For decades we’ve been told to eat less cholesterol and saturated fat because they can cause or contribute to heart disease. Recently, however, these recommendations have been thrown out the window by some experts while the so-called real culprit-carbohydrates-are tossed to the lions.
So, are cholesterol and saturated fat your friends while whole-grain bagels and organic quinoa are your enemies? Before you decide to make burgers and steaks a regular part of your diet or become distressed because you are a vegetarian or vegan, let’s take a closer look at what is being reported.
A growing number of studies, including a March 2014 meta-analysis of 76 reports, have indicated that people who ate higher amounts of saturated fat did not experience more heart disease than individuals who ate less of the fat. They also have suggested that reducing your saturated fat and keeping your cholesterol levels low (less than around 180 mg/dL) do not help prevent heart disease and obesity. In fact, according to a 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal, lowering these two figures can actually raise your risk for both conditions.
This and other research findings were fodder for a recently published book called "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet " by Nina Teicholz, a health journalist. Teicholz emphasizes that the mantra to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol because they can cause heart disease is out of key-in more ways than one. In fact, since publication of research in Circulation by Ancel Keys in 1963, which stated that saturated fat is a big no-no for health and the heart, the public has been urged by the medical realm to lower its intake of foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Keys went on to publish follow-up articles on his work. A problem is that Keys reported only on selected countries; that is, only seven of the 22 he surveyed (which is why the study is referred to as the Seven Countries Study). When the data from all of the countries are considered, the conclusion was that people who ate more saturated fat actually had a lower risk of heart disease.
The result, according to Teicholz and some researchers, is that the public has turned in a big way to carbohydrates, especially refined carbs and simple sugars. This detour from fat to processed carbs has resulted in runaway inflammation and disease, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and more.
That’s because when you replace saturated with more carbs, especially refined white flour and white sugar carbs, you nourish and support insulin resistance, raise triglyceride levels, lower good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, HDL), and encourage obesity, according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report.
Another well-known study that focused on cholesterol and heart disease is the Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948 and has continued to this day. A little known fact about the findings of this study is that the more saturated fat and cholesterol people consumed, the lower their cholesterol levels. Since three-quarters of your cholesterol is produced by your liver, which is influenced by your insulin levels, it makes sense that you would want to manage your refined carbohydrate intake and keep insulin levels under control.
Benefits of Cholesterol and Saturated Fat
The idea that saturated fat and cholesterol are healthful may seem foreign, but they both do perform necessary and beneficial functions. For example, cholesterol:
- Is necessary for developing and maintaining cell structure
- Is needed to help your cells adjust to temperature changes
- Plays a critical role in the production the hormones testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone
- Protects the nerve cells
- Is needed by the body, along with sunlight, to manufacture vitamin D
Not all saturated fatty acids are the same. In fact, there are three main types–short-, medium-, and long-chain fatty acids-and they have specific characteristics. For example:
- Short-chain fatty acids (e.g., caproic acid, butyric acid), which are found in dairy products from pasture-fed animals, have anti-inflammatory properties. They also support and nurture gut health.
- Medium-chain fatty acids (e.g., capric, caprylic, and lauric acids) are found in palm and coconut oil and butter. They have demonstrated some ability to help with improving body composition, boosting productivity, and possibly improve insulin sensitivity and cognition.
- Long-chain fatty acids (e.g., myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids) can contribute to heart disease, depending on which ones you consume.
The trouble is, the long-chain fatty acids are consumed a lot! Both myristic and palmitic acid, for example, increase LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Dr. Mike Hart has noted that “the sources of long chain fatty acids that should be avoided come from processed foods and factory farmed meats.” Stearic acids are found in processed meats, beef, cheese, chicken, and grain-based desserts.
A More Vegetarian Argument
Among health experts who are not persuaded by the good saturated fat and cholesterol argument are Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Both physicians are also widely published and internationally known speakers.
Barnard remains adamant that “meat is unhealthy,” regardless of whether you point a finger at saturated fat, cholesterol, the fact that many vitamins are not found in meat, the absence of fiber, or the presence of arachidonic acid (which promotes inflammation). These factors can increase a person’s risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes, he notes.
Weil is a bit more forgiving, but not much. Based on the various studies on saturated fat and cholesterol, he suggests people consider eating high-quality organic dairy products in moderation and to limit saturated fat intake to not more than 10 percent of daily calories. He also notes that an “occasional steak (from organic, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle, please)” is acceptable.
So What’s the Verdict?
Experts cannot agree on the impact of saturated fat and cholesterol on heart disease. It’s also important to remember there are scores of studies that link saturated fat with other serious conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer.
However, according to various experts, if you buy into the idea that saturated fats and cholesterol are healthful, you should remember to stick with the “best sources,” which include grass-fed beef, pastured butter, coconut oil, tallow, ghee, and free-range eggs while avoiding any processed foods or those not in a natural form, according to Hart.
Joseph M. Mercola, DO, has weighed in on this question. He offers a list of recommendations on how to optimize cholesterol levels, reverse insulin resistance, and thus help prevent heart disease. Some of those suggestions are:
- Significantly reduce and even eliminate grains and fructose. Replace grain carbs with lots of non-starchy organic veggies.
- Include lots of organic raw foods in your diet. This includes not only raw veggies but also nuts, seeds, and dairy.
- Consume omega-3 fats and reduce omega-6 fats.
- Include healthful fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and organic grass-fed meat.
- Avoid GMOs and artificial sweeteners.
As a final note, it’s critical to remember that each person is unique, with his or her own personal and family history of heart disease as well as the presence and/or severity of other risk factors for heart conditions, such as overweight/obesity, smoking, age, stress levels, menopause status, amount of physical exercise, alcohol use, illicit drug use, and C-reactive protein levels.
Are cholesterol and saturated fat your friends when consumed in moderation? When it comes to matters of the heart, be sure to weigh all the factors carefully.
Image: Daniel Lee