Saturated Fat


I made a commitment to myself that I would never write a blog post in a rage.  Believe me, there are many things reported in the healthy-living-blog-o-sphere that make me want to run screaming into the nearest grocery store or personal training center while pulling the pin on my artichoke grenade, ready to blow the whole place up in a fire-y ball of roasted vegetables.   However,  as an aspiring professional, I am determined to show restraint.

It's taken me almost a week to step back from the ledge I have been standing on about a topic that came to me from several sources recently.
High. Fat. Diets.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when I read on a "Nutrition Therapist's" blog   "We focus our fats on saturated omega-3 fatty acids like those found in coconut oil and butter. "  

Ummm....Omega-3's are not only VERY UN-saturated, but they are NOT in coconut oil or butter.  This person is advising other people on what to eat??!!

In the past two weeks, I have spoken to so many people about new literature stating that increasing fat, particularly saturated fat, in the diet is beneficial for weight loss and helps to regulate blood sugar.  Typically, this pairs with the idea that carbohydrates are the anti-christ.
This craze started about decade ago with the Atkin's diet, with the newest iteration being The Paleo Diet (although, to be fair, Paleo pushes the fruit and veggies pretty hard too).
Which way do we go??
The axioms that make up this dietary proof typically go something like this:  We know that sugar comes from carbohydrate.  Sugar gets into the blood when we eat carbohydrate.  Sugar releases insulin.  I hear insulin is bad.  Fat is the opposite of sugar.  Therefore, eat saturated fat.
Huh??  Did I miss a few steps??
Look, I know we live in a world where messaging by journalists that have never stepped foot in a science lab spin the research.  We also live in a world where the research is often incomplete and sometimes even contradictory.  However, there is NO RESEARCH in human beings that state that a high saturated fat diet is good for you.  None.  Zero.  Zip.
Why does this happen with a saturated fat diet?  Is this true of all fats?  Aren't omega-3 fats good for you?Are you confused?
I can't blame you.  The truth is, there are many different types of fat.  Each is 100% necessary in your diet, but in excess they cause damage.  Just like anything else.  Too little = bad.  To much = bad.  In the research world it's called a "J-shaped curve" (or a U-shaped curve depending on the research).

J-shaped curve.  Increased risk if you are too low in intake as well as too high.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Let's start by clearing up what fats actually are:

Saturated Fatty Acid:  One long chain of carbons held together by a single bond between electrons.  These can come in several lengths, with some being more active in your body than others.
For example, palmitic acid (C:16) has 16 carbons and is most commonly found in the human body.  This is also the fat found in coconut oil.  Excess carbohydrate in the body is converted to palmitic acid.  Palmitic acid gets stored in cells (adipocytes) and has been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis by increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Stearic acid is another long chain fatty acid (C:18) that has 18 carbons in its chain.  These two little carbons make a huge difference.  Stearic acid is less likely to be incorporated into LDL, and actually may help to lower this bad cholesterol.  Stearic acid is the second most available saturated fatty acid, and can be found in animal fat.  However, the most abundant source of stearic acid in the American diet is currently "grain based desserts" (wtf?), followed by cheese, sausage, franks, bacon and ribs (again, wtf?).  Unfortunately these foods also contain a very high amount of the cholesterol raising saturated fats and are excessively high in calories (leading to overweight and obesity).  While Stearic Acid may not increase your cholesterol per se, these fatty acids will be STORED if not burned, increasing your systemic inflammation, which effects risk for oxidative stress, atherosclerosis, and diseases like cancer.There are MANY more long chain fatty acids like the ones above.  Each with its own benefits and risks.   A "new" saturated fatty acid called a "short chain fatty acid" is also being investigated.  Short chain fatty acids are made in your gut by fermenting fiber (from PLANTS that you eat).  Short chain fatty acids may be very beneficial to health outcomes by feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut as well as taking the place of the more detrimental long chain fatty acids in your body.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA):  One long chain of carbons held together by a single bond between electrons, with one lone double bond.   MUFA's are probably the least studied, but have shown that they can reduce Total Cholesterol while simultaneously lowering LDL and raising HDL.  You find MUFA's in avocados, nuts and olives.
Good fat.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids:  These polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are one long chain of 18 carbons held together by a single bond between all electrons, with two double bonds (C18:2).  They are called Omega-6 because the first double bond is on the 6th carbon.  Omega 6 fatty acid, also called linoleic acid, is converted in your body to arachidonic acid, which is important for inflammatory signaling in your body.  As I mentioned in the stress post, inflammatory signaling is essential for normal functioning - wound healing, communication in and out of the cell, recovery from exercise.  However, in excess, you end up with vasoconstriction (small blood vessels), increased blood pressure, pain, and cellular damage.  Omega-6 also competes with Omega-3 in your body for certain enzymes, so being careful about the ratio of 6:3 is important. The main sources of Omega-6 in the American diet are oils - palm, sunflower, soybean.  You can also find Omega-6 in avocados, acai berry, and eggs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:  Omega 3's are also a PUFA that start out with 18 carbons and 3 double bonds (starting at the 3rd carbon) and are also called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  With enzymes in your body they are converted to a family of fatty acids in your body that have more carbons and double bonds:  ALA (18:3) to EPA (20:5) to DHA (22:6).  You have probably seen these variations on a fish oil supplement bottle.  These are all very important in combating excessive inflammation in the body.  Contrary to popular belief, Omega-3's are not ANTI-inflammatory, they are just much LESS inflammatory than other fats.  They do have the ability to be converted to molecules called "resolvins", however, which can help to clean up excessive inflammation.
Sources of Omega-3
I think, herein lies the problem and the confusion.  As you can see,  there are several types of fat and each fat has several subtypes.  Each of these subtypes of fat has a very specific and individual role in your body.  ALL FAT IS NECESSARY.  However, excessive types of the WRONG fat (i.e long chain saturated fat and Omega-6) can lead to increases in inflammation, oxidation (free radicals), and eventually disease.
The major negative has been, when people do what they have been told for the past 50 years and take saturated fat out of their diet, they have replaced it with carbohydrate.  More often than not, we have replaced saturated fat with REFINED carbohydrate (like choosing and english muffin or a half bagel on the side of your breakfast omelet instead of the future, go for the fruit option).   My next post will be on the differences between refined and whole grains (an entire saga unto itself), but suffice it to say, replacing the fat with refined sugar could be equally (or even more) dangerous to your system.
Not healthy, despite the clever label.
The point is, the knowledge that refined sugar shot straight into your veins via a high carbohydrate diet is bad does not justify a 180 degree turn toward high fat and protein.  If our society moves in a direction where we react to the anti-carbohydrate literature with an equally excessive response, we will find ourselves in another crisis of health in the very near future.
Are fats bad?  No.
Can you fry up hot dogs in bacon fat and then cover them in ranch dressing, hold the bun?  NO!
A note to remember:  Most of the positive research about the fats above are IN THE ABSENCE OF OBESITY.   The ranch-dressing-bacon-dog above probably has  ~8,000 calories in that one meal.  Don't forget, ALL FAT, even the better ones, have NINE CALORIES PER GRAM.  Excess calories cause weight gain, no matter the source.
So, get your fat (and protein) from healthy, lower calorie, sources.  Fish.  Lean meat.  Avocado. Nuts.
Sushi - A good blend of fats and carbohydrates.
Don't buy into the pendulum swings of the journalist-spin-doctors and fringe-screamers.  Just eat real food.  Not from a package.  Eat food that comes directly from the earth, or is nourished by food that grows from the ground.  Limit your calories.  There is no silver bullet.