If you read this post on cooking oil, you know that the top three fats I recommend for cooking are butter, coconut oil, and bacon grease. You may have noticed that these are all very rich in saturated fat… But wait! Doesn’t saturated fat cause heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension?? Why would I recommend such unhealthy foods?! Let’s explore that together.
Saturated fat is the primary fat found in animal foods like eggs, dairy, and meat (especially red meat). It can also be found in a few plant sources - coconut oil is one of the most common – but animal sources of saturated fat have cholesterol while plant sources do not.
The US government has required that saturated fat content be labeled on food products since the 90s, yet until 2006 trans-fat content was considered to be saturated fat. We’ll talk more about how trans-fat is NOT AT ALL the same as saturated fat in a minute, but sufficient for now to say that saturated fat is naturally occurring and has been eaten by our ancestors for thousands of years, whereas trans-fat is the byproduct of modern commercial food processing and has only been eaten by humans for about 100 years.
Before we discuss 3 of the wonderful benefits to eating saturated fat, let's talk about 3 things that saturated fat does NOT do.
3 ways saturated fat does NOT harm you
1. Saturated fat does not cause weight gain.
The last hundred years have seen huge increases in national obesity levels and associated diseases. It has been even more pronounced in the last 20 years. Nationally 70% of adults are overweight or obese today compared to 15% in 1985. But let’s take a look at how consumption of different foods has changed in the last 100 years. Today compared to 1909 we eat:
- 46% more beef per capita (a stat that those who attempt to connect saturated fat consumption to obesity will not fail to point out)
- 280% more poultry
- 437% more vegetable oils
- 100% more low fat dairy
- 50% LESS full fat dairy
- 300% LESS butter, lard, and tallow (Source)
- And last but not least 17 times more sugar! (Source)
Take a minute to think about that list of stats.
Does it make any sense that consumption of meat, specifically red meat or cuts of meat cooked in their own fat cause obesity? What are the categories of consumption that have increased the most? Sugar and vegetable oils by a landslide.
Beef consumption has increased by the smallest amount of those food categories, and full fat dairy and butter consumption have decreased significantly in the last 100 years. How could it possibly be the case that these are the foods in our diets contributing to an increase in disease?
2. Saturated fat does not clog your arteries.
Bear with me for a second as we discuss the inflammation process and set the stage a bit: When we get injured our body inflames the hurt area and causes a variety of substances to come to the site and do their healing work, which then anti-inflames… If you sprain your ankle, it swells up, turns red, and gets hot (inflames) then returns to normal as you heal and anti-inflame. Cholesterol is found in animal sources of saturated fats and it is also one of these healing agents.
When our blood vessels and arteries become damaged, cholesterol is sent to the site to patch things up so that blood flow can continue normally. If our blood vessels and arteries are constantly being damaged, cholesterol will constantly be sent to the site to patch things up and will start to build up over time. So it is true that cholesterol build up can cause obstruction of blood flow, causing our hearts to work harder and leading to coronary artery disease. However, what is the real problem here? Is it the healing agent (cholesterol) or is it the damage requiring that cholesterol be brought in?
At this point you may be asking: OK so what causes all this arterial damage? Hang with me, we’ll get there soon!
3. Saturated fat does not cause heart disease.
This is really an extension of point number two but it is so different than conventional understanding of the disease that I want to flesh it out a bit more. Heart disease is the result of the heart fatiguing from needing to work on overdrive to supply blood to our entire body. There are many factors that can contribute to heart disease, including genetic predisposition, physical activity levels, sleep, stress management, and blood sugar regulation, but eating traditional foods like beef, full fat dairy, and eggs is not one of them.
Obesity can also be a contributing factor to heart disease, as the same heart that is intended to pump blood through an appropriately-sized body is being tasked with pumping blood through a much larger body… that’s a lot of work! And we just established above that saturated fat doesn’t cause obesity.
Cholesterol buildup in the arteries can also cause heart disease, but it isn’t the consumption of saturated fat that contributes to cholesterol buildup in the arteries. Rather it is the damage caused to the arteries that causes the body to send cholesterol there to heal the damage. We can think of cholesterol as an ambulance responding to a crisis – do you blame an ambulance for the car accident it’s responding to? Wouldn’t you rather ask why the ambulance needs to be there at all?
If saturated fat does not contribute to obesity, clogged arteries, or heart disease. Which foods do?
Sugar, refined carbohydrates, and “denatured” fats.
Sugar and refined carbs are very taxing on our body to process. When eaten in excess they are inflammatory in the body and can contribute to damage to any types of cells or tissue, including blood vessel walls. Denatured fats include anything that was produced in a facility rather than grown in the ground or in an animal, such as canola oil, low fat dairy, margarine, hydrogenated oils, and frying oils. These fats can cause inflammation and damage to our arteries and blood vessels.
Going in depth into how each of these contributes to disease is also a topic for another day, but put simply we only started eating excessive sugar, refined carbs, and denatured fats as a major part of our diet recently in human history (the last 100 years or so), and obesity, heart disease, and other chronic diseases have spiked. We have been eating naturally occurring saturated fats and cholesterol for thousands of years, and these are not the culprits of disease.
Let’s now switch gears to discuss the AMAZING roles that saturated fat DOES play in our bodies:
3 ways saturated fat can boost your health
1. Give you energy.
Try something for me: instead of eating cereal or toast for breakfast, try eating 2 eggs and some leafy greens sautéed in butter. Do this for 2-3 days and note how quickly you get hungry after breakfast. Most people will find they are much satiated for much longer eating more fats – especially saturated fats – for breakfast than carbohydrates. Not only will most people feel full for longer eating saturated fats, but they’ll likely have a little more energy, spark, and get-up-and-go, because our bodies love to run on fats.
2. Improve mental clarity and mood.
Our brains are cholesterol hungry – even though they are only 2-3% of our body weight, 25% of our cholesterol is found in the brain! (Source) When you give the brain the energy source it so heavily relies on, you may find that your mental function improves overall. Cholesterol is also an important material needed to build healthy hormones that contribute to our sleep cycles, metabolism, and general positive feeling. It is very common for those that transition from a low fat diet to eating sufficient saturated fat to experience a new positive outlook, reduced anxiety or depression, reduced brain fog, and just a general improvement in the ability to focus.
3. Help you lose weight.
Many folks find that when they replace refined sugar and carbs with more protein and, yes, saturated fat their weight normalizes without needing to count calories or do a funky diet. And the best part is they feel satisfied after eating and can sustain this diet long term because they can eat butter, bacon, and eggs… who can complain about that??
Thanks for reading all the way to the end – this is a difficult topic to discuss because so many of us have spent our entire lives being told that animal fats will kill us and that the factory-made low-fat alternatives will save us from this fate. I’ll be honest, it took me a long time of mulling over this information before I came to believe it and change my diet.
Do you want to talk this through more? Or are you tracking with this but have no idea where to start on making these changes? Sign up for an initial consult with me! I offer a FREE initial health consult to any prospective client locally in Portland, OR or remotely anywhere in the world.