When it comes to health and nutrition, the media gets it wrong most of the time. Beholden to advertising sponsors to push their products for profit, mass media isn’t the best or most objective source for nutrition facts. Various whole foods like eggs and red meat have taken their turn being demonized in the media over the years in favor of promoting processed foods from advertisers. Perhaps no healthy food has been more maligned in this way than saturated fat.
Fats are composed of chains of carbon atoms linked together with hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fat is a very stable compound because it contains one hydrogen atom for every carbon atom. This is why saturated fat is excellent for cooking and won’t go rancid when exposed to high heat. The high stability and saturation is what keeps saturated fat solid at room temperature. The highest percentages of saturated fat are in coconut oil (92%), butter (60%), beef/tallow (50%) and pork/lard (40%).
Monounsaturated fats are missing two hydrogen atoms, leaving a couple of carbon atoms without partners. Unlike saturated fat, their molecules don’t fit together in a tight, compact way. This is why they’re always liquid at room temperature but will coagulate or thicken in the fridge. The missing hydrogen atoms make their structure less stable with little tolerance for heat. Olive oil and avocado oil are full of monounsaturated fat.
Polyunsaturated fats are missing four or more hydrogen atoms. Because their atoms don’t fit together well, they’re highly unstable, which is why they’re always in liquid form regardless of temperature. They should never be heated under any circumstances and go rancid very easily, often just from exposure to the air. These include all the processed vegetable oils such as canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil.
Vital for Vitamins & Nerve Function
Fat is crucial for helping us absorb certain fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K because it’s the only way they can be transported throughout the body, which is why they’re only found in dietary fat. Carrots only provide pro-vitamin A which must be converted into vitamin A using fat. There is no reliable plant source of true vitamin A. Vitamin D is only found in fatty animal foods such as butter, egg yolks, fatty fish and liver. Both E and K are found abundantly in fat, but some plant sources, as well.
Our nervous system craves fat because the brain is 60% saturated fat, and not one neuron could fire without it. Over half the calories in breast milk come from saturated fat because it’s vital to the development of the brain and proper cognitive function along with its partner, cholesterol.
Cholesterol is one of the building blocks of the body and crucial for health. Every membrane of your 1 trillion cells is composed of proteins, saturated fat, and cholesterol. It literally holds the body together. Cholesterol is so important that your body doesn’t trust you to eat enough of it which is why 85% of the cholesterol in your body is made by the liver and doesn’t come from your diet. Of this amount, 25% is reserved for the brain.
Cholesterol also maintains the integrity of the intestinal lining, has antioxidant properties and is fundamental to the creation of sex hormones. (Because babies’ brains need to develop fast, breast milk is also loaded with it.) So, if cholesterol is our friend, then who convinced us it was the enemy?
Jumping to Conclusions
In 1963, Ancel Keys from the University of Minnesota released the Seven Countries Study (SCS) that said he established a connection between saturated fat / cholesterol consumption and increased cardiovascular disease, now known as The Lipid Hypothesis. The SCS was an epidemiological study which by nature doesn’t isolate any factors and can only make generalized assumptions. It can find a possible correlation between two things but never prove that one actually causes the other. In this way, epidemiological studies aren’t really research but surveys. The people in Key’s study ate widely different diets, and he made no attempt to investigate the various cultural, social, genetic, or environmental factors that affected their health or whether his subjects exercised or smoked. Still, he announced that the people who ate more fat had more cardiovascular disease, and the media ran with it demonizing butter, eggs, bacon, and red meat.
Filling in the Blanks
Keys’ report directly contradicted the Framingham Heart Study (FHS). First begun in 1948 with 15,000 people and still going on today, it is the longest and most comprehensive study in medical history. For more than 70 years, its results have consistently shown that the lower cholesterol levels drop after age 50, the more the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases increases. In fact, some of the first data showed that for every 1mg/dl decrease in cholesterol, participants experienced a 14% increase in death from cardiovascular disease and an 11% increase in death from other chronic diseases.
By 1992 after 44 years of ongoing research, the evidence was so overwhelming that saturated fat and cholesterol did not cause cardiovascular disease that the FHS director, Dr. William Castelli, publicly 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… 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.”
In 2000, a review of the SCS by the University of Lund in Sweden found that in 1963 Keys had actually collected data from 22 countries instead of seven and only included the information from those that would support his theory in the final report. When the data from the other 15 countries was added back into the study, the results directly contradicted Keys’ hypothesis: the more cholesterol and saturated fat that were consumed, the less the occurrence of heart disease.
Dr. Malcolm Kendrick performed a modern day version of the SCS using the most current World Health Organization (WHO) data. The study spanned 21 countries, involved 10 million people and lasted a full decade. Once again, the results showed absolutely no correlation between cardiovascular disease and saturated fat and cholesterol intake. You can read more about this in his excellent book, The Great Cholesterol Con: The truth about what really causes heart disease and how to avoid it.
The gold standard in scientific research is the controlled double blind study where one factor is isolated among test groups with everything else remaining the same. That’s the only way to prove true causation. The Lipid Hypothesis was put to the real test back in 1965 in London. All participants ate the exact same diet with the only difference being one group had their saturated fat replaced with corn oil. Those test subjects experienced a 23mg/dl decrease in serum cholesterol…and much higher death rates from cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. In their report, the scientists commented, “…under the circumstances of this trial, corn oil cannot be recommended in the treatment of ischaemic heart disease. It is most unlikely to be beneficial and is possibly harmful.”
Those results were confirmed a year later in 1966 in a controlled study conducted in the U.S. Just nine months into the study, eight people in the low fat/low cholesterol group who had their dietary saturated fat replaced with vegetable oils died of heart attacks. From the group eating saturated fat? None. When the study concluded, 26 people in the low cholesterol group had died of heart attacks, while just six did from the control group.
With decades of research confirming saturated fat and cholesterol do not cause cardiovascular disease, but, instead, protect people from it, manufacturers eager to save the reputation of their processed vegetable oils tried to link saturated fat to cancer.
Both the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund stated that there was no “convincing” or even “probable” evidence to even suggest a connection between saturated fat consumption and cancer risk. The American Cancer Society agreed by stating, “…there is little evidence that the total amount of fat consumed increases cancer risk.”
Harvard University’s ongoing Nurse’s Health Study begun in 1976 tracking 89,000 nurses has confirmed in multiple yearly reports that the more saturated fat women eat, the lower their breast cancer risk falls. For every 5% of simple carbohydrates a woman replaces with saturated fat in her diet, she experiences a 9% decrease in breast cancer risk.
So after more than 70 years of research it’s clear that saturated fat and cholesterol do NOT cause cardiovascular disease or cancer but instead, protect us from them. The Lipid Hypothesis was created to steer people away from natural healthy fats and into buying processed commercial vegetable oils, even at the cost of their health.
Double Edged Sword
There are two types of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids: omega 6 and omega 3. They’re called essential fatty acids because they’re essential to our health. Our bodies can’t make them, so we have to obtain them from our diet.
The body does need some polyunsaturated fat, but only a tiny amount, about 4% of total calories, mostly because of the omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids it contains. The ideal ratio for health is 1:1. This can easily be obtained from natural sources like plant foods, nuts, and grass-fed meat, not processed vegetable oils.
Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory, but omega 6’s can work against us and become pro-inflammatory if their numbers get too high. Processed vegetable oils are extremely high in omega 6’s with virtually no omega 3’s to balance them out, making them highly inflammatory in the body. For example, here is the omega 6 to 3 percentage content of some common vegetable oils: safflower 75%-0%, sunflower 65%-0%, corn 54%-0%, sesame 42%-0%, peanut 32%-0%, soybean 51%-7%. By contrast, the percentage for fish oil is 0%-100%. With commercial vegetable oils in all processed foods, it’s not uncommon to see Americans eating a diet with a 6 to 3 ratio of 20:1. This leads to massive inflammation inside the body, which has been directly linked to every major chronic disease, especially cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Free Radical Frenzy
Because processed vegetable oils are polyunsaturated and structurally unstable, they oxidize very quickly during exposure to heat or even the air, producing high amounts of free radicals that cause cell damage. When this damage and inflammation happens inside the arteries, it’s cholesterol that comes to the rescue to line the artery walls with a protective plaque, not to kill us, but to prevent further damage to the delicate tissue of our circulatory system. The plaque buildup ceases when pro-inflammatory foods like vegetable oils, sugar, and simple carbs stop being consumed. Just for the record, the breakdown of arterial plaque shows 26% is saturated and 74% is unsaturated with the latter amount being overwhelmingly polyunsaturated.
In addition to their highly inflammatory and oxidative properties, vegetable oils are toxic because they come from seeds that must be placed under enormous amounts of pressure for their oils to be extracted.
This generates intense temperatures that render the oil immediately rancid before it’s even bottled. Hexane, a byproduct of manufacturing petroleum, is used to accelerate the extraction process and often leaves traces in the final product. Later, the oil must go through several rounds of deodorization, bleaching, hydrogenation, fractionation, and plasticization if it’s to become shortening or margarine. Not only are the source seeds for vegetable oils GMO, like corn, soybean and rapeseed (canola), most of them contain trans fats that aren’t listed on the nutrition label because they occur during the hydrogenation process and aren’t considered an ingredient.
Clearing Out the Cupboards
For your health and the health of your family, I highly recommend avoiding toxic-laden, inflammatory vegetable oils made from corn, canola, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and sesame. Consider replacing them with natural, unprocessed oils like coconut oil, beef (tallow), pork (lard), butter, olive oil, duck fat, palm oil, and egg yolks. Your body, brain, and heart will thank you for it.
For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter, or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.