One of the main reasons I love nutrition is because of foods ability to treat disease.
This concept was fascinating to me. It also explained why I used to have horrible cracks and scabs in the side of my mouth, thanks cheliosis (a simple riboflavin deficiency due to the fact that I refused to eat anything but Tostitos and Mountain Dew). Whether we believe it or not, this concept effects every aspect of our lives.
Your diet is responsible for:
- How your immune system functions.
- Your mental health.
- Your aging skin.
- The way your clothes fit.
- Your heart health.
That last statement seems to be a no brainer. Everyone is an expert on preventing a heart attack, right? We just avoid red meat, lower our cholesterol, maybe take some statins, stop using butter, and never eat an egg again.
Or right? When I initially began this blog post I was dead set on proving that saturated fat was innocent in the heart disease game. But that was exactly the problem, I was trying to prove its innocence. There’s a ridiculous amount of information on nutrition circling the web, published journals, and social media. For indecisive people, it’s impossible to determine what’s true and what’s not.
One of the best, and most frustrating, aspects of research is the ability of a study to bring rise to new questions. For instance, one of the main reasons saturated fat is associated with CVD is because of the Seven Countries Studies. Ancel Keys and his researchers examined 7 different countries in an attempt to identify key contributors to CVD.
Their research showed an association between saturated fat intake, obesity, smoking, alcohol, and physical health to an increased risk of CVD. This promising conclusion gave light to detrimental habits, but also brought up questions of whether or not saturated fat increases risk on its own, in combination with other lifestyle factors, or has no affect at all.
While the study was instrumental in it’s time period, it also received a lot of criticism. Other researchers believe the claim against saturated fat is invalid because they were not looking at specific foods, just general intake.
Some are convinced the results are irrelevant due to the countries he chose for his study. Originally, Keys collected data from 22 countries, solely recording the results from 7 (Berry, 2017). He just so happened to leave out “indigenous tribes” who ate primarily animal fat and have the lowest prevalence of heart disease on the planet (Lustig, 2012). However, after reading many books, papers, and theories on this topic, all the evidence discrediting Keys can be discredited itself.
Again, questioning whether or not saturated fat is indeed a contributor to CVD. While much research supports this theory, there’s an equal amount that does not. Does this mean your diet needs to be devoid of saturated fat? Well that depends.
What other lifestyle changes are you willing to make?
Before you answer this question, let’s discuss the simple steps of a cardiac event. When your body pumps blood it relies on your arteries to carry blood from your heart to other areas of your body (brain, muscles, liver, etc.), your veins are then responsible for bringing the blood back to your heart. In the case of a cardiac event, there is a build up of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the artery, which hardens into plaque causing the vessel to narrow, making it harder for blood to pump through, and creates a clot. The clot can rupture, dislodge, or cut off blood flow entirely; interrupting the circulatory function of your heart and causing a heart attack, stroke, embolisim, or arrhythmia.
Simple enough, but how does the LDL build up in the first place? Well, let’s take a look at different types of fats.
There are 2 main types of fat:
Saturated and Unsaturated
A saturated fat simply means that it contains no double bonds, is solid at room temperature, and predominately found in animal products.
An unsaturated fat contains one or more double bonds, is liquid at room temperature, and found in plant sources.
We consider unsaturated fats to be healthier because they contain our essential fatty acids; omega-3 and omega-6. I’m sure you’ve seen products advertised for being a great source of omega-3’s, EPA for your heart, or DHA for your brain.
This information is extremely true, BUT we overlook something very important… omega-6’s. These are the other essential fatty acids our bodies require to be consumed from food because they cannot make it themselves. These special fatty acids can be found in oils and animal sources but have a negative effect on the body.
They are pro-inflammatory and consumed in large quantities on a daily basis. While inflammation in the body is necessary, chronic, sustained inflammation does more harm than good.
So how are we supposed to consume an essential fatty acid without experiencing the repercussions? You balance it out with the ever so helpful, anti-inflammatory omega-3’s. It’s what we call the omega-6 : omega-3 ratio. Ideally, this ratio should be between 3:1 to 4:1.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet has exceeded this ratio at an astonishing 20:1. That means our chronic inflammation is being exacerbated day in and day out, contributing to negative health outcomes.
Saturated fat intake also constitutes a large percentage of the Western Diet. This is the fat associated with your cholesterol.
Note: all fats affect cholesterol not just saturated fat.
Cholesterol is actually a type of sterol (exogenous source) and is not considered an essential fat because your liver can produce it (endogenous source). It also functions as a hormone, provides the membrane structure for cells, and is a precursor for vitamin D. I guess you could say cholesterol is kind of important…
Whether it’s consumed exogenously or produced endogenously, cholesterol is transported through the body with the help of lipoproteins.
You may have heard of these guys before, maybe your doctor said your LDL was too high and HDL was too low? Well, LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, meaning it contains more fat than protein. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein, meaning it is comprised of more protein than fat.
LDL is associated with transporting cholesterol from your liver to your cells.
HDL is then responsible for transporting cholesterol from your cells back to your liver.
Hence, when we consume large amounts of LDL, commonly found in saturated fat, it may accumulate in our arteries, harden and form plaque. Sound familiar?
What if that were true, but we were missing some information? What if there were two types of LDL cholesterol? A large buoyant LDL (type A) and a small dense LDL (type B). What if 80% of blood LDL is type A and is too big to get underneath the cells lining the blood vessels, making it impossible for it to thicken the artery walls? What if it were actually type B because it sinks and is small enough to thicken the artery wall by getting underneath the blood vessel cells?
From this information, it sounds like type B is the destructive form of LDL. While dietary fat DOES raise LDL, it’s normally type A. A rise in type B is seen in response to carbohydrate intake. While we can change our LDL levels with fat intake, it greatly increases our risk for atherosclerosis when carbohydrates are consumed. So who’s to blame? Saturated fat? Or carbohydrates?
Thanks research for bringing up yet ANOTHER unanswered question. Now I’ll ask you again…
What other lifestyle changes are you willing to make?
Can you reduce your sugar intake? Can you increase your omega-3 intake? Can you stop over consuming omega-6’s? Can you start exercising? Can you stop smoking?
There’s not one specific reason for a heart attack. It’s easy for us to play the victim while blaming some poor culprit (saturated fat) for our years of self-abuse. In reality, it might just be a combination of bad habits that lead to our demise. Does saturated fat cause heart attacks? Maybe. But could you have reduced the risk? Absolutely.
Maybe it’s time to stop playing the blame game and take responsibility for our actions.
Berry, K.D. (2017). Lies My Doctor Told Me. Holiday, TN: Berry Pharmacy, LC
Katherine (2016). Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study: A Response to “The Sugar Conspiracy”. Nutrition Wonk, April 13th. https://www.thenutritionwonk.com/single-post/2016/04/13/Ancel-Keys-and-the-Seven-Country-Study-A-Response-to-The-Sugar-Conspiracy
Lustig, R.H. (2012). Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, LLC.
Pett, K.D., Kahn, J., Willett, W.C., Katz, D.L. (2017). Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study: An Evidence-Based Response to Revisionist Histories. White Paper, August 1st. https://www.truehealthinitiative.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/SCS-White-Paper.THI_.8-1-17.pdf