For years we have told people to avoid saturated fat, in particular, fatty dairy products and fatty meats. Yet, a couple of new studies suggest that saturated fat might not be so bad after all.
Here are four key factors to consider when eating more saturated fat:
- Its impact on cholesterol profiles
- Its quality—is it Clean or Mean?
- Its influence on inflammation
- Its source
Let’s address each of these critical points.
How does saturated fat impact cholesterol profiles? Eating saturated fat increases total cholesterol, good HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, but it makes these cholesterol particles larger and fluffy in a way that makes them less likely to grow plaque. So, the net effect of the cholesterol profile changes on arterial plaque growth might be neutral.
This may explain why a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in March 2014 by Dr. Chowdhury showed no relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
Is saturated fat clean or mean? Fatty meats and dairy products that are produced on commercial farms are often loaded with hormones and pesticides. The dark side of eating more fatty meats and fatty dairy may be the cancer risk that comes with it. The greater your intake of commercially produced meats and dairy, the greater your exposure to these toxins and the greater your risk for cancer.
The trick is if you eat fatty dairy and meat products, ensure you buy grass-fed, organic options, or skip it. People who are following a Paleo plan but are inappropriately eating “mean”, commercial animal protein are very likely hurting themselves greatly.
Does saturated fat impact inflammation? Eating saturated fat in the form of fatty meats and fatty dairy products increases inflammation levels. The more you eat, the higher your level of inflammation. Many detailed scientific studies have shown this to be the case. If you have an increase in inflammation, your blood is stickier and your joints are achier. Inflammation increases most aspects of aging.
When animals are fed corn and other grain products to fatten them, their tissues contain high levels of inflammatory fats; the impact of eating fats from these grain-fattened animals produces far more inflammation and is much unhealthier than eating saturated fat. Plus commercially-produced products come with pesticides and hormones, too.
So, if you want to enjoy eating animal fats in your diet, how do you neutralize this inflammatory effect?
Step 1: Consume organic and grass-fed products.
Step 2: Since all saturated fat produce some degree of inflammation, keep your intake moderate (not more than a 5-7 ounce serving of grass-fed meat at a meal, or a 1-ounce serving of cheese).
Step 3: Eat an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods (green leafy veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, spices, and herbs) to counter any inflammation when you eat saturated fat
The bottom line is that if you eat clean animal fat and an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods (green leafy veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, spices, and herbs), then saturated fat likely has a neutral (not harmful) impact upon your health.
Eating sugar and refined carbs is much, much worse for your health than any concern about consuming saturated fat.
And when eating out, if you can’t find clean protein (hard to do in most restaurants), focus on selecting lean protein. The leaner the protein (less fat), the cleaner the protein, as most of the hormones and pesticides are highest in the fattier cuts.
How is Coconut Fat Different from Saturated Animal Fat? Coconut oil is a bit more controversial. Yes, coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, but its structure is very different from saturated fat that comes from dairy and fatty meats, as it is made from lauric acid. In contrast to dairy fat, coconut oil has a couple benefits:
- It helps boost metabolism in highly active people.
- The medium chain triglycerides in coconut fat provide a terrific fuel source for prolonged exercise sessions and for athletes.
- Coconut fat appears beneficial for cognitive function, and for people with neurological disease, as eating more saturated fat may protect the brain from injury.
Despite these benefits, eating more coconut products increases cholesterol levels. Yes, it raises LDL particle size (considered good) and it raises healthy HDL cholesterol levels (also good). The problem is that we do not have any clinical outcome studies that show eating coconut is either neutral or beneficial. We only know that it improves some laboratory measures; we don’t know if it increases or decreases your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Therefore, if you have established heart disease (meaning you have had a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal cardiovascular testing with your doctor), or you are being treated by your doctor for abnormal cholesterol problems, I’d recommend you stick to the fats that have been proven to be healthy, such as seafood, nuts, nut oils, avocados and avocado oil, and olive oil and avoid coconut products for now.
However, if you are healthy and active, or you have signs of a neurological disease, then I’d say enjoy eating more coconut products, like coconut milk, coconut oil, and unsweetened coconut every day.
I hope this helps you to make the best choices for your health.
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS
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