I’m a fan of eating food based on what science says about it. I’m not the type who eats a certain way because it’s popular, trendy, or has people saying it makes them feel great. No, I eat based on what I read about online and for the most part, it seems evidence towards plant-based foods and high fat diets are picking up pace. Plant-based foods are generally awesome and have no real threat to health aside from issues that arise from overeating something or lack of a specific nutrient found in meat. It’s not the same for diets centered around fat, though.
Truth be told, the controversy surrounding fat and its effects on the body is a lot like a coin tossed in the air and it’s spinning and spinning as everyone below is hedging their bets on whether it would fall heads or tails. I won’t be so adamant as to try and convince people of my ideas, rather I would present evidence as well as critical insight on the “science wars” regarding fat consumption.
The Big Fat Phobia
Before sugar became public enemy #1, it was fat who had its name on everyone’s wanted list. People back then thought of fat as if it was a harmful substance, that eating anything with fat in it, even the slightest drop, can cause not just obesity but also a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. It didn’t help that both scientists and politicians agreed more fat = higher cholesterol = higher risk for heart disease.
Fear of fat wasn’t just something that happened overnight, though. Granted advancements in science has since showed us there is more to fat than meets the eye, it was science who first told everyone that consuming foods high in fat, specifically saturated fat, was bad for your body.
One of the many proponents of this fear fat movement is Ancel Keys, a researcher who directed what would later become the “Rosetta Stone” of nutrition studies called the Seven Countries Study.
What was the Seven Countries Study all about?
The official website of the Seven Countries Study describes Ancel’s greatest contribution to nutritional science as
“The Seven Countries Study is the first major study to investigate diet and lifestyle along with other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, across contrasting countries and cultures and over an extended period of time.”
With regards to saturated fat and cholesterol, the famous study concluded with the following:
- Risk and rate of heart attacks and strokes were directly and independently related to total serum cholesterol.
- Higher saturated fat intake lead to higher serum cholesterol and subsequently lead to higher coronary heart disease incidence.
Below is the famous graph that illustrates how Ancel arrived to the conclusions above:
With Ancel’s popularity in his field and large scale of this study, it shouldn’t be surprising how these two simple takeaways would influence what we define as healthy for 35 years. From nutritional education and food guidelines all the way to how we market “healthy” food, the premise of what makes an edible substance good for you would always have to be grounded on it containing as little fat as possible.
As much as we respect the people and their intentions behind the Seven Countries Study, we would like to say science and technology has since evolved, and the methodology behind each new experiment is now arguably much more accurate.
In light of that fact, here are some reasons why we ask you to reconsider the study’s conclusions on fat and heart disease.
1. FAO Data Inaccuracies
Ancel made use of 1948-1949 diet data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the data shows food availability for consumption and not actual food consumed. This is an unreliable way of measuring what people eat. It doesn’t necessarily make Ancel’s data as fake or biased, but it does suggest the possibility of overestimating fat intake of wealthier nations.
Since it was still a Post-World War era, countries who relatively remained untouched during World War 2 – such as the US and Canada, countries with the greatest correlation of fat intake and heart disease – had more access to food containing high amounts of fat than countries who were largely devastated by the war.
2. Animal fat, not fat in general, was the “culprit”
The driving force behind the correlation was animal fat intake, not just fat in general as pointed out by another study that serves as a rebuttal on Keys’ claims. (Full study here) They also suggest that plant fat (as well as plant protein) may even have protective effects against heart disease.
The same study also pointed out that if Keys included all 22 countries, the correlation doesn’t disappear but it is weakened.
3. People who had higher fat intake lived longer
Given Keys’ data does correlate fat intake with heart disease, fat consumption apparently didn’t really put you at risk for anything else. We’re not saying eating a ton of fat will suddenly make you immune to everything else. Rather, you can say foods rich in fat may also contain healthy substances which help prevent or reduce risks of other diseases.
Economics also play out i.e. rich countries have higher standards of living and therefore consume more animal products, while at he same time granted better access to healthcare and better food manufacturing processes.
4. Data on Crete was taken during Lent
Nina Teicholz, former editor of the British Medical Journal, investigated Keys’ study in Crete, particularly how he used their data and how they prove his hypothesis. During the Seven Countries Study, the typical Crete diet was observed to be low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat intake. As a result, they had low cardiovascular mortality among adult males.
Nina was able to find out Keys took his food surveys during Lent, an occasion where people abstain from meat consumption. This makes one critical part of Keys’ data to be highly questionable especially since this is what the modern Mediterranean Diet is based on.
For additional information, check out Nina Teicholz’s “The Big Fat Surprise” TEDxEast presentation.
5. Correlation isn’t causation
Lastly, The Seven Countries Study is an observational study. Observational studies aren’t meant to fully arrive at conclusions but rather derive hypotheses from them. With observational studies, you don’t exactly have control over your test subjects and their behaviors, as well as the different environments they are exposed to.
In the case of the Seven Countries Study, the graph illustrates a tendency heart disease risk to increase along with fat intake, but we can’t say heart disease is caused by fat intake alone as there are other known factors associated with heart disease such as smoking. Smoking wasn’t believed to be harmful until the 60’s and was therefore considered a common past time by the general population.
Note: To his credit, Ancel Keys may have been a staunch defender of his stance against fat intake, but he firmly believed dietary cholesterol has little to do with atherosclerosis. We quote: “From the animal experiments alone the most reasonable conclusion would be that the cholesterol content of human diets is unimportant in human atherosclerosis.”
Fat Phobia and its Impact on National Nutrition
This article by Dariush Mozaffarian and David S. Ludwig highlights the way the American government, after recognizing the Seven Countries Study, made sure every person would opt for a high-carb, low-fat diet. Their dietary guidelines were developed with the assumption that fats, in whatever form, are bad for the body and caused obesity while carbs, on the other hand, are what should be dominating your plate. To quote:
“In place of fat, we were told to eat more carbohydrates. Indeed, carbohydrates were positioned as the foundation of a healthy diet: The 1992 edition of the food pyramid, assembled by the Department of Agriculture, recommended up to 11 daily servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Americans, and food companies and restaurants, listened — our consumption of fat went down and carbs, way up.“
To further elucidate the fear of fat in the 90s, here’s the official food pyramid everyone was taught to follow:
The guide would further advise people to cut fat from their diet as much as possible. From telling them how to choose their products to how to cook and prepare their meals.
We see commercials promoting nonfat this and nonfat that, low-fat milk and yogurt, and even butter was called out for being made up of “unhealthy fat” which made the government cheer for margarine instead. It’s ironic since now we know margarine has a lot of trans fat and trans fat is one of the worse things you can put inside your body.
Why Warning Against Fat Did Little To Public Health
It’s been more than 50 years since The Seven Countries Study and the government’s warning issuance on fat consumption. The fear is very much alive to this day yet we have to ask: Did we improve our health? Have we gotten better at lowering risk of heart disease and obesity since then?Were we able to lower heart disease and obesity? Statistics say no to both.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2009 were in men.
- About 610,000 Americans die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
- Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing about 365,000 people in 2014.
- In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 42 seconds. Each minute, someone in the United States dies from a heart disease-related event.
- More than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults have obesity.
- Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
Despite the aggressive efforts of researchers, politicians, and even mainstream media, it would seem warning against fat and subsequently promoting low and nonfat products didn’t really get us far from heart disease and obesity, the two biggest issues Keys warned us about in his study.
Where do we go from here?
Since the Seven Countries Study, advancements in science has only exponentially risen, and gave birth to studies that looked at saturated fat through a more detailed and much more controlled perspective. We’re happy to say new research has shed light on why saturated fat is not only generally good for your health, but also as a basic nutritional requirement.
In fact, the government has already started to reconsider their thoughts on fat and they’ve shown this in two separate instances.
US Dietary Guidelines lifting ban on fat
The 2015 version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans – the official food recommendation guidelines by the US government – has now removed the upper limit on total fat intake. Not only that, the guidelines also state cholesterol will no longer be a “nutrient of concern.” This effectively tells people they shouldn’t really be worried about total fat intake.
FDA vs KIND
The FDA is currently reconsidering the warning label on what companies can claim as “healthy” and this is pretty big news because of what provoked the statement.
It all started when the FDA issued a warning letter to KIND due to KIND’s use of the word “healthy” on their products with special emphasis on saturated fat content from their ingredients. KIND’s CEO responded by starting a Citizen Petition, saying the current US Dietary Guidelines promoted importance of foods such as eggs, legumes, and nuts and yet the regulatory guidelines prevented companies from labeling foods like avocados, olives, salmon, and even nuts as “healthy.” This shows why the FDA’s guidelines quite confusing as far as defining “healthy” food is concerned.
The government itself is considering fat as something that could be labeled as “healthy” and we earlier discussed why saturated fat may not be as bad as they said it was. However, what makes fat, specifically saturated fat, good for us? The answer to that question is simple: our body needs it.
Let’s take a quick look at what saturated fat is as well as its biological functions.
Saturated Fat: What it is and why we can’t live without it
From a chemical viewpoint, saturation of a fatty acid refers to how many double bonds are in the fatty acid chain linking them together. Saturated fatty acids are literally saturated with hydrogen atoms. Against monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, saturated fatty acids are easily packed together and usually form a straight shape as illustrated below.
The structural differences explain why highly saturated fats such as those of coconut oil and butter will be solid at room temperature (73-75 F or 23-24 C) while unsaturated fats like those of olive oil and corn oil will stay liquid sometimes even in cooler temperatures.
Kinds of Saturated Fat
Saturated fats are divided into groups according to their side chain length. To date, there are four groups of saturated fat: Short, Medium, Long, and Very Long.
- Short. Butyric and Caproic acid, found in dairy.
- Medium. Caprylic, Capric, Lauric acid, found in coconut and palm kernel.
- Long. Myristic, Palmitic, and Stearic are found in many sources while Arachidic acid is found in abundance in peanuts.
- Very Long. Behenic, Lignoceric, both found in peanuts.
What makes categorizing saturated fat as either healthy or unhealthy are due to the different effects one form of saturated fat provides over the other. For this reason, it’s difficult to assess just what saturated fats really are and what they actually do to the body.
Biological Importance of Saturated Fat
Even though fat was unfairly demonized, researchers still recommend saturated fat intake at the minimum and it’s because the scientific community generally accepts it to be a biological necessity. In fact, saturated fat is so important, our body actually makes it own from carbohydrates via de novo lipogenesis (DNL). DNL allows palmitate synthesis, a compound that can then convert to other forms of saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and even polyunsaturated fats.
The fact that there is a pathway that converts carbohydrates to fat and none the other way around speaks volumes at how much the body values fat for overall function. For saturated fat, the body mainly needs it for the following.
Cell Membrane Fluidity
Our body seeks homeostasis all the time and it couldn’t be more relevant when it comes to fatty acid balance. Saturated fats and unsaturated fats help promote optimal cell membrane fluidity where the former makes cell membranes less fluid and the latter, more fluid.
The body needs saturated fat to produce hormones in your body. Testosterone, a hormone responsible for muscle growth, bone health, and reproductive health, requires a good amount of cholesterol to be produced in significant amounts. Human fat is largely made up of saturated fat, and studies on the relationship between testosterone and saturated fat intake indicate positive correlation on patients who were asked to increase dietary fat intake or reduce them.
Fat, not just saturated fat, in general is also needed for organ protection and energy production not just for energy’s sake, but also for producing body heat by means of thermogenesis. Fat is also required by the body to digest, absorb, and transport vitamins A, D, E, and K because of their fat-soluble nature. Fat also acts as a temporary barrier against a host of diseases as well as help in detoxification by diluting lipid soluble persistent organic pollutants.
Harcombe’s Review of Dietary Guidelines
We know the national dietary guidelines limited fat intake with the intent of reducing coronary heart disease, an idea that was sourced from Keys’ Seven Countries Study. Said guidelines were introduced in 1977 in the US and 1983 in the UK.
Researchers headed by Zoe Harcombe published a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis where they examined the evidence the dietary committee had at the time and see whether their decision to warn the public about fat intake, specially saturated fat, was warranted. Below are the results.
- Only one of the ten random controlled studies presented a case for dietary guidelines.
- Sudden death in survivors of myocardial infarction was uninfluenced by diet.
- Four studies were neutral in their findings with one study recommending a weekly fatty fish diet to reduce mortality in patients who recovered from myocardial infarction.
- Despite successfully reducing saturated fatty acid intake, risk of coronary heart disease wasn’t reduced.
- The other four studies issued cautions about the safety and/or efficacy of their interventions, with one study citing the use of a low-fat diet “has no place in the treatment of myocardial infarction.”
- Having a high unsaturated fat diet has no benefit for longevity and could have problems with toxicity.
- Survival was better in control than those who were under a low-fat, low cholesterol intervention.
As mentioned earlier, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) decided to lift the upper tolerable limit on dietary cholesterol intake in their 2015 report, discarding the 300 mg limit which was introduced in the US since 1977.
This is all due to new studies showing no significant relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol. The DGAC also changed their stance regarding dietary fat and cardiovascular disease after considering studies that showed reducing total fat intake did not lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Despite the new findings, the DGAC was still adamant on recommending not more than 10% of total calories from saturated fat per day. Regardless, this is still a huge step for science-based policies on public health and shows that eating fat isn’t harmful and is certainly not optional.
Why Saturated Fat isn’t as bad as they say it is
The body needs fat and even the new guidelines agree, but they’re still unsure on whether saturated fat is good or bad for you. Here are some studies highlighting what saturated fat can do for your body and your overall health.
1. Actually good for your cholesterol
Saturated fat raises cholesterol levels and yes, it does increase LDL which is universally known as the “bad cholesterol”, but new studies show LDL is actually subdivided into two groups: Small and Dense, and Large. Saturated fat doesn’t increase the small and dense LDL.
The small and dense LDL are capable of penetrating the arterial wall and responsible for coronary heart disease.
How about HDL?
Cholesterol is responsible for production of hormones like testosterone, helps the liver create bile for proper digestions, and is a structural component for every cell in our body. Without cholesterol, we would die. To make sure we don’t just use up our cholesterol, our body makes sure we always have enough of it to function.
This is why when your blood tests show you have low cholesterol, that’s not exactly a reason to celebrate and your body would generally be better off having a lot of cholesterol.
2. Not guilty of heart disease
Looking at a lot of studies and meta-analyses of controlled experiments, evidence saying saturated fat increases risk for cardiovascular diseases doesn’t hold water. This 2010 study made use of an astounding 347,747 subjects, 11,006 of which developed coronary heart disease or stroke. Their conclusion:
“A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. More data are needed to elucidate whether cardiovascular risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.“
Despite the amazing results, data also suggests replacing some saturated fat with polyunsaturated may reduce risk of heart disease. Another study also highlights the adverse effects of replacing saturated fatty acids with both trans fatty acids and carbohydrates on our cardiovascular health.
“The replacement of saturated fatty acids (SFAs)with trans fatty acids has been associated with adverse CVD risk factors and outcomes, whereas the replacement of SFAs with carbohydrates has not been associated with benefit and may be associated with increased CVD risk.”
3. Could help reduce risk of stroke
A stroke is often caused by a sudden disturbance in blood flow to the brain. An abrupt stop can cause brain damage. This makes strokes a common cause of disability and/or death particularly in western countries such as the United States.
When it comes to clogged arteries, saturated fat has been unfairly blamed for being a contributor, but science begs to disagree. This 2016 study says higher saturated fat intake is inversely associated with risk of stroke morbidity and mortality.
A 14-year study also concluded a similar result:
“Our findings from this large cohort of middle aged US male healthcare professionals without a history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus indicate that intakes of total fat, specific types of fat, or dietary cholesterol do not seem to be related to the development of stroke.”
4. May help promote weight loss
A true high fat diet, one that is also low in carbohydrates, actually helps with weight loss.
There are plenty of studies that highlight a high fat, low carb diet’s ability to reduce weight and has been the core of many popular diet as well as lifestyles. Some of these include the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, and the Atkins diet.
According to a 2003 study, patients diagnosed with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease lost weight after 6 weeks with a high saturated fat diet. The patients didn’t suffer from any negative side effects on serum lipid levels. They also say further weight loss with a may persist for up to 52 weeks with lipid-neutral effects only.
5. Enhances athletic endurance and muscle gain
Testosterone is a steroid hormone with anticatabolic and anabolic effects on our muscle, and plays a major role when it comes to muscle hypertrophy and athletic performance. As mentioned earlier, saturated fat intake is necessary for testosterone production. This study demonstrated both monounsaturated fatty acid and saturated fatty acid were deemed the best predictors of circulating testosterone in athletic men during rest.
While most studies are still on the fence regarding the performance benefits of saturated fat intake, the verdict on endurance seems to be favorable. One study showed that in a “balanced” diet, increasing fat intake by up to 55% have shown an increase in endurance in aerobic exercises such as long distance running and cycling.
Furthermore, endurance athletes who were fed at least 111 g of saturated fat per day didn’t affect their total and LDL-cholesterol levels, whereas their serum triglycerides fell by 10% to 20%. Likewise, another study supports the use of a ketogenic diet with 1/3 of the fat made up of saturated fat for endurance athletes for high volume training. It’s been shown to reduce body fat and decrease post-exercise muscle damage.
So fat isn’t that bad. Where do you get them?
The concept of healthy fat isn’t new and has been around for as long as people have been eating fish for Omega 3. As discussed earlier, we have three classifications of fat: Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
You mostly get saturated fats from animal fat, dairy products such as butter, tropical oils like coconut oil. Olive oil, avocados, whole milk, and nuts are all good sources of monounsaturated fats, whereas popular sources of polyunsaturated fats include sunflower, sesame, and even fish due to Omega-3. We know what saturated fats can do for us so what about monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats?
Monounsaturated fats are known for:
Polyunsaturated fats are known for:
Adding (more) fat in your diet is good for you
Eating fat doesn’t have to be tailored towards a specialized diet. You don’t have to be in a low-carb, high fat diet or aiming for a state of ketosis to reap the benefits of healthy dietary fat. All fats except trans fat are beneficial in a variety of diets, be it the standard recommended diet, a high protein diet, or even a plant-based diet. The benefits of fat intake is naturally much more in tune with low-carb, high fat diets such as the ketogenic diet.
A ketogenic is essentially a very low-carb, high fat diet and is centered around adjusting your body’s go-to energy source from glucose to ketones. Ketones are produced by the liver when it senses glucose scarcity. This “scarcity” is referred to as ketosis and this process makes use of stored fat as energy. Supplying the body with healthy fats will only help boost the effects and benefits of a ketogenic diet.
Plant-based eating is already considered a generally healthy form of eating even by physicians as the diseases attributed to plant-based diets are almost non-existent. For those in a plant-based diet, the sources of healthy fats would have to come from the likes of coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and nuts. These fat sources are touted for their therapeutic uses ranging from weight loss and increasing fat metabolism to treating inflammation and reducing risks of heart diseases and cancers.
Why I Like Coconut, Macadamia, and Chia oils
My stance on ingredient consumption is highly dependent on what current evidence suggests and so far in the case of saturated fat, it seems the potential uses and benefits outweigh the supposed adverse side effects. Assuming every factor is absent, you can say findings indeed correlate saturated fat intake with increased risk of cardiovascular disease but as we mentioned earlier, the risk seems to come from animal fat and not those from plants.
In that regard, I readily make use of saturated fat sourced from three plants: Coconut, Macadamia, and Chia.
My favorite source of saturated fat is coconut oil. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to add more healthy fat in their system without the usual side effects. Although if you’ve been snooping around social media last week, I’m sure you saw the recent warning advisory by the American Heart Association on coconut oil as alarming.
Again, let’s look at what science has to say. Plenty of new findings also suggest the risk of heart disease to be much more attributed to saturated fat from animals than plants, with more studies showing coconut oil’s benefits for the human body far outweighs the risks of acquiring cardiovascular diseases.
Coconut oil is composed of eight fatty acids but is mainly known for lauric acid, a saturated fatty acid, which makes up almost half of its entire chemical makeup. Coconut oil happens to be the largest source of lauric acid at roughly 45-50% and the second largest is human breast milk at around 6-10%. Why is lauric acid a big deal? Lauric acid has been touted for its antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial properties as well as weight, inflammatory and cognitive benefits.
Although the potency isn’t much compared to the pure version, coconut oil also has MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) amounting to around 65% of its chemical structure. MCTs are known for increasing metabolism which aids in weight and fat loss, skipping the fat storing process and burned as fuel almost immediately, supports a healthy prebiotic environment, and some antioxidant properties.
Macadamia Nut Oil
Just like coconut oil, macadamia nut oil also has heart healthy benefits thanks to its chemical makeup. Its health benefits are attributed to it being largely made up of monounsaturated fatty acids namely oleic acid (65%) and palmitoleic acid (18%). Studies have shown the benefits of macadamia nut oil on inflammation, cholesterol, blood pressure, and an overall protective effect against metabolic syndrome.
Chia Seed Extract
Chia seeds are loaded with nutrients that can give your body and brain a good boost. Chia seeds are composed of 15-25% protein, 30-33% fat, and around 26-41% carbohydrates. Chia oil is largely made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids mainly from essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic and linoeic acid.
Linoleic acid is known to boost bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) , on the other hand,is known to be similar to the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil which are EPA and DHA.
While the body does have the ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, researchers say the conversion itself is inefficient and barely 1% is made for functional uses. Regardless, you can boost the conversion (as well as overall omega-3 content) by eating fatty fish regularly or by taking fish oil.
Fat is fat. Whether it’s good for you or not is entirely up to a plethora of factors ranging from type of fat and sources all the way to how your body responds to it. Whether you’re pro or con, my intention here is to simply show you that science is a self-correcting entity and as such, the things we know to be absolute yesterday could be nonsensical tomorrow. Criticize everything, my friends.
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He likes to tell people how to grow their money and how to naturally lose body fat. He owns Fit and Write, a website catered to his passion to write about health and fitness. His main weapon against weakness is the kettlebell.
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