On KQED radio the other day, I heard a discussion about New York’s proposed ban of trans fats from restaurant food. Sheila Cohn Weiss, director of Nutrition Policy, National Restaurant Association perpetuated a common misconception (intentionally?) by interchanging “trans fat” and “saturated fat” in her conversation — as if to imply that both warranted equal caution. Often, when research is undertaken, researchers rarely make a distinction whether the benefits seen from a decrease in overall fat consumption in a diet was due to a decrease in trans fat or saturated fat. Nutrition recommendations often state that people should reduce their intake of trans fats AND saturated fats. I’d like to clear up some of the confusion.
While trans fats and saturated fat are both solid at room temperature, their similarities end there. Trans fats are formed when unstable oils undergo a process called hydrogenation (when liquid oils are converted to a solid in order to increase shelf life, reduce cost, and improve flavor and texture). Manufacturers win and consumers lose, as these oils are transformed into substances that are very harmful to human health. Trans fat is known to increase blood levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and reduce HDL (“good” cholesterol)1. Trans fats have been found to be a cause of clogged arteries, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
While research shows that trans fats are unhealthy, research also indicates that, unlike trans fats, saturated fat and cholesterol do not increase cholesterol levels and heart disease — and in fact help to reduced it. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said, “The conclusion of an analysis of the history and politics behind the diet-heart hypothesis was that after 50 years of research, there was no evidence that a diet low in saturated fat prolongs life.”2
If saturated fat were harmful to our health, why would breast milk contain such as large percentage of saturated fat (including butyric, caproic, caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids) and cholesterol? Clinical research shows that both saturated fat and cholesterol are essential for growth in babies, especially for healthy brain development3.
Further, saturated fat is important for the following functions:
• Preferred fuel for the heart
• Antimicrobial and antifungal actions
• Cell membrane regeneration
• Building bone density by putting calcium into the bones
• Protecting the liver from toxins
For years, all saturated fat was dubbed “bad,” mainly because of cholesterol. Firstly, note that plant-based saturated fats such as coconut oil and palm oil do not contain cholesterol. Moreover, cholesterol is not a harmful, but rather a protective substance. Cholesterol helps:
• Build strong bones and muscles
• To aid digestion
• Boost cognitive function
• Build hormones for libido and fertility and other endocrine functions
• Repair tissue
• Keep cell membranes intact
• Regulate blood sugar
• Support immune function
Hopefully, you are getting your good fats from whole foods; however, for those that consume processed foods, beware of commercial packaged foods that state “no trans fats.” While food labels are now going to be a required to lists trans fat content, food manufacturers are allowed to include 500 mg of trans fats per serving and label their product “trans fat-free.” Every consumer should be outraged. By decreasing serving size, manufactures are able to keep trans fats under this amount, and trick (deceive!) consumers into thinking their products (containing hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oil) contain no trans fat. Essential Tip: Read the ingredients and avoid any oil that is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
Most importantly, focus on a whole food diet containing healthy fats including saturated fat from plants as well as pastured animals such as eggs, whole milk, and animal protein/fat.
As a Nutrition Consultant, I wonder how many people think I’m crazy when they first hear me speak and recommend eating animal fat. However, an interesting thing often happens. As they hear the scientific data to back it up, they are relieved—their intuition was always telling them but they weren’t listening—that animal fat is good. Try it! Add some high quality animal fat to your diet; such as butter, egg yolks, cream, raw cheese, or bacon. But make sure it’s from pastured animals with no additives and of the highest quality you can find (check Local Forage for insights). This is not an excuse to eat a bacon and cheese omelet at your local diner—I mean the highest quality available. Start slow in case your liver/gall bladder are under-functioning. Try it and tell me how it feels. If you’re like most people I know, you will feel more nourished than you have in a long time. Trust your intuition while listening to your body.
1 Holman, R T, Geometrical and Positional Fatty Acid Isomers, E A Emkin and H J Dutton, eds, 1979, American Oil Chemists’ Society, Champaign, IL, 283-302; Science News Letter, Feb 1956; Schantz, E J, et al, J Dairy Sci, 1940, 23:181-89.
2 German, J Bruce and Cora J Dillard. Saturated fats: what dietary intake? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 80, No. 3, 550-559, September 2004.
3 Alfin-Slater, R B, and L Aftergood, “Lipids,” Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 6th ed, R S Goodhartand M E Shils, eds, Lea and Febiger, Philadelphia, 1980, 131.