The nutritional myth that saturated fat is bad for you continues to fall apart as a steady stream of new books and studies on this topic hit the media. The latest work to challenge the old dogma is a book called The Big Fat Surprise by journalist Nina Teicholz.
Her book comes alongside new research that raises questions about the long-held but false belief that cardiovascular disease is related to fat and cholesterol intake.
Teicholz points out the flaws in the original Ancel Keys study; how saturated fat has been a healthy human staple for thousands of years, and how the low-fat craze has resulted in excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates, which has resulted in increased inflammation and disease.1 Teicholz tells the Wall Street Journal:2
"There has never been solid evidence for the idea that these [saturated] fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics, and bias."
Are We Seeing the Cholesterol Myth in a Scientific Free-Fall?
The cholesterol myth has suffered a bit of a triple whammy of late, making it harder and harder for heart specialists to uphold the company line. This information is just the latest in a long line of science disproving the need for the saturated fat phobia.
In 2012, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined the health and lifestyle habits of more than 52,000 adults ages 20 to 74, concluding that women with "high cholesterol" (greater than 270 mg/dl) had a 28 percent lower mortality risk than women with "low cholesterol" (less than 183 mg/dl).
Researchers also found that, if you're a woman, your risk for heart disease, cardiac arrest, and stroke are higher with lower cholesterol levels.3
In 2013, a prominent London cardiologist by the name of Aseem Malhotraargued in the British Medical Journal that you should ignore advice to reduce your saturated fat intake, because it's actually increasing your riskforobesity and heart disease.4
Then in March 2014, a new meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, using data from nearly 80 studies and more than a half million people, found that those who consume higher amounts of saturated fat have no more heart disease than those who consume less.
They also did not find less heart disease among those eating higher amounts of unsaturated fat, including both olive oil and corn oil.5, 6
Fat Has Been Blamed for Sugar's Evil Deeds
What do these journalists and scientists know that your physician might not? Going back forty years or more, fat has been misidentified as the culprit behind heart disease, when all along it's been sugar.
A high-sugar diet raises your risk for heart disease by promoting metabolic syndrome—a cluster of health conditions that includes high blood pressure, insulin and leptin resistance, high triglycerides, liver dysfunction, and visceral fat accumulation.
Insulin and leptin resistance is caused by factors inherent in our modern lifestyle, including diets heavy in processed carbohydrates, sugars/fructose, refined flours, and industrial seed oils.
Making matters worse, the average American gets inadequate exercise, suffers from chronic stress and sleep deprivation, is exposed to environmental toxins, and has poor gut health (dysbiosis). This is the perfect storm for chronic disease.
Cholesterol Is Not Only Beneficial for Your Body—It's Absolutely Mandatory
About 800,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease annually. A quarter of these deaths could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and managing insulin and leptin levels.
By reducing your cholesterol, you may actually be increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease. Your body needs adequate cholesterol to perform a number of critical functions, and there is strong evidence that people have a higher risk for heart attacks by having their cholesterol levels driven too low, as is being done by drugs like statins.
Cholesterol plays important roles such as building your cell membranes, interacting with proteins inside your cells, and helping regulate protein pathways required for cell signaling. Having too little cholesterol may negatively impact your brain health, hormone levels, heart disease risk, and more. Therefore, placing an upper limit on dietary cholesterol, especially such a LOW upper limit as is now recommended, is likely causing far more harm than good.
The Truth About Saturated Fats
Just as your body has requirements for cholesterol, it also needs saturated fats for proper function. One way to understand this is to consider what foods humans consumed during their evolution. Many experts believe that since the Paleolithic Era, we evolved as hunter-gatherers. Paleolithic nutrition states that we have eaten animal products for most of our existence on Earth. To suggest that saturated fats are suddenly harmful to us makes no sense, especially from an evolutionary perspective.
As recently as 2010, the current recommendations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) call for reducing your saturated fat intake to a mere 10 percent of your total calories or less. This is astounding, and quite the opposite of what most people require for optimal health! The latest science suggests healthy fats (saturated and unsaturated fats from whole food, animal, and plant sources) should comprise anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of your overall energy intake. Saturated fats provide a number of important health benefits, including the following:
Providing building blocks for cell membranes, hormones, and hormone-like substances
Mineral absorption, such as calcium
Carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
Conversion of carotene into vitamin A
Helping to lower cholesterol levels (palmitic and stearic acids)
Acts as antiviral agent (caprylic acid)
Optimal fuel for your brain
Modulates genetic regulation and helps prevent cancer (butyric acid)
1. HDL/total cholesterol ratio: HDL percentage is a very important heart disease risk factor. Just divide your HDL level by your total cholesterol. This percentage should ideally be above 24 percent. Below 10 percent, it's a significant indicator of heart disease risk.
2. Triglyceride/HDL ratios: Divide your triglyceride number by your HDL. This ratio should ideally be below 2.
3. NMR lipoprofile: Possibly the most powerful test for evaluating heart disease risk, this test determines your proportion of smaller, more damaging LDL particles.Small LDL particles get stuck easily, cause more inflammation, and are tied to insulin and leptin resistance. This test is not typically ordered, so you might need to request it from your physician or order it yourself through a third-party. (For more information on the NMR Lipoprofile, please watch my interview with Chris Kresser, above.)
4. Fasting insulin: A normal fasting blood insulin level is below 5, but ideally, you'll want it below 3. If your insulin level is higher than 5, the most effective way to optimize it is to reduce or eliminate all forms of dietary sugar, particularly fructose, and processed grains.
5. Fasting blood glucose: Studies have shown that people with a fasting blood glucose of 100-125 mg/dl had nearly three times the risk of coronary artery disease of people with a blood glucose below 79 mg/dl.
6. Waist-to-hip ratio: Visceral fat, the type of fat that collects around your internal organs, is a well-recognized risk factor for heart disease. The simplest way to evaluate your risk here is by simply measuring your waist-to-hip ratio. (For further instructions, please see the link to my previous article.)
7. Iron level: Excess iron can exert very potent oxidative stress, so if you have excess iron in your blood, you can damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease. Ideally, you should monitor your serum ferritin level and make sure it is below 80 ng/ml. The simplest ways to eliminate excess iron are blood donation and therapeutic phlebotomy.
What REALLY Constitutes a Heart-Healthy Diet?
The following table outlines my version of a "heart-healthy diet," which minimizes inflammation, reduces insulin resistance, and helps you reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. If you want further details, I suggest reviewing my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which will guide you through dietary changes in a step-by-step fashion, moving from beginner to intermediate to advanced.
1. Limit or eliminate all processed foods
2. Eliminate all gluten and highly allergenic foods from your diet
3. Eat organic foods whenever possible to avoid exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals, such as glyphosate
4. Avoid genetically modified ingredients (GMO), which wreak biological chaos on a cellular level and are linked to abundant health problems, including chronic inflammation and heart disease
5. Eat at least one-third of your food uncooked (raw), or as much as you can manage; avoid cooking foods at high temperatures
6. Increase the amount of fresh vegetables in your diet, locally grown and organic if possible
7. Eat naturally fermented foods, which help optimize your gut bacteria and prevent inflammation-causing superantigens from pathogenic bacteria, as well as providing valuable vitamin K2, B vitamins, and other nutrients
8. Avoid all artificial sweeteners.
9. Limit fructose to less than 25 grams per day from all sources, including whole fruits. If you have insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, you'd be well advised to keep your fructose consumption below 15 grams per day until your insulin resistance has normalized
10. Swap all trans fats (vegetable oils, margarine etc.) for healthy fats like avocado, raw butter, cheese, and coconut oil; avoid consuming oxidized cholesterol (cholesterol that has gone rancid, such as that from overcooked scrambled eggs)
11. To rebalance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, take a high-quality animal-based omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil, and reduce your consumption of processed omega-6 fats from vegetable oils
12. Drink plenty of pure water every day
Five Other Heart-Healthy Moves
In addition to following the heart-healthy plan discussed above, there are several more strategies that can be profoundly helpful in reducing chronic inflammation and thereby lowering your cardiovascular risk:
Exercise regularly. One of the primary benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize and maintain healthy insulin and leptin levels. Exercise also boosts HDL, increases your growth hormone production, helps curb your appetite, and improves your mood and sleep.
Intermittent fasting. Fasting is an excellent way to "reboot" your metabolism so that your body can relearn how to burn fat as its primary fuel, which helps you shed those excess fat stores. Intermittent fasting has a far greater retention and compliance rate compared to conventional all-day fasting regimens. Another version is alternate-day fasting.
Grounding yourself to the earth. When you walk barefoot, free electrons are transferred from the earth into your body, and electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known. Grounding (also called Earthing) helps alleviate inflammation, as well as thinning your blood and causing your red blood cells to repel each other, making them less likely to clot.
AVOID statin drugs. Statin drugs can reduce your cholesterol to dangerously low levels, while doing nothingtomodulate LDL particle size. Statin drugs may even accelerate heart disease. A 2012 study showed that statin use is associated with a 52 percent higher prevalence of calcified coronary plaque compared to those not taking them.7 And coronary artery calcification is the hallmark of potentially lethal heart disease. Antidepressants have also been associated with heart disease.
AVOID chemicals whenever possible. BPA, for example, has been linked to heart disease: adults with the highest levels of BPA in their urine are more than twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease as those with the lowest levels.