Saturated fat — Let us tell the truth and get healthy

Evidence is growing that our diets should be comprised of at least 50 percent healthy fat.

by Mary Budinger — 

A recent newsletter from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) examined different types of fats — which ones are naughty and which are nice. Unfortunately, the NIH flunked the assignment. No wonder the American public is famously overweight and chronically ill.

The NIH writes: “Unsaturated fats are considered ‘good’ fats … You will find healthful unsaturated fats in fish, nuts and most vegetable oils, including canola, corn, olive and safflower oils. The so-called ‘bad’ fats are saturated fats and trans fats including butter, meat fats, stick margarine, shortening, and coconut and palm oils.”

The NIH is the primary U.S. government agency responsible for biomedical and health-related research and is considered one of the leading health expertise institutions in the world. So, how is it they can be so wrong about saturated fat and not utter a word of warning about genetically modified canola and corn oil, or the imbalance of omega 6?

The anti-saturated fat era began in the 1950s with a flawed hypothesis that saturated fat was causing heart disease. Lots of people jumped on the bandwagon — and now they cannot get off. As health advocate Gary Taubes put it, “Imagine if the American Heart Association … decided they were wrong. What do they do? You cannot just put out a press release saying, ‘We apologize for the last 40 years of advice we have been giving you. We apologize if we got a lot of stuff wrong and we killed a lot of your loved ones … Now we are going to tell you what the real answer is, and we have confidence in this one.’ It just cannot be done. All that stuff is institutional self-interest, too.”

Why did the incidence of heart disease increase in the 20th century? There is no consensus, of course, but we know today that the underlying cause of most heart disease is chronic inflammation. Where does that come from? Trans fats contribute — like all that partially hydrogenated margarine that they told you was healthier than butter. French fries and salad dressings made with “heart-healthy” vegetable oils (corn, cottonseed, canola and soy) upset the omega-3/omega-6 balance and raised cholesterol levels. Then, stepped-up environmental pollution added a big dollop of inflammatory heavy metals. Our sugar intake went up — the average American drinks some 600 cans of soft drinks a year, up from 216 cans in 1971. Free radicals were having a heyday. Our diets lost the antimicrobial fats from animal fats and tropical oils, which protected us from the kinds of viruses and bacteria that have been associated with the onset of pathogenic plaque, which leads to heart disease.

Saturated fats are found in animal fat (meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese) and tropical oils (coconut and palm oil). Trans fats are relatively new in the human diet. In 1911, for example, Procter and Gamble introduced Crisco® (its name is derived from CRYStalized cottonseed oil). This partially hydrogenated, unnatural vegetable oil began to replace natural saturated animal fats and tropical oils in the American diet. Until the mid-1980s, McDonald’s fried its French fries with beef fat and palm oil. It and other fast-food chains were pressured to switch to partially hydrogenated (trans fat) vegetable oil.

To keep the science of saturated fats simple, there are three common types: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid. Much of the science indicates that stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) has no effect on cholesterol levels and that it actually gets converted in the liver into the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. The other two, palmitic and lauric acid, do raise total cholesterol. However, since they raise “good” cholesterol as much or more than “bad” cholesterol, they actually lower your risk of heart disease.

Stearic acid and palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated; the heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress. Saturated fats provide the building blocks for cell membranes — they are what give our cells necessary stiffness and integrity. Saturated fats protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins, such as Tylenol®.

We need saturated fats to drive calcium into our bones and shuttle the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Medium-chain saturated fats in butter and coconut oil, 12-carbon lauric acid and 14-carbon myristic acid strengthen the immune system, stabilizing proteins that enable white blood cells to more effectively recognize and destroy invading viruses, bacteria and fungi. They are also known to fight tumors.

While margarine, soy burgers and canola oil salad dressing were being hyped to Americans, the Mediterranean style diet was busy proving its superiority. The French diet is loaded with saturated fats in the forms of butter, eggs, cheese, cream, liver, meats and rich patés. Yet the French have a lower rate of coronary heart disease than many other western countries. The key to understanding why is not to focus on any one element, but to look at their diet from a holistic and comprehensive perspective. What becomes apparent is the absence of processed foods, which are loaded with sugars and trans fats.

A hundred years ago, before Americans changed their diets and the calamitous events of the 20th century began, heart disease was far less common that it is now. So, the food industry could switch gears and promote butter, lard and other real foods, right? Not so fast. There are economic and political factors that drive the anti-saturated-fat agenda. Even small changes in consumption patterns can wreak havoc in an industry geared toward foods based on vegetable oils.

Evidence is growing that our diets should be comprised of at least 50 percent healthy fat. Our ancestors ate lots of saturated fats, but they died mostly from infections and accidents. We die mostly of chronic diseases born of diet and lifestyle. A healthy diet consists of food the way nature dictates, not the way man can process, modify and mutilate it. The choice is ours.


Mary Budinger is an Emmy award-winning journalist who writes about integrative medicine. 602-494-1999.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 31, Number 1, Feb/Mar 2012.

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