Saturated fat must be the most controversial nutrient in the nutrition world these days. For decades we’ve known how closely it is tied in with heart disease, shown how fast it raises cholesterol (a known risk factor for heart disease) and known the links of saturated fat to our most common cancers.
Now studies are coming out suggesting we were wrong and it isn’t so bad after all.
“Butter is good!” TIME magazine said it, so it must be so!!
What is the truth about those studies?
Poor design – the research being quoted was comparing saturated fat intake with people replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates like doughnuts and sweets – and these foods raised inflammatory markers in the body even higher than saturated fats. Therefore saturated fats were exonerated. Compared to a rich sugary dessert, butter fares a little better in the health stakes. That so what those studies have shown.
The writers of those studies never even suggested that saturated fat was not damaging to the body – only that processed foods were MORE damaging.
More saturated fat (both from increased meat consumption, increased eggs and from coconut oil, the darling of the Paleo movement) results in both higher heart disease rates, higher diabetes rates and higher cancer rates. This has always been shown in research of the last 40 years, and nothing has changed on this count. None of this was disproven.
However, the media got a hold of the studies, read that saturated fat was not so bad as processed foods, and promoted the idea that the studies had shown fat was really no longer a problem – yet the studies never showed that at all, and were not even attempting to show that.
The Damaged Engine-brake
Many new cars now have an engine brake. When descending a hill, if you take your foot off the accelerator, the car does not turn into a runaway car. It engages an internal brake system which holds the car at a slower speed. This is a wonderful thing for safety.
We looked at IGF-1 levels from high animal protein being implicated with cancer <see this post>. Interestingly, our bodies also have an automatic brake when IGF-1 levels begin rising fast. To an extent, the body is able to increase proteins in the blood that bind with IGF-1 so it is not able to effectively pass on its “grow now” message. However, if saturated fat comes in with the protein (as it does with meat, and especially with red meat), those brakes are taken off. This effectively allows more tumour growth. Saturated fat appears to lower the levels of IGF-1-binding proteins in the blood, which increases circulating free IGF-1. Saturated fat over-rides the body’s safety switch to limit free IGF-1.
What about coconut oil?
The penchant of the paleo crowd to add coconut oil (a processed food itself) to drinks and drink ‘bulletproof coffee’ (a trendy espresso drink containing coconut oil) is of some concern. Coconut oil contains more saturated fat than any meat. 70% of its saturated fat content is the type that raises LDL cholesterol, the type implicated strongly in heart disease. “But it has medium chain triglycerides!” Of the other 30%, some of it has the types of medium-chain fats that convert more easily into energy rather than to stored fat. However, this has not been shown to make it protective at all. Societies who ate a lot of coconut oil along with a diet of predominantly plant foods had low heart disease rates, but upon changing to the meat-rich, processed food rich diet of the West, and continuing to use coconut oil, their heart disease and diabetes rates rose to and exceeded those of the West. Coconut oil is not protective as part of a fatty diet.
Even though we cannot yet say conclusively that coconut oil is as bad as saturated fat in meat, one thing we are certain of is that it is a processed food which is high in calories for very little nutritive value, the same as all oils.
Cutting off the Fat
Clever marketing has caused us to think that if we just remove ‘saturated fat’ from our diets, and eat our meat lean, we avoid the worst damage. This is reductionism at its best – the habit of reducing everything to its parts. The problem is that meat, cannot be easily divided into all its parts. Fat is not just on the outside – it is within every muscle. You could trim off the most obvious fat, but fat still fills the meat. Even chicken breast contains saturated fat.
Unfortunately the paleo world does not concern itself with science, but only with a macho sounding myth. And meat with its intrinsically-bound saturated fat, is one of the main foods it does this with, making people feel good about their poor food choices.