Is Saturated Fat Good for You?

Though largely driven by misinterpretation of the science and cherry-picked population studies, the “Butter is Back” movement comes with very persuasive sound bites followed by arrogant punctuation marks. No wonder so many people hopped on board the bandwagon while looking back, pointing fingers and shouting “health professionals have been misleading us for decades!” Yet the flawed reasoning behind the pro-saturated fat movement comes with a hefty price tag – you could be making food choices that, over time, will increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Here’s what I’ll cover in this article:

  • Why is there so much confusion about saturated fat?;
  • The science behind saturated fats, cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart & blood vessels) and type 2 diabetes;
  • Best food choices for heart health.

Why is there so Much Confusion about Saturated Fat?

There are a few reasons for the confusion about saturated fat (fat that is solid at room temperature such as butter, shortening, coconut oil and the fat on meat) and misinterpretation of the science. First off, some people group all saturated fatty acids (saturated fatty acids make up saturated fat) together as a team. However, there are several types of saturated fatty acids. Some raise LDL cholesterol (the kind that contributes to clogged arteries and is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) as well as HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol, the kind that removes bad cholesterol; SN: drugs that increase HDL do not lower risk of heart disease so there is some considerable debate regarding the role of HDL), others don’t raise LDL cholesterol and some we aren’t quite sure about. Secondly, using population-based studies alone to draw conclusions about saturated fat intake and heart disease is misguided.  These studies are not designed to determine cause and effect (that’s the job of well-designed clinical trials) plus, there are inherent issues with the methods used in many of these studies.  Nutrition research is not easy, especially in humans living their life (those not in a metabolic ward where all factors are controlled and measured including diet and physical activity).

Lastly, some research studies (and the media) take the results way out of context. So, here’s the lowdown based on sound science:

The Science Behind Saturated Fat, Cardiovascular Disease and Type 2 Diabetes

  • There is no dietary requirement for saturated fat. Your body can make all of the saturated fatty acids it needs.
  • Foods high in saturated fat typically increase total, HDL and LDL cholesterol. However, the impact dietary saturated fat has on increasing LDL-cholesterol (the kind that contributes to clogged arteries and an inflammatory cascade in arteries) may depend on the amount of polyunsaturated fat (PUFAs) in your diet (as well as the type of saturated fatty acids consumed).
  • In general, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat (and monounsaturated fat though there is less evidence for monounsaturated fat) reduces LDL and total cholesterol, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
  • saturated fat and cholesterolOverweight, obesity and insulin resistance may reduce the beneficial effects (lowered LDL cholesterol) generally noticed from a reduction in saturated fat intake. *If obese or overweight, losing excess body fat (regardless of the type of diet used to lose the weight) has powerful effects on lowering risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and type II diabetes.
  • Food contains a complex mixture of compounds that may affect cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk (it is not just the fat). The food “matrix” matters.
  • Many factors impact how a food affects cholesterol and blood lipids (fats) including fats eaten at the same time, overall diet, and carbohydrate intake (and type of carbohydrates consumed – high fiber vs. foods high in added sugar with few other nutrients).
  • There are individual, genetic differences in response to saturated fat intake – your cholesterol might shoot up after eating a diet containing a diet high in the type of saturated fatty acids that raise LDL cholesterol and I might be able to get away with this diet without a problem (blame your genetics or consider it an opportunity to open your taste buds to foods containing less saturated fat; particularly the kind that is artery clogging).
  • Certain saturated fatty acids, or a diet high in saturated fat, may increase risk for type 2 diabetes.

Best Choices for Heart Health

If you are overweight, focus on losing excess body fat. Even small amounts of fat loss will improve health and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. If you have high total and LDL cholesterol, swap foods high in saturated fat for foods high in polyunsaturated fat (liquid oils, nuts, seeds, olives, avocados). Minimize your intake of foods high in added sugars and refined, white flour, carbohydrates. Instead, choose higher fiber carbohydrates as often as possible.

Don’t get sucked into the media headlines written by journalists who could sell ice to an eskimo. Butter isn’t back (for good health anyway). The bulk of your fat intake should still come from foods that are higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. However, food is a complex matrix of compounds and therefore, some foods higher in saturated fat may have little to no impact on cholesterol and therefore fit into your diet while contributing to your vitamin and mineral needs and providing plant-based compounds important for good health.

References

Tholstrup T, Hoy CE, Andersen LN, Christensen RD, Sandstrom B. Does fat in milk, butter and cheese affect blood lipids and cholesterol differently? J Am Coll Nutr 2004;23:169–76.

Nestel P. Effects of Dairy Fats within Different Foods on Plasma Lipids. J Am Coll Clin Nutr 2008, 27(6): 735S–740S.

Hodson L, Skeaff CM, Chisholm WA. The effect of replacing dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat on plasma lipids in free-living young adults. Eur J Clin Nutr 2001; 55(10):908-15

Soerensen KV et al. Effect of dairy calcium from cheese and milk on fecal fat excretion, blood lipids, and appetite in young men. Am J Clin Nutr 2014;99(5):984-91.

 

Which Fat is Best for Heart Health?

Butter

If you are more confused than ever about dietary fats, you’re not alone. Can a high fat diet help you lose body fat? Which fat is best for heart health – butter, coconut oil or vegetable oil?

What is Cholesterol & Why is it Essential?
Cholesterol is an essential component of all cell membranes and a precursor to hormones, vitamin D and bile acids (needed for the digestion of fat). It is so important that your body regulates cholesterol balance to ensure your cells receive a continuous supply of cholesterol.

How does High LDL Contribute to Cardiovascular Disease?

Though cholesterol is critical for life, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, is considered a risk factor for heart disease because excess LDL can lead to an increase in plaque buildup in your arteries. Think of this process like a garden hose with gunk stuck in it. The gunk interferes with water flowing through the hose. If too much debris gets in there, no water will flow through.  Likewise, plaque in your arteries will decrease the amount of blood that moves through your arteries at one time and a complete blockage could lead to a heart attack or stroke.  Now, this is a simplistic view, especially considering LDL isn’t just one particle but instead, several that contain different amounts of cholesterol. Some research suggests that smaller, more dense LDL particles are more artery clogging. However, in addition to particle size, total number of LDL particles and oxidation of LDL contribute to the disease process.

As LDL particles travel through the bloodstream, excess LDL particles can stick to artery walls (particularly walls that are damaged due to smoking, high blood pressure and other insults). Trapped LDL becomes oxidized and sets off an inflammatory cascade resulting in the development of plaque (gunk) stuck to arteries – atherosclerosis.

Coronary Artery Disease

How Can I Lower my LDL Cholesterol?

Cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol.

Years ago we were told to stay away from shrimp, eggs and other high cholesterol foods. Yet this advice wasn’t based on sound science – cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol levels. So there is no need to take these nutrient-rich foods out of your diet. Shrimp is loaded with protein, and is a good source of iron plus it contains just 80 calories per serving. Eggs are also packed with nutrition – the whites are an excellent source of protein and the yellow color you see in the yolk is from antioxidants – plant compounds that protect plants from disease and protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals, compounds that are essential but can cause damage as well.

Coconut Oil, Butter and Other Solid Fats are Not the Best Options

Man-made trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) are the worst kind of fat you can eat. However, they should, finally, be making their way out of our food supply over the next few years. High levels of *saturated fat, the kind that is solid at room temperature like butter, increases HDL (the “good” cholesterol but not a target of therapy – doctors don’t focus on HDL levels because increasing HDL does not lower heart disease risk) and LDL cholesterol in the blood. In controlled diet experiments where saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat rich vegetable oils, risk of heart disease is reduced. Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, the kind found in olive oil, also lowers LDL but not to the extent that polyunsaturated fat does.

Coconut oil is popular and calorie for calorie it might be better for weight management than other fats. However, coconut oil raises our total, good and bad cholesterol levels. And therefore, it is not the best option for heart health.

Excess Carbohydrate Intake can Increase LDL

Overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich foods can also increase VLDL cholesterol (very low density lipoprotein). Foods with added sugars, in particular, are potent stimulators of VLDL production when the energy (calories) aren’t needed right away for energy or increasing glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate in your liver and muscle).

Best Fats for Your Heart

Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and liquid oils are your bets for heart health. Oils with more polyunsaturated fat have a greater impact on LDL cholesterol than those rich in monounsaturated fat. Make sure you are choosing the right oil for the right cooking application. Many oils can’t stand high heat and they break down, damaging the structure (and function) of the oil.

Fatty Acids in Oils

Conclusion

Many factors contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, including genetics, overweight/obesity, inactivity, smoking, diabetes and age, making cholesterol management a multifactorial issue. Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol but, as I’ll say over and over, we are all different and, people vary in their response to dietary saturated fat due to intrinsic differences in fat metabolism as well as other factors including obesity, insulin resistance and high triglycerides.

Replace fats that raise cholesterol with liquid oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. Consider your overall diet as well. Eat a plant-based diet including vegetables (non-starchy veggies as well as beans, lentils and peas), fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, barley etc.). Consume fatty fish ( salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, sardines etc.) at least two times per week. Limit your intake of foods with added sugars and refined starches as well as your alcohol consumption. 

* There are differences in specific saturated fatty acids and their effects on blood cholesterol. Therefore, some foods high in saturated fat do not raise LDL cholesterol. Also, oils have a different array of vitamins (primarily vitamin E) and plant-based compounds that may be beneficial for heart health.

Fatty acids composition of oils taken from the USDA Nutrient Database.

Your Cooking Oil is Harming Your Health and Aging You

Bottle of Olive Oil with Wooden Spoon --- Image by © Radius Images/Corbis
Bottle of Olive Oil with Wooden Spoon — Image by © Radius Images/Corbis

If you open a bottle of cooking oil and take months to finish it, heat, light and air start to break down the oil, making it rancid. At best, it smells and tastes different. At worse – potentially toxic compounds are produced in the oil. In this article, I’ll share how to prevent the introduction of bad compounds, how to choose the right product and store it properly and discuss the difference between regular vs. extra virgin olive oil.

Choose the Right Oil for Cooking & Throw Out Your Deep Fat Fryer

For high heat cooking, choose an oil with a high smoke point. When an oil hits it’s smoke point it breaks down and becomes rancid. Rancid oils may smell or taste bad (though sadly some people are accustomed to this taste as “normal”) and may contain toxic compounds, some of which are believe to contribute to cell aging (1, 2, 3). In general, refined oils have a higher smoke point than those that are unrefined. Refer to the usage instructions on the bottle to find out if it be used for high heat cooking.

Use Type of Oil Smoke Point (3) Greater likelihood of Oxidation (> 50 PUFA %) (4) 
Baking
Cooking
Stir Frying
Almond
Avocado
Canola
Grapeseed
Hazelnut
Peanut
Olive
Palm
Pecan
Safflower
Sunflower
High Almond
Grapeseed
Hazelnut
Safflower
Sunflower
Light sautéing
Sauces
Low-heat baking
Coconut
Corn
Hempseed
Macadamia nut, refined
Sesame, refined
Soybean
Walnut – refrigerate after opening
Medium Corn
Flaxseed
Hempseed
Soybean
Walnut
Dressings
Dips
Sauces
*Refrigerate these after opening
Flaxseed
Pumpkin seed
Wheat Germ
Low

In addition to using the right oil for what you are cooking or baking, throw out your deep fat fryer and quit eating fried foods (or at the very least, throw out the oil after each use). Food manufacturers and restaurants re-use oils over and over for frying. After several days they finally throw it out and replace it with fresh oil (5). Each time the oil is used it loses some of its integrity and the smoke point lowers. And though it may take several uses before it becomes rancid (depending on the type used, frying time, heat and other factors), frying decreases the amount of antioxidants in the oil (greater frying time = fewer antioxidants), changes it’s chemical structure and produces trans fatty acids (repeated heating of oil, prolonged heating and heating in an iron container all increase the formation of trans fatty acids) and volatile compounds (such as aldehydes, triacylglycerol oxidation products including alkoxy, epoxy, keto monomeric compounds, and higher molecular weight oxidation products) (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Store it Properly

Store your oil in a cool and dry place away from direct sunlight (some oils should be refrigerated – as noted above). When possible, buy oil in dark glass containers. When monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids in oil react with oxygen they become oxidized and form a variety of chemicals, several of which are toxic (aldehydes, ketones, alkenals). The production of these compounds speeds up when the oil is exposed to heat and light or metals are present. More polyunsaturated fat = greater likelihood of oxidation so check your oil’s PUFA content above and if its high, buy smaller quantities of this oil and smell-check it frequently. If it smells different than when you bought it, toss it in the trash.

What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Olive Oil?

U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the oil resulting from the first pressing of olives and is suitable for human consumption without further processing. It has “excellent flavor and odor” (smell).

U.S. Virgin Olive Oil is olive oil obtained by picking and processing olives, or blends of virgin refined olive oil. It has “reasonably good flavor and odor.”

U.S. Olive Oil is a blend of refined and virgin olive oils.

Refined Olive Oil is sold as “Olive oil” or “Pure olive oil” and is the oil obtained from subsequent pressings (after the first pressing) and suitable for human consumption by refining processes which neutralize the acidity or remove particulate. Heating, neutralizing, bleaching and deodorizing may be used (10, 11).

“‘Light olive oil refers only to the flavor and is determined by the amount of extra virgin olive oil added to the refined olive oil.” (12)

Choose an olive oil in a dark glass bottle. California Olive Ranch is a good brand, as are the ones on this list. Or, if you want amazing authentic olive oil from trees that are 2,000 – 3,000 years old, order olive oil from this Masseria in the Puglia region of Italy.

Is Canola Oil Harmful?

If you’ve heard that canola oil is harmful, read this post for a good explanation of oil processing techniques.

There are plenty of oil choices depending on your desire for taste and a temperature you are using.

References
1 J Oleo Sci. 2008;57(3):153-60.
2 Toxicol Mech Methods 2006;16(5):267-74.
3 Deep Fat Frying and Food Safety. USDA.
4 Food Nutr Res. 2011;55:10.5
5 Nahrung 2002;46(6):420-6.
6 Food Chem 2007;104(4):1740–1749.
7 Eur J Lipid Sci Tech 2002;104(12):785–791.
8 J Food Sci Technol 2014;51(6):1076-84.
9 Chem Phys Lipids 2012;165(6):662-81.
10 J Sci Food Agric 2012;92(11):2227-33.
10 Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (12. Appendix D: Qualified Health Claims). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
11 United States Standards for Grades of Olive and Olive-PomaceEffective October 25, 2010. USDA.
12 Grading Manual for Olive and Olive-Pomace. USDA. Effective May 2012.