Debunking the Myth that Saturated Fat Causes Disease

Debunking the Myth that Saturated Fat Causes Disease

November 21, 2016 1 Comment

  

 

 If you surf through YouTube fitness channels on any given day, you will not see one common view of obtaining better health, a better body, or increasing physical performance. Rather, you will see a chaotic clump of conflicting views and various personalities pining for your attention with their own spins on fitness. What most of us can agree on is that theThe standard American diet (SAD) is ruining many lives and causing morbidity, obesity, and death at an alarming rate. Though I appreciate anyone who seeks to battle this plague, the effort to garner attention and create spin often creates overly simplistic views of complex phenomena that do not necessarily match the reality. People often bend or ignore evidence to present their preferred view or method for improving fitness. No where is this more true in the fitness realm than in nutrition and in the debate surrounding saturated fat, particularly in the arguments put forth by people seeking to promote their own agendas.

Nutrition experts and doctors alike have long vilified the intake of saturated fat due to early studies that demonstrated a link between saturated fat, heart disease, and cancer. [1],[2],[3] As it is most commonly found in meat, dairy, and eggs (but also in coconut oil), many vegans and plant-based advocates have often used this proposed link as ammunition to advocate their view that humans should be herbivores. Yet the lipid hypothesis, which proposes that saturated fat intake leads to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes is currently on shaky ground at best. In 2010, a meta-analysis of twenty-one studies with a total of over 347,000 subjects over a five to twenty-three year period demonstrated no link between saturated fat and coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or stroke.[4] In 2015, another meta-analysis of over 339,000 participants demonstrated that there was no link between saturated fat consumption and all cause mortality, coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease, stroke, or type 2 diabetes.[5]

 

Keep in mind that these are not ordinary studies. These are meta studies that pool smaller studies into larger, more statistically significant studies for greater accuracy and a more holistic view of what this body of research is actually telling us. This is why these studies are so powerful in weakening the proposition that saturated fat causes heart disease or death from other diseases. In fact, other research demonstrates that saturated fat is only unhealthy if it is consumed in the presence of high carbohydrate intake where glucose oxidation is impaired due to insulin resistance.[6] Though some claim that saturated fat is responsible for increasing insulin resistance, reviews of this research demonstrate, at best, a very weak association between saturated fat intake and insulin resistance (the one study that did show an association was just under the threshold for statistical significance(p=0.053)).[7] More recently, another study found that there was no difference in insulin sensitivity associated with reducing saturated fat intake in subjects with metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance).[8] Even plant based advocate T. Colin Campbell, author of the famous book The China Study, points out, “Saturated fat, mostly found in animal-based foods, is not and should never have been considered the cause of heart disease and certain cancers.”[9]

Meat may be unhealthy, but the link between disease and meat consumption is certainly not explainable through this proposed causal mechanism. My aim here is not to promote a meat eating lifestyle. In fact, my opinion is that people should, at a minimum, be eating less meat, and I believe that a vegan diet, if done the right way (which includes eating saturated fat from sources like coconut oil), can be beneficial for athletes and everyday people alike. There are plenty of potential reasons for people to move toward a more plant-based diet, and I will go into those reasons in this article. However, avoiding saturated fat is not one of them, and by continuing to stubbornly hold onto the lipid hypothesis, some vegan activists are ruining their own credibility and driving people away from a plant-based approach to eating.

This article will take you above the hype to a better understanding of saturated fat, whether or not it is dangerous for you, the benefits of including saturated fat in your diet, and what you should know to preserve your health and wellness in the face of all the hype.

What are the benefits of eating saturated fat?

 Here’s a list, with scientific sourcing provided of course: 

  1. Improved cardiovascular health.

 You read that correctly. Yes, there are many studies that show eating saturated fat can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (and there are several older studies that actually demonstrate no link, but these have been systematically ignored over the last 50 years),[10] but saturated fat also has a role in converting LDL from small densely packed particles to large looser particles.[11],[12] This is important because people with small LDL particles have three times the risk of getting heart disease than people with larger LDL particles.[13] What this means is that including saturated fat in your diet can actually convert “bad” cholesterol into benign cholesterol, which would support heart health.

Additionally, scientists have realized that it’s not just about the size of the LDL particles or the density, but also about the number of LDL particles (LDL-p) floating in the bloodstream. Studies have demonstrated that low carb diets, which are normally higher in saturated fat, are associated with lower LDL-p, while low-fat diets actually raise LDL-p.[14],[15],[16],[17]

Here’s the take away, saturated fats help to convert bad cholesterol into good cholesterol, and saturated fats do not effect blood lipid profiles as previously thought.[18] Anyone who does not mention this important research when vilifying saturated fat as a cause of heart disease is not giving you the whole story and is probably promoting an agenda.

  1. Increasing Liver Health

 Two of the nastiest liver diseases you can get from overeating or alcohol abuse are alcoholic liver disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. With each these types of disease, fat builds up in the liver, causing inflammation, which leads to cirrhosis and a long, drawn out death.

 Some may think that eating fat increases fat deposits in the liver, but research demonstrates that the opposite is true. Scientists have found that including saturated fat in the diet appears to have a detoxifying effect on the liver by triggering it to release fat.[19] ,[20] Researchers even suggested including more saturated fat in the diets of those withdrawing from alcohol to detoxify the liver. This was specifically saturated fats, and not unsaturated fats, which appeared to have no effect.

 So if fat doesn’t cause fatty liver disease, what does? Well overconsumption of alcohol definitely can, and being pregnant may also lead to this condition, but in non-alcoholics and non-pregnancy cases there has to be another culprit. Researchers have actually found that high carbohydrate intake contributes to fatty liver disease because, under these conditions, the liver works to convert glucose into fat.[21] Hence, another benefit to lowering the carbs and increasing intake of saturated fat.

  1. Increases Positive Hormone Production

 Saturated fat is also known to increase free testosterone levels, which helps to repair tissue, preserve muscle, and improve sexual function.[22] In fact, one recent study demonstrated that subjects on a very low carb high fat diet not only improved their testosterone levels, but also improved their health by increasing insulin sensitivity.[23] Additionally, high fat low carbohydrate diets have been demonstrated to lead to increased lean muscle mass than the traditional higher carbohydrate diet while positively effecting leanness.[24]

 So saturated fat intake, with low carbohydrate intake, helps positive hormonal balance allowing for increased sexual drive, muscle gain, fat loss, and improved health markers.

  1. Saturated Fat Can Improve Brain Function

 Many who promote low fat diets point out that research has demonstrated that saturated fat intake was correlated with impaired cognition and brain function later in life.[25] The problem: most of these studies did not control for carbohydrate intake. In studies of fat intake on memory and cognitive impairment, where carbohydrate intake was used as a control variable, those subjects on ketogenic diets demonstrated improved memory performance.[26] Given that most of your brain is largely made up of saturated fat, this should not be a huge surprise. Including saturated fat in your diet can help cognition and brain function.

  1. Other Benefits

 I am purposely leaving out some other proposed benefits here as well because they are, in my opinion anecdotal and without scientific evidence. That does not mean that these benefits do not exist, but I am purposely including only scientifically referenced material in this article. If you would like to learn about some of the other anecdotal benefits of saturated fat, check out Mary Enig’s book, Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol.

Does this Mean that I can Load Up on Meat and Protein?

 While saturated fat is not as dangerous as the mainstream media and other certain people would claim, this certainly does not mean that you should use this as a license to eat more than a moderate amount of animal protein or protein in general. Extensive research demonstrates that overconsumption of protein can contribute to cancer via increased levels of insulin like growth factor,[27] increased risk of heart disease,[28] and overconsumption of meat may be associated with increased risk of chronic liver disease and cancer. [29]

As I wrote at the beginning, I am not a vegan, but I am not an advocate for meat consumption. At a minimum, I believe that people should be eating less meat and less protein overall, and if they want to go vegan it is a perfectly fine option if it is done the right way. Even bodybuilders and athletes seeking to build more muscle can eat less meat because they actually need less protein than many of them think they do. The classic 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight protocol is at best misleading, and at worse unhealthy. Studies have demonstrated that subjects can build muscle on 0.55 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.[30] And yes, even I fell prey to the misinformation for years and ate as much as 350 grams of protein per day at 190lbs bodyweight. This is completely off the anecdotal deep end, but I’ve built much more muscle on 100 grams per day with most of my calories coming from fat.

Other Things to Consider to Stay Healthy

 What you should have gleaned from this article is that a diet that is healthy and high in saturated fat should be moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates if you want that diet to remain healthy. I myself get around 60-70% of my calories from fats (50% of them are saturated), 20-30% of my calories from protein of all sources, and 10% of my calories from carbohydrate sources. You should not count green leafy vegetables as carbohydrates and they should cover most of your plate at every meal. If you eat red meat, I would advise you to source that meat from organic farms that grass feed and grass finish their animals. It’s more expensive, but you should be eating less of it anyways. When possible opt for grassfed beef liver for its nutrient density and fat content. Avoid overloading the protein because protein can convert to glucose through gluconeogenesis

 Additionally, seek out fruits that are anti-inflammatory. In particular, dark skinned fruit like blueberries and plums are great for fighting inflammation. Avoid overconsuming nightshade vegetables like eggplant, onions, peppers, and potatoes as they can increase inflammation.

 There’s a lot more to consider, but I’m not going to lay out a full diet here. You can check out more of my advice on this blog or on my youtube channel, Warrior Soul Fitness.

Vegans and Saturated Fat

As for the vegans who may be scratching their heads at this point and wondering if they should take any of my advice in regard to fat intake or throw this article out the window: you can be vegan and eat saturated fat by lowering the amount of general carbohydrates and fructose you are eating, avoiding processed vegan foods, avoiding omega 6 laden vegetable oils, and garnering more calories from coconut oil, nuts, avocados, chia, and hemp seeds. That is not to say that you cannot eat fruit, but I would keep my fruit calories to under 200 to 400 calories per day. This is because fructose cannot be stored as muscle glycogen and can only be stored in the liver, which more readily converts to fat and can lead to increased levels of inflammation. If you eat grains or legumes, be sure to soak them or sprout them to avoid gut inflammation and the possibility of insulin resistance.

Conclusion

 By now, some of you might be thinking that I’m playing both sides of the fence. I’m not trying to, but science and truth are often more complicated than most people would like them to be. I am not vegan, and I am not ready to become one because there are nutritional positives to consuming meat, butter, and eggs including nutrient and caloric density, which is important for me because I do not like to eat much. On the other hand, I do see the positive side of the vegan argument and the desire for a better world with less meat eating. Nevertheless, while I believe that activism is often a positive form of social progress, I also do not agree with ignoring the facts to present one’s preferred view. Saturated fat is not and should not be considered the main culprit leading to heart disease, diabetes, or cancer as demonstrated by the evidence. Making it part of the vegan/omnivore debate is not helping anyone get closer to the truth or to better nutrition.

Read: A Guide to Ketogenic Dieting by Chris Albert here: https://warriorsoulagoge.com/collections/fitness-products-and-coaching-services/products/a-guide-to-keto-ketogenic-dieting-burn-fat-build-muscle-get-smarter

 

 Sources

 [1] Carroll, K. K., Gammal, E. B. & Plunkett, E. R.1968. Dietary fat and mammary cancer. Can. Med. AssocJourn. 98, 590-594..

[2] Kritchevsky, D. & Czarnecki, S. K. in Animal and vegetable proteins in lipid metabolism and atherosclerosis Vol. 8 Current topics in nutrition and disease (eds M.J. Gibney & D Kritchevsky) 1-7 (Alan R. Liss, Inc., 1983).

 [3] Wynder, E. L. 1975. The epidemiogy of large bowel cancer. Cancer Res. 35, 3388-3394

 [4] Siri-Tarino et al. 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 91(3), 535-546.

 [5] De Souza et al. 2015. Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ. 2015;351:h3978

 [6] Volk et al. 2014. Effects of Step-Wise Increases of Carbohydrate on Circulating Fatty Acids and Palmitoleic Acid on Adults with Metabolic Syndrome. PLoS ONE 9(11): e113605. doi:10.1371/journal.pone. 0113605

 [7] Galgani et al. 2008. Effect of dietary fat quality on insulin sensitivity. British Journal of Nutrition. 100:3, 471-9.

[8] Tierney et al. 2011. Effects of dietary fat modification on insulin sensitivity and on other risk factors of the metabolic syndrome--LIPGENE: a European randomized dietary intervention study. International Journal of Obesity. 35(6), 800-9.

 [9] Campbell, T.C. “A Fallacious, Faulty and Foolish Discussion About Saturated Fat.” http://nutritionstudies.org/fallacious-faulty-foolish-discussion-about-saturated-fat/

 [10] Morris et al. 1963. Plasma Cholesterol in 99 Bank Men. Br. Med. 1(5330), 571-576.;

Stulb et al. 1965. The Relationship of Nutrient Intake and Exercise to Serum Cholesterol Levels in White Males in Evans County, Georgia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 16: 238-42.

Nichols et al. 1976. Daily nutritional intake and serum lipid levels. The Tecumseh Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 29(12), 1384-92.

[11] Dreon et al.1998. Change in dietary saturated fat intake is correlated with change in masss of large low-density-lipoprotein particles in men. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition. Volume 69, p. 744.

 [12] Siri-Tarino et al. 2010. Saturated Fat, Carbohydrate, and Cardiovascular Disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 91(3) 502-509.

[13] Austin et al. 1988. Low-Density Lipoprotein Subclass Patterns and Risk of Myocardial Infarction. Journal of the American Medical Association. 260(13), 1917-1921.

[14] Krauss et al. 2006. Separate effects of reduced carbohydrate intake and weight loss on atherogenic dyslipidemia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 83(5), 1025-31.

 [15] Volek et al. Carbohydrate restriction has a more favorable impact on the metabolic syndrome than a low fat diet. Lipids. 44(4), 297-309.

 [16] Dreon et al. 2000. Reduced LDL particle size in children consuming a very-low fat diet is related to parental LDL-subclass pattern. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 71(6), 1611-1616.

[17] Dreon et al. 1999. A very low-fat diet is not associated with improved lipoprotein profiles in men with a predominance of large, low-density lipoproteins. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 69(3), 411-8.

[18] For a fantastic breakdown of this research see this article by Kris Gunnars: http://authoritynutrition.com/saturated-fat-good-or-bad/

 [19] Nanji et al. 1995. Dietary saturated fatty acids: a novel treatment for alcoholic liver disease. Gastroenterology. 109(2) 547-54.

 [20] Cha et al. 1994. Opposite effects of dietary saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on ethanol-pharmacokinetics, triglycerides and carnitines. J Am Coll Nutr. 13(4), 338-43.

[21] Browning et al. 2011. Short-term weight loss and hepatic triglyceride reduction: evidence of a metabolic advantage with dietary carbohydrate restriction. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 93(5), 1048-52.

[22] Dorgan et al. 1996. Effects of dietary fat and fiber on plasma and urine androgens and estrogens in men: a controlled feeding study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 64(6), 850-5.

[23] Silva. 2014. The effects of very high fat, very low carbohydrate diets on safety, blood lipid profile, and anabolic hormone status. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11(Suppl 1), 39.

[24] Rauch et al. 2014. The effects of ketogenic dieting on skeletal muscle and fat mass. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11(Suppl 1), 40.

[25] Eskelinen, MH et al. 2008. Fat intake at midlife and cognitive impairment later in life: a population-based CAIDE study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 23(7): 741-7.

[26] Krikorian et al. 2012. Dietary ketosis enhances memory in mild cognitive impairment. Neurobiological Aging. 33(2), 425.

[27] Campbell, TC. 2007. Dietary protein, growth factors, and cancer. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 85(6), 1667.

[28] Halbesma et al. 2009. High Protein Intake Associates with Cardiovascular Events but not with Loss of Renal Function. J Am Soc Nephrol. 20(8), 1797-1804.

[29] Freedman et al. 2010. Association of meat and fat intake with liver disease and heapatocellular carcinoma in the NIH-AARP Cohort. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 102(17), 1354-1365.

[30] For a fantastic review of this research see this article: http://bayesianbodybuilding.com/the-myth-of-1glb-optimal-protein-intake-for-bodybuilders/



1 Response

Anthony
Anthony

March 12, 2017

Thanks for the great article Chris. Love the effort you put into sourcing all the references. A small correction though. Onions aren’t a nightshade.

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