For decades, we have been pummeled by the message that saturated fats such as those in butter and meat are bad for us and that a low-fat diet is good for the heart and blood vessels. But where did this information about fat and cholesterol come from, and is it really accurate?
Before we answer that question, let's take a look at the different types of fats and the foods from which they are derived.
Types of Fats and How They Affect Your Health
Fats are divided into two basic groups: saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fats can be further subdivided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, sesame oil, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and avocado.
Within the polyunsaturated oil category, omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids are known as essential fatty acids (EFA) since they can only be derived from diet and are not synthesized by the body. Omega-3 fatty acids make the blood vessels elastic; have a beneficial effect on the eyes, brain, and nerve tissues; and help reduce your chances of contracting cancer or arthritis.
Polyunsaturated fats such as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, algae, and krill. English walnuts and vegetable oils such as flaxseed/linseed, olive, canola, and soybean contain the ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) type of omega-3.
A diet of human-made vegetable oils such as margarine and other hydrogenated oils means a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Many otherwise "healthy" fats, when heated to high temperatures as in frying, produce high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 1:1, but in the Western diet, the ratio is often as high as 20:1. The excessive omega-6 oils come from "vegetable oil," canola, soy and corn oils, and others that have replaced the much maligned lards and fats formerly used for cooking. High levels of omega-6 oils can lead to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
Saturated fats come from animal foods, including meat, milk, butter, fish, lard, and some tropical oils, including coconut oil. It is these fats that we have been told are bad for us and that supposedly cause high levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Most people habitually accept the low-fat diet message as gospel. However, this information does not take into account people such as the Inuit—whose staple foods are meat, fat, and blubber—and the Masai, who exist on a diet of meat, blood, and milk. Despite their extremely high intake of saturated fats, heart disease is virtually unknown in these tribes. It was the revelation of the low level of heart disease in the Inuit peoples that led to the discovery of the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
Cholesterol is a chemical compound with a waxy, fat-like consistency that is naturally produced by the body. It is fat combined with hydrogen and carbon atoms. The medical community likes to divide cholesterol into two main types: LDL, which are low-density lipoproteins, and HDL, which are high-density lipoproteins.
Low-density cholesterol is deemed by many in the medical profession to be "bad cholesterol" because high levels of LDL are reportedly associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. High-density cholesterol is called "good cholesterol" because it is believed to prevent atherosclerosis by extracting cholesterol from the artery walls.
Contrary to its bad press, cholesterol is actually essential to the body as it is a component of cell walls, particularly in brain and nerve cells. As much as 25 percent of total body cholesterol is located in the brain. It is also a component of the hormones estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, aldosterone, and cortisone. Cholesterol forms part of the bile acids that are stored in the gallbladder and facilitate digestion. It is a major component of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In fact, cholesterol is so important to the body that almost all cell types can make it.
The liver produces roughly 80 percent of the body's required cholesterol. The other 20 percent is obtained from the diet via dairy products, meat, poultry, oily fish, and eggs. What most people don't realize is that if you consume insufficient cholesterol, the body will simply try to compensate by making more. A higher intake from food leads to a decrease in cholesterol synthesis by the liver, but lower intake from food has the opposite effect. Contrary to claims by the media and the medical industry, the level of cholesterol in your blood is affected very little by the amount of cholesterol you absorb from the food you eat.
After eating, any cholesterol absorbed from food is stored in your liver, which controls cholesterol levels and can release it into the body if the body needs it to maintain your metabolism. Any excess cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream is simply recycled by the liver.
Origin of the Cholesterol Myth
So how did this cholesterol "myth" get started? This idea originated from the work of the nutritionist Ancel Keys. Keys believed that a diet low in animal fat such as that in Mediterranean countries protected against heart disease and that a diet high in animal fat caused heart disease. To prove his hypothesis, Keys collected data from 22 countries on deaths from coronary heart disease and fat consumption. Even though 22 countries contributed statistics, Keys only used the data from the 7 countries that supported his theory about the animal fat/coronary heart disease connection to publicize his opinions.
In view of these "findings," representatives of the American Heart Association appeared on television in 1956 to tell people that eating lard, butter, beef, and eggs was the cause of coronary heart disease. Soon afterwards, the American government began recommending that people adopt a low-fat diet in order to ward off heart disease.
By 1980, the low-fat diet approach had been adopted by doctors, the food industry, the federal government, and the media, despite the fact that there wasn't—and never has been—a shred of evidence that low-fat diets prevent heart disease or promote weight loss. In the meantime, people have become progressively fatter in what has now become an obesity epidemic.
All of this misinformation suits the pharmaceutical industry nicely, as statins—the drugs prescribed to lower "bad" cholesterol—are a multibillion-dollar industry. In 2008, Pfizer's annual sales of atorvastatin reached $12.4 billion, making it the most profitable drug of any kind in history. However, these unnecessary drugs are associated with many highly dangerous side effects. In particular, rhabdomyolysis, whose main symptoms are muscle pain and excreting dark-colored urine, is a life-threatening condition. If the rhabdomyolysis is severe, it can cause death from acute kidney failure as the kidneys become overloaded with muscle breakdown products. Remember that the heart is a muscle.
The scientific world is slowly catching up to what many people have long intuitively suspected. Many recent studies have shown that high cholesterol does not cause heart disease—in fact the opposite is true. Published in August 2011, a two-year Norwegian study of 52,087 people proved that those with high cholesterol actually live longer than those with low cholesterol. In addition, a Journal of Clinical Epidemiology review of 27 studies tracking more than 150,000 people revealed that there was no difference in animal fat consumption between people with heart disease and people without the disorder.
Saturated Fats Actually Are Good for You!
The good news is that saturated fats are good for you. Butter contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, helps combat infection, and contains the trace minerals zinc and selenium. Meat from grass-fed cows and sheep contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, which has strong anti-cancer properties and builds muscle. Whole raw milk contains valuable enzymes and glycosphingolipids, which protect the gastrointestinal system and help reduce allergies in children. Eggs and liver are high in arachidonic acid, which supports brain function and helps reduce inflammation. Finally, coconut oil has antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties, and it is one of the few oils that does not produce harmful byproducts when heated.
From Dr. Deborah's Desk
In my practice, I often counsel patients about their cholesterol levels. I like to start by ordering an expanded lipid panel which divides lipid categories according to the size of the particles. What we learn is that the hazardous (tiny, sticky) cholesterol levels correlate almost perfectly with the triglyceride levels. As triglyceride levels rise, so do the levels of dangerous cholesterol. We also see that the safer (large, buoyant, non-sticky) cholesterol levels correlate with the HDL level.
Quickly we agree that we want to lower sticky cholesterol which is done by lowering triglycerides and that is done by lowering carbohydrates (grains, sweets, even fruits and starchy vegetables) and damaged fats (trans fats and overly processed vegetable oils) in the diet. We want to raise the fluffy good cholesterol levels, and that is done with adding in healthy saturated fats, exercise, and a small amount of alcohol.
Check out the nutritional advice in our Diabetes and Weight/Obesity sections, you'll find the advice works for improving your cholesterol picture as well.
This information is provided for educational purposes only. Always consult your doctor before changing your diet or taking supplements.