For a long time we have believed that fat makes you fat. Fat has more calories per gram than both carbohydrate and protein and so intuitively this seems to make sense. This is backed up by the misinformation we’ve been fed by various dietary and nutrition authorities around the world:
In the UK, NHS Livewell advice for healthy eating is to: “Try to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and have smaller amounts of foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead. For a healthy choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat.”
In Australia, the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel website states: “It is recommended to select lower saturated fat options. For example, choose:
- reduced-fat milk, yogurt and cheese
- leaner cuts of meat or trim the fat off meat prior to cooking”
But this advice is wrong. Saturated fat is not the enemy.
Have you ever heard of the French paradox – “French women don’t get fat”? Despite eating plenty of rich cuts of meat, butter, cream, eggs and cheese, French women don’t seem to suffer from obesity quite as much as we see in America, Australia and the UK.
But maybe it isn’t such a paradox. Could it be that the French consumption of saturated fat like cheese and butter actually is beneficial to their health? Let’s have a look at why fat is actually essential for our health.
Humans need fat
Fat consumption is essential for a number of reasons such as regulating your metabolism. Fat is the building block of every single cell in our body, as well as providing material for hormones, prostaglandins and our immune system. Fat is also essential for absorbing many nutrients such as Vitamin A, D, E and K, because these fat-soluble vitamins do not dissolve in water.
…in particular saturated fat
Saturated fat is healthy and is the type that occurs in nature. Humans have been eating saturated fats that throughout our existence. We were not eating low fat yoghurt and muesli for breakfast thousands of years ago.
Instead, we were eating big animals and maybe some eggs – full of good quality saturated fats. Our great-grandparents and their grandparents ate plenty saturated fats from beef and butter.
Every single cell in our body requires saturated fat to make up the cellular membrane. These fats contribute to the structure and protective of our organs including lungs, heart, bones and liver. Our liver relies on saturated fat to perform its detoxification role correctly because this is the basis of bile, which helps remove fat soluble toxins from the body.
Our endocrine system needs saturated fat to manufacture hormones correctly. This includes cortisol and our stress hormones, which I look at in detail in this article.
Human breast milk is 54% saturated fat. You cannot argue with that!
Yet instead of these naturally occurring saturated fats, we are encouraged to eat polyunsaturated vegetable oils like canola, soybean, rice bran and sunflower oil! Why would our systems suddenly require vegetable oils and polyunsaturated fats to reduce our cholesterol in the mid 20th Century? Perhaps a clue is in the huge industry responsible for the creation of vegetable and seed oils. These oils are as unnatural as you can get – you can read about how they are made in this article. Since the switch to these supposedly healthier vegetable oils we have been getting less and less healthy. Lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Rates of cancer and heart disease are high.
It just doesn’t make sense that we should choose an oil that has undergone a complex process to completely alter its chemical state, when we have naturally occurring fats that come from nature in the form of beef dripping, duck or goose fat, lard or butter. These are the fats the human body prefers and that support good health.
The food industry has capitalised on our fear of saturated fat
The fear of fat has been an excellent marketing tool for the food industry to promote ‘low-fat’ sugar laden alternatives to yoghurt, milk, muesli bars, sweets, prepared meals and just about anything provided they have a fat content low enough to get a certain badge of approval. In Australia the Heart Foundation Tick of Approval is given to products that “contain less saturated fat.” (2)
So all manufacturers have to do is make sure they reduce the fat content of their food. It doesn’t matter what they replace it with. The tick does not reflect how much sugar is in a product. (3) When you look deeper into who sponsors and donates money to the Heart Foundation it becomes obvious why they are not interested in recording how much sugar is in a product.
Sugar is a carbohydrate. So adding sugar doesn’t increase fat levels!
So very unhealthy sugary products can be touted as ‘low-fat’, giving the impression they are a better choice. Many Government systems for showing a product’s nutritional value are also flawed. The traffic light system in the UK gives products a green, amber or red light based on its fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. (4)
While it is good that this system pays attention to sugar, products will quickly receive a red light if they contain more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g. So products with naturally occurring saturated fats will usually have a red light. Additionally, if manufactures replace sugar with an artificial sweetener then it can still receive green lights for all categories.
Saturated fat is absolutely critical to our health. Yet if we followed government advice we should be actively trying to remove it from our diet.
The fear of saturated fat has been driven by cholesterol concerns
One of the main reasons we are scared of fat is that we have been told that cholesterol causes heart disease. Vegetable oils and associated products are sold as a healthy alternative because they are low in saturated fat and supposed to actively “lower your cholesterol.” It has become ‘common knowledge’ that high cholesterol causes heart disease, because it clogs your arteries. However, there have not actually been any conclusive studies that prove this.
In fact we are seeing a growing number of comprehensive, long-term epidemiological studies that show there is no link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. This large meta-analysis of prospective studies around 348,000 participants found no association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease or stroke. (5)
Cholesterol is essential for human health
It is a building block for our cells and makes up 70 percent of the brain. There are two types of cholesterol HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and today we are conditioned to believe that they are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ respectively. These names actually refer to the two kinds of containers/carriers for cholesterol in the body. In Grain Brain Dr David Perlmutter emphasises that our ability to grow new synapses in our brains is dependent on the availability of cholesterol.
Humans obtain just 25% of cholesterol we need from our diet
Our livers manufacture the rest. If you don’t consume enough, your body will make more. If you eat too much it will produce less. So by significantly reducing your consumption you’re just putting pressure on your body to make more on its own. (6) This study highlights that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on the amount of cholesterol in our body, while this study shows that most people adapt to different levels of dietary cholesterol. (7) (8) Yet between cholesterol lowering foods and medications (statins), reducing cholesterol has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
The association between heart disease, saturated fat and cholesterol was based on correlation, not causation. Yes, there were some instances that patients with CVD had high cholesterol, but there are also plenty where this is not the case. It is absurd that the fear of saturated fat, cholesterol and associated heart disease could turn us of natural, whole foods like meat and eggs. Products like mayonnaise are now available in whole egg substitutes (which are just full of sugar) and there are plenty of recipes that encourage you to ditch the yolk and replace it with a wonderful egg white omelette. This is just you losing the majority of the nutrition, which is contained in the yolk, including 13 essential nutrients such as vitamin B2, selenium and choline.
The entire premise behind our fear of saturated fat and cholesterol is completely misinformed and powered by the food manufacturing industry that jumped on the low-fat trend.
We need fight this influence, because saturated fat is healthy and an essential part of the human diet. Pharmaceutical corporations also have a vested interest in ensuring people buy into the lies about cholesterol because statins, which are cholesterol lowing medications are a billion dollar industry. Millions of people around the world are on statins for cholesterol lowering purposes and there is increasing evidence that this can cause damage to the brain and even the heart. Here is a really useful article about the $29 billion dollar statin industry in the US. (9) The infographic below gives a great summary of the importance of cholesterol.
Stop fearing saturated fat and take control of your health
We need to fight back against big food manufactures and pharmaceutical giants as well as organisations like the Heart Foundation that allow their tick of approval to be bought by companies that do not care about consumer health. Stop fearing natural saturated fats and cholesterol and try to avoid highly processed vegetable oils and products that claim to ‘lower cholesterol.’
To better understand how to incorporate healthy fats into your diet book an online consultation with me, a certified functional nutritionist.