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Fats: the Good, the Bad and the Misunderstood

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Facts on Fats

Understanding the different types of fats may help you understand health recommendations and assist you in working with your healthcare practitioner to set your own nutrition goals. While some have condemned all fat to be bad, that is simply not true; your body needs fat. It is a major source of energy, and is also essential in helping you absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Each cell in your body needs fat for the cell membrane, and fat is an important part of the nervous system. It is necessary for blood clotting, muscle movement, and the immune system. [6, 14]

Fat, along with carbohydrates and protein, is a macronutrient. Fat molecules are called triglycerides, a compound made up of three fatty acids attached to one glycerol molecule. There are three main types of fats that we consume: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fat.

What are Saturated Fats?

The fatty acids are chains made up of carbon atoms. In saturated fats, these carbon chains are filled with hydrogen atoms, or “saturated” with hydrogen. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, such as coconut oil, butter, bacon grease, cheese, and the fat in and around meats.

Unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon chains. These fats are liquid at room temperature and are found in olive oil, flax oil, sunflower and safflower oils, avocados, nuts and seeds, and fish. Unsaturated fats are often considered the “good” fats, as some can help lower cholesterol levels, and contain helpful vitamin E and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Trans fats do not occur naturally in most cases; they are created in oil processing through hydrogenation. This means that the hydrogen atoms are added to the carbon chain to make them more stable. This process changes the fat into a solid that will not become rancid as quickly. Trans fats are a cheaper alternative that is used commercially in food production, as they have a longer shelf life and may not need refrigeration. Oils for deep frying and baked goods often contain trans fats. The body, however, lacks the enzymes for dealing with trans fats.  Consuming them interferes with the body’s metabolism of other fatty acids and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Excess trans fats in the diet may also contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, and other health complications. [3]

The Misunderstood Fat

Low consumption or complete avoidance of trans fats is widely recommended by most health organizations, including the American Heart Association and the US Department of Agriculture. On the other hand, unsaturated fats are promoted as “good” fats. But saturated fats may not definitively be on either side of the spectrum.

Saturated fats have often been grouped in the “bad” category with trans fats, based on research stating that saturated fats increase the risk of CVD, and elevate cholesterol (thus increasing atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque on the arterial walls). [6] However, further research shows that this concept may have misrepresented the health effects of saturated fats. Studies have revealed that some previous research on saturated fats have conflicting data, or may have been “cherry picked” to show certain results. Some studies have found that there is no significant conclusive evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CVD. [13] Additionally, lowering saturated fat intake does not lower the incidence or risk of CVD. [6] Even replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats may not have a significant improvement on cardiovascular health. [5] In addition, studies have oversimplified saturated fats by categorizing them as a whole, and have overlooked the potential health benefits that some saturated fats offer. [1, 5, 6, 13]

According to Dr. David Perlmutter, “Few people understand that saturated fat plays a pivotal role in a lot of biochemical equations that keep us healthy. If you were breast-fed as a baby, then saturated fats were your staple, as they make up 54% of the fat in breast milk. Every cell in your body requires saturated fats; they comprise 50% of the cellular membrane. . . . Bones require saturated fats to assimilate calcium effectively.” [15]

Cardiovascular Outcomes

When it comes to cardiovascular outcomes, saturated fat is not the major issue. Trans fats are more universally accepted as increasing risk of CVD, as they can increase the “bad” low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, and lower the “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. [3, 9] Other important factors contributing to CVD include intake of carbohydrates with high glycemic indexes, elevated homocysteine and C-reactive protein, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, a family history of heart disease, oxidative stress, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. [6]

Some saturated fats may increase LDL cholesterol. However, evidence shows that they can also increase HDL cholesterol, and may help enhance HDL cholesterol metabolism, among other health benefits. [5, 6] Some saturated fats, like coconut oil, come from plants and do not increase or contain cholesterol, eliminating some risk for CVD. [4, 6, 12] Virgin coconut oil has also been found to lower lipoprotein (a), a marker which correlates with heart disease. [3, 4] Coconut oil has also been found to lower levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, and LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol levels; potentially lowering the risk for CVD. [4]

Liver

Saturated fat consumption may also be beneficial and healing for the liver. Saturated fatty acids may protect the liver from damage done by alcohol. Fatty liver disease is a condition that often occurs with obesity and/or excessive alcohol consumption. Animal studies have shown that increased saturated fatty acids in the diet can decrease the severity of fatty liver disease, including lower fat accumulation, decreased inflammation, and decreased necrosis. [2, 8, 11]. Including saturated fatty acids in the diet may also reverse liver inflammation and fibrosis from alcohol. [10] Even if you moderate alcohol intake or don’t drink alcohol, saturated fatty acids can offer your liver assistance in other ways, including protection from the commonly used painkiller, acetaminophen. [7]

Conclusion

Many researchers question the generalized recommendations to avoid saturated fat. New findings show us that saturated fat may not be the harmful, cholesterol-raising, heart health nightmare that we’ve been told. It may provide some benefits to cardiovascular health, especially as an alternative to trans fats. Saturated fats can also offer other health benefits, including protection for the liver. When working towards optimal health, it is essential to eat balanced proportions of all the different nutrients in the diet, along with making other lifestyle changes. The best mixture of different types of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins will vary for each individual, but – based on research – should not necessarily eliminate saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter. [1, 5, 6] Consult with your healthcare practitioner about what the right balance may be for you!

Resources

  1. Caramia, G. (2014). “Butter, my love” Joy, Sorrow and Rehabilitation: Not simply Cholesterol and Saturated Fatty Acids. La Pediatria Medica e Chirurgica, 36(2).
  2. Cha, Y. S., & Sachan, D. S. (1994). Opposite effects of dietary saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on ethanol-pharmacokinetics, triglycerides and carnitines. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 13(4), 338-343.
  3. De Roos, N. M., Schouten, E. G., & Katan, M. B. (2001). Consumption of a solid fat rich in lauric acid results in a more favorable serum lipid profile in healthy men and women than consumption of a solid fat rich in trans-fatty acids. The Journal of nutrition, 131(2), 242-245.
  4. DebMandal, M., & Mandal, S. (2011). Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): in health promotion and disease prevention. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 4(3), 241-247.
  5. Feinman, R. D. (2010). Saturated fat and health: Recent advances in research. Lipids, 45(10), 891-892.
  6. German, J. B., & Dillard, C. J. (2004). Saturated fats: what dietary intake?. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 80(3), 550-559.
  7. Hwang, J., Chang, Y. H., Park, J. H., Kim, S. Y., Chung, H., Shim, E., & Hwang, H. J. (2011). Dietary saturated and monounsaturated fats protect against acute acetaminophen hepatotoxicity by altering fatty acid composition of liver microsomal membrane in rats. Lipids in health and disease, 10(1), 184.
  8. Kirpich, I. A., Feng, W., Wang, Y., Liu, Y., Barker, D. F., Barve, S. S., & McClain, C. J. (2012). The Type of Dietary Fat Modulates Intestinal Tight Junction Integrity, Gut Permeability, and Hepatic Toll‐Like Receptor Expression in a Mouse Model of Alcoholic Liver Disease. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 36(5), 835-846.
  9. 9.. Malhotra, A. (2013). Saturated fat is not the major issue. BMJ, 347, f6340.
  10. Nanji, A. A., Jokelainen, K., Tipoe, G. L., Rahemtulla, A., & Dannenberg, A. J. (2001). Dietary saturated fatty acids reverse inflammatory and fibrotic changes in rat liver despite continued ethanol administration. Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, 299(2), 638-644.
  11. Ronis, M. J., Korourian, S., Zipperman, M., Hakkak, R., & Badger, T. M. (2004). Dietary saturated fat reduces alcoholic hepatotoxicity in rats by altering fatty acid metabolism and membrane composition. The Journal of nutrition, 134(4), 904-912.
  12. Sheela, D. L., Nazeem, P. A., Narayanankutty, A., Manalil, J. J., & Raghavamenon, A. C. (2016). In silico and wet lab studies reveal the cholesterol lowering efficacy of lauric acid, a medium chain fat of coconut oil. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 71(4), 410-415.
  13. Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, ajcn-27725.
  14. The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. (2015, August 7). Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good
  15. Perlmutter, David. (2013). Grain Brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

Clinical Contributor

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Connie Shoemaker, ND

Connie Shoemaker, ND

“Educating Sanesco’s clients is the culmination of a life’s work.” Beginning when she left the hospital environment to manage a functional laboratory, Genova Diagnostics (formerly Great Smokies Laboratories) in 1987, Dr. Connie Shoemaker has continued to increase her knowledge of herbs and biochemistry as a journey of love. With her bachelor’s in science from Western Carolina University, she had worked in hospital laboratories for the first twelve years of her career. Then, personal health challenges led her to discover a new approach to her health and a determination to share it with others. In 1991, she began teaching and educating innovative practitioners in the U.S. and internationally as a manager of marketing, sales, and customer service.

The addition of her Doctor of Naturopathy degree to her existing knowledge base expanded her knowledge and her respect for a more natural approach to healing through balance. At Sanesco, she initially served to oversee technical development of products and services.

Now, she educates Sanesco’s clients on application of the CSM™ model for their specific patients and how to integrate the CSM™ model with other modalities they offer in their practice. In her personal life, Connie educates private clients on various health topics.

Disclaimer: The information provided is only intended to be general educational information to the public. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have specific questions about any medical matter or if you are suffering from any medical condition, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

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