The Truth About Fats

When I read Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions, it literally changed my life. I’ve never had one book so completely consume me and motivate me to change everything about my life. Thanks for recommending it Lisa! In this blog, I hope to summarize what I have learned from Nourishing Traditions, in addition to Weston PriceGary Taubes, and Fathead and show how learning the truth about fats will be as close as I’ll ever come to a religious awakening. 

Like many adolescent girls, I feel like my obsession with weight began with that awkward phase known as puberty. I began to equate being skinny with being hungry, and I began to notice things like “grams of fat” and “total calories” on packaged food. I knew without knowing that fat was bad and so I avoided things like whole milk, butter, and mayonnaise. I remember reading somewhere that if you stopped putting mayonnaise on your sandwiches, you could lose something like two pounds every year. I was able to remain thin quite easily (thanks to an efficient metabolism), but as I got older, and especially after having kids, my old strategies for keeping the weight off just weren’t working anymore. Then I discovered this crazy idea that fat is actually good for you. Say whaaaaaat??? And not just any fat, but the so-called “artery-clogging” saturated fat I’d ruthlessly avoided my whole life. On top of that, I learned that the polyunsaturated fats that I’d always heard labeled as “heart-healthy” actually CAUSE heart disease and cancer. “BOOM!” (That was the sound of my mind exploding.)

The reason why it seems like “common knowledge” that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad isn’t because they ARE bad, but rather because a man named Ancel Keys THOUGHT they were bad and so he made an assumption. (Silly Ancel, didn’t he know that when you “assume” things, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”?) It “made sense” to him that saturated fat and cholesterol led to heart disease and so he cherry picked six countries that matched his theory to be part of his Lipid Hypothesis and he left out the remaining sixteen countries that didn’t. He didn’t have any credible scientific proof to back up his hypothesis, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a leading member of the American Heart Association, landing on the cover of Time magazine in the 1970s, and becoming “the father of dietary wisdom”. After Ancel Keys and his buddy Jeremiah Stamler were a part of the American Heart Association, the AHA (who originally opposed the Lipid Hypothesis and any ideas like it) flipped their stance and supported it, with the caveat that research was pending. Soon after, senator George McGovern published his Dietary Goals for the United States, which followed Keys’ recommended a reduction of fats along with a drastic increase in carbohydrates. So then the National Institute of Health decided that they’d better drum up some actual research to support the hypothesis everyone was already promoting. (Seems like a pretty biased way to conduct research if you ask me.) No compelling research emerged, and in fact, the research that they hoped would support their hypothesis actually showed quite the opposite. The Framingham Heart study states, “we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.” (JAMA Internal Medicine) But it was already too late. The idea that saturated fat and cholesterol were bad was barreling down the American ideology track like a freight train…and gaining momentum too. In 1980, the USDA released their official Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which were VERY similar to George McGovern’s guidelines). These guidelines have since been republished every five years with very little changes. And that’s that. Now every government agency, every doctor, and every American wrongly assumes that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad. (For a more thorough description of this story, check out my blog post How We Were Duped Into Thinking Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Were Bad.)

The term “artery-clogging saturated fats” isn’t true. When the fat in artery clogs is studied, only about 26% is saturated and the rest is unsaturated, with more than half of that being polyunsaturated. Saturated fats have been wrongly demonized when the truth is that we really NEED them as they play many important roles in our body chemistry. 

  • Cell membranes must be comprised of at least 50% saturated fatty acids in order to maintain their stiffness. (Without stiff cell membranes, arteries become weak and flabby and THAT is when cholesterol comes to the rescue to repair the damage that has been done. This becomes the plaque that clogs arteries, increases blood pressure, and leads to heart disease.)
  • Unless 50% of the fats we consume come from saturated fat, we cannot properly absorb the calcium we need.
  • Saturated fatty acids are made up of short and medium chain fatty acids that are not stored as fat, but used as quick energy.
  • They protect the liver from toxins.
  • They enhance the immune system.
  • They protect us from harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.
  • They have important antimicrobial properties.
  • They are needed to properly utilize fatty acids like omega-3s.
  • The fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated and draws upon that fat in times of stress.

Not only is saturated fat good for you, but cholesterol is too! Say whaaaaaat??? It’s true. This idea of “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” is totally wrong. LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is REPAIRING damaged arterial walls. In her book, Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon explains how blaming cholesterol for it’s correlation with clogged arteries is like blaming the police for their correlation with crime. (i.e. A high crime area will have an increased number of police officers just like clogged arteries will have an increased level of LDL cholesterol, but the high crime isn’t CAUSED by the police and the clogged arteries are not CAUSED by the cholesterol. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that one thing causes another.) The arterial plaques themselves contain very little cholesterol. Cholesterol is needed for many functions in our body and the only people that are benefit from the misconception that we should lower our cholesterol levels are the multibillion dollar drug corporations that create cholesterol lowering drugs called statins, like Lipitor and the doctors who get kick backs called “research study” funds for every new patient they can con to take them.

  • Cholesterol is needed along with saturated fats to give cells their stiffness and stability. When a diet contains too much polyunsaturated fatty acids, the cell walls actually become flabby and cholesterol is used to make them strong again.
  • It is the precursor needed to make sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
  • It is a precursor to vital hormones called coriocosteroids which are needed to help us deal with stress and protects the body against heart disease and cancer.
  • It is a precursor to vitamin D, which is a fat-soluble vitamin needed for healthy bones and nervous system, proper growth, mineral metabolism, muscle tone, insulin production, reproduction, and immune system function.
  • Bile salts are made from cholesterol. Bile is vital for digestion and assimilation of dietary fats.
  • It helps to maintain the health of the intestinal wall. This is why low-cholesterol vegetarian diets can lead to leaky gut syndrome and other intestinal disorders.
  • It is an antioxidant that protects us from free radical damage that leads to heart disease and cancer.
  • Cholesterol is needed for proper function of serotonin receptors, the “feel good” chemical, in the brain. When cholesterol levels are low, there are behavioral links to depression, suicidal tendencies, and violent and aggressive behavior.
  • Mother’s milk is especially rich in cholesterol (as well as saturated fat). Babies and children especially need cholesterol rich foods for optimal brain and nervous system development. Yet, the American Heart Association is now recommending a low-cholesterol, low-fat diet for children! Most commercial formulas are low in saturated fats and soy formulas are completely devoid of cholesterol. A recent study linked low-fat diets with failure to thrive in children.
  • Beware of damaged cholesterol! Just like fats, cholesterol can be damaged by exposure to heat and oxygen which can lead to to the arterial cells as well as a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Damaged cholesterol is found in powdered eggs, powdered milk, skim and low-fat milks (which has powdered milk added to it), and in meats or fats that have been heated to a high temperature.

When people stopped eating saturated fats and cholesterol because they were tricked into thinking they were bad, they replaced them with polyunsaturated fats such as canola oil and trans fats such margarine. Modern diets include up to 30% polyunsaturated fats when the ideal should be about 4%. Excess consumption of polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of diseases including cancer and heart disease, immune system dysfunction, damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs, digestive disorders, depressed learning ability, impaired growth, and weight gain. Polyunsaturated fats (WRONGLY marketed as “heart healthy”) and hydrogenated oils, known as trans fats (marketed as a “healthy alternative” to butter) should be avoided at all costs and are one of the TRUE causes of heart disease and cancer.

  • Polyunsaturated fats tend to become oxidized or rancid when exposed to heat, oxygen, and moisture from cooking and processing. Rancid oils contain free radicals that damage cell membranes and red blood cells. This leads to wrinkles, premature aging, tumors, and plaque buildup.
  • Polyunsaturates also contain a high amount of omega-6 linoleic acid and a low amount of omega-3 linoleic acid. This imbalance disrupts prostaglandins that leads to blood clots and inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer, and weight gain.

After learning all of this, I initially felt a bit overwhelmed when I thought about all of the things we were going to have to change about our eating habits. We didn’t change everything all at once. We simply picked one thing to research further and learn more about, and then we gradually implemented one change at a time. Looking back over the past year, we have done a lot to add foods rich in saturated fats and eliminate foods with polyunsaturated fats. Here are some of the things we have implemented so far.

  • We started by drinking raw milk. If there is only one thing you can do to help the health of your family, do this! We bought a cow share and consume six gallons of the freshest, creamiest, best tasting raw milk we’ve ever had every week.
  • We go through about ten pounds of non rBST (bovine growth hormone) butter a month.
  • We just purchased our first grass-fed half of a cow, which is about 160 pounds of the best ground beef, steak, roast we’ve ever had. Hopefully this will last us a whole year!
  • Every week we get three dozen pastured eggs with dark yellow yolks from the Amish farm where we get our milk.
  • We also recently got our fifty pounds of coconut oil that I will use for cooking, baking, and body moisturizer.

Learning about our health has become like a full time job for me, and I am always learning something new or learning about something I had a preliminary knowledge about at a deeper level. It makes me feel so good to know that we are feeding ourselves with nutrient dense food that will heal us from the inside out. To know that as our children are growing, their bodies are being constructed with the best nutrients possible that will enable them to grow into adults free from the plagues that a poor diet will bring. We truly believe that food is our medicine, and every day we are taking steps to ensure that we are taking the best medicine we possibly can.

A few of my favorite studies:

  • In his book, Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes explains how in 1990, the National Institute of Health conducted a study that they hoped to answer whether low fat diets prevented heart disease or cancer. So they spent one billion dollars and had 20,000 women eat a low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. These women also cut their caloric intake by about 360 calories per day. After eight years, they lost an average of two pounds each and their waist circumference increased, meaning that the weight they lost was lean muscle.
  • In another study, Taubes explains how a two million dollar government funded study through Stanford University called the A to Z Weight Loss studied four diets. 1) Atkins Diet: Subjects had twenty grams of carbohydrates for the first three months and then fifty grams, with as much protein and fat as they wanted. 2) A Traditional Diet: Subjects had restricted calories, carbohydrates made up 55-60% of all calories, fat was less than 30% of the caloric intake, saturated fat was less than 10%, and regular exercise was encouraged. 3) The Ornish Diet: Subjects at fewer than 10% of all calories came from fat, subjects meditated and exercised. 4) The Zone Diet: Subjects consumed 30% of calories from protein, 40% of calories from carbohydrates, and 30% of calories from fat. After one year, the Atkins dieters lost the most weight (10 pounds), their triglycerides went way down, their blood pressure went down, and their HDL cholesterol went up (which is good).
  • In her book, Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon describes a multi-year British study in which several thousand men were asked to reduce their saturated fat and cholesterol in their diets, to stop smoking, and to increase consumption of unsaturated oils such as margarine and vegetable oil. After one year, the group that reduced their saturated fat had 100% more deaths, even though the group that did not still smoked!
  • In another study, Fallon describes a study comparing Yemen Jews who ate only fats from animal origin and no sugar to Yemenite Jews living in Israel who ate margarine, vegetable oil, and sugar equaling 25-30% of their carbohydrate intake. The Yemen Jews had little to no heart disease or diabetes, but the Yemenite Jews had very high incidences of both.
  • She also discusses the Masai African tribes that subsist largely on milk, blood, and beef. They are completely free from heart disease and have low cholesterol levels. When Ancel Keys heard about this study, he purposed that they inherited some sort of genes to help them become immune to such ailments. But as the Masai began eating a western diet, they got heart disease at the same rates as everyone else.

For more reading on this subject, check out the following articles.

Digestion and Absorption of Food Fats by Mary Enig, phD

Why the Current US Dietary Guidelines are Making Americans Fat by Mary Enig, phD

Skinny on Fats, by Mary Enig, phD and Sally Fallon