fats will shed more light on the role that fats play in obesity and losing weight. Follow me so you don’t miss the next post in this series by clicking the link in the upper right side of the website in you are on a computer or tablet or further below if you are on a mobile.

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