So far, in my most recent posts, we have seen the history of saturated fats and why they have been maligned for all the wrong reasons. We also saw what the best scientific evidence says about saturated fat (hint: it doesn't cause heart disease as we have been led to believe). And we saw that, in fact, avoiding saturated fat in your diet leads to unwanted, adverse effects, such as increasing your risk of dying from non-cardiovascular related illnesses, such as cancer.
This week, we will analyze the benefits from increasing the amount of saturated fat in the diet. Before we do that, we must differentiate between the different types of fats. For a detailed, scientific, and thorough explanation of the various types of fat, visit this site. For simplicity's sake, know that fats, are generally categorized into three groups: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated fats, as discussed previously, is the type of fat found in full fat milk, coconut oil, eggs, butter, ghee, red meat, etc.
Monounsaturated fats are commonly found, among other foods items, in nuts and nut butters, olives and olive oil, avocados, canola oil, safflower oil, sesame oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and herring. You can also find these types of fats in flax seeds, corn oil, and soybean oil. Within this category, there are sub-categories known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The distinction between the two will be discussed in detail in future articles.
Also, in future articles, we will discuss the benefits of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. However, today, we will focus exclusively on the benefits of adding the right type of saturated fats in the diet.
1. Saturated Fats are great for cooking!
Saturated fats are a chemically stable fat molecule, meaning they resist degradation due to light and heat better than other oils. The metric used to determine the ability of various oils to resist heat is called it's smoke point. The smoke point is the threshold at which the oil begins to smoke, signaling when the oils are beginning to break down, creating toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 450 degrees while ghee has a smoke point of 485 degrees, making both great options for cooking.
2. Saturated fats increase your healthy HDL cholesterol.
Without going into too much detail, know that all cholesterol in the body is the same. What varies is the vehicle in which that cholesterol travels throughout the body. That vehicle is a combination of of fats and proteins and is thus called a 'lipoprotein.' High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is considered cardio-protective and is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular mortality.
Saturated fats are, in fact, the only food group shown to significantly improve your HDL cholesterol.
When analyzing patients who have suffered from heart attacks, low HDL cholesterol, combined with high triglycerides, proved to be a stronger predictor of cardiovascular risk than Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), which is the "bad-cholesterol," ("bad cholesterol" is actually a misnomer, which I explain later in the article)
On a more personal level, for several years, my HDL hovered between 25-33 mg/dL, which is well below the recommended value of 40 mg/dL for men. However, when I added regular doses of ghee, MCT oil, and coconut oil to my diet, my HDL jumped to 45 mg/dL, representing a 50% increase, something that no pharmaceutical drug can expect to achieve.
While reducing your saturated fat can lower your overall blood levels of cholesterol, it also reduces the healthy HDL cholesterol, which turns out to be a much better predictor of cardiovascular risk than LDL cholesterol.
3. Saturated fats also increase your LDL cholesterol, which is a good thing!
We have known for over 20 years that there are, in fact, two different types of LDL particles. Small, dense LDL particles, and large fluffy LDL particles. The small dense LDL particles are atherogenic and the large fluffy ones are cardio-protective. We have also known for over a decade that sugar and refined carbohydrates cause the body the produce the most dangerous, atherogenic, or heart disease-causing, type of cholesterol pattern.
The small dense particles are easily damaged, causing them to become oxidized. Their small size allows them to penetrate the arterial wall, which allows them to build up and form a plaque, which can eventually block the artery and cause a heart attack.
In 2007, the A to Z Weight Loss Study compared the Dean Ornish diet (low fat) to the Atkins Diet (high fat), following 311 postmenopausal women over the course of an entire year. The high fat group achieved the quickest, most dramatic weight loss, losing twice as much weight as the low-fat group. Moreover, the high fat group enjoyed the most significant improvement in cardiovascular risk factors. They lowered triglycerides, increased HDL, and shifted LDL from the small, dense, dangerous particles to the light, fluffy particles. In other words, their total cholesterol increased, but the ratios of the various kinds shifted to be more cardio-protective and less atherogenic. Lastly, blood pressure, insulin, insulin resistance, and blood sugar improved more in the high fat group.
4. Saturated fats can support brain health.
Saturated fats make up about half of all cell membranes throughout your body and are the primary type of fat in your brain. Moreover, saturated fats available in coconut oil have a brain protective effect, especially against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.
5. Saturated fats may decrease your risk of stroke
The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study is a large, epidemiological study (shows correlation, not causation) of over 130,000 individuals aged 35–70 years in 18 countries with an average follow-up period of 7.4 years. Higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of total mortality. The results? Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke.
The verdict: Do not shy away from healthy sources of saturated fat in your diet! For the purpose of cardiovascular health, enjoy bountiful servings of coconut oil, ghee, pasture raised red meats, and grass-fed butter in your diet.
Dr. Ram Cheruvu, Pharm.D.
This article will appear in the 6th edition of my newsletter, "5 Big Ideas to Upgrade your Health."
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