Saturated fats have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Some cultures continue what may be considered a “primitive” diet, but they are living proof that saturated fats are essential for energy production and long term health and disease prevention. Fat consumption was slammed in the 1930’s causing a cascade of changes in food production and consumption. These changes have lead to a rise in disease and associated complications. Modern research is emerging resulting in the return of saturated fat to the diet and improved health for many.
Firstly, what is the role of fats in the body? Besides increasing the palatability of food, fats perform a key role in human growth and development. Cells are constantly growing and regenerating. Cell membranes are largely made up of phospholipids, cholesterol and protein making fats essential for cell development and repair (2). Saturated fats are also needed for energy production and for transporting fat-soluble vitamins, phyto-nutrients and important minerals. Vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem with the sun-safe messages being projected widely. The low-fat mantra could also be contributing to the Vitamin D issues faced today. Low vitamin D is also linked with the development of breast cancer and therefore plays a role in its treatment and prevention (8). Saturated fats provide raw material for skin health, hormone production and raises cholesterol as a repair substance. More than 50% of the phospholipids that form our cell membranes are made from saturated fats. Phospholipids in lung surfactant are 100% saturated fat and the low fat revolution is also considered responsible for the rise in asthma in children (10).
There are studies that show certain fatty acids can reduce the growth of tumour cells. Myristic acid, provided by coconut oil and dairy fats, is used to stabilize proteins used in the immune system and to fight tumors (6). Stearic acid, found in animal fat and chocolate, has also been shown to dramatically reduce tumour growth (7). Consider what our grandparents used to eat and what we eat now. It is easy to see the increase in carbohydrate intake, especially from processed foods, and the decrease in food eaten in its most natural form is directly related to the increase in lifestyle related diseases that fill our hospitals and cripple our loved ones.
Cultures that consume a traditional diet high in saturated fats are not burdened with the heart disease and cancer that has occurred in modern society (1). We all know that the French consume large amounts of cheese, cream, meat, liver pate, and butter in comparison to most western cultures and have half the heart disease of the United States (5). Although this evidence has been well known for many years, regulating bodies continue to ignore the role dietary fats play in many bodily processes. Nina Teicholz, a journalist, published an article uncovering the flaws in the recent review of the US dietary guidelines. The guidelines are reviewed every five years. Normally this includes a review of recent studies in relation to the consumption of certain macro and micronutrients (macro – carbs, fats,etc. Micro – vitamins, minerals etc). The most recent review panel declined to review the health benefits of dietary fat and carbohydrate consumption claiming that there had not been any significant claims made in the past five years (8). This seems ludicrous given the enormous amount of debate over this period particularly regarding the evidence towards lower carbohydrate and higher fat consumption being of greater health benefit. Given Australia always takes years to follow the US, we’re in trouble!
There are recommendations arising from recent research that involves increasing healthy fat consumption in combination with severely restricting refined carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) (1). A recent meta-analysis summarised the results of studies evaluating the connection between fat consumption and cardiovascular disease. The result showed that dietary fat does not increase the risk of heart disease (3). More and more evidence is arising with the same results and disproving the research from the past that has been the foundations of health guidelines for the past few decades.
Saturated fats are essential. They contribute to many hormonal processes, protect and repair, are the most effective source of energy and transport many essential molecules around the body. The question is not whether we should be consuming fat or not, it is how much we should be consuming. The evidence is growing to support the consumption of saturated fats for the prevention and treatment of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Returning to a diet that has been consumed since time began will see a reversal of the damage done.
(2) The Cell: A Molecular Approach. 2nd edition. Cooper GM.
Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000.
Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725. Epub 2010 Jan 13.
Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.
(4) Nina Teicholz at TEDxEast: The Big Fat Surprise 7 March 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CHGiid6N9Q
(5) Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life. Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT. Healing Arts Press, Vermont. pp 68-75, 2011.
(6) The Importance of Saturated Fats for Biological Functions
Posted on westonaprice.org July 8, 2004 by Mary Enig, PhD
(7) Br J Cancer. 1987 Oct; 56(4): 455–458.
Stearic acid and carcinogenesis.
(8) Contemp Oncol (Pozn). 2016; 20(1): 13–19.
Published online 2016 Mar 16. doi: 10.5114/wo.2014.40560
Diet and risk of breast cancer
(9) Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(7):1178-87. doi: 10.1017/S0007114513000548. Epub 2013 May 7.
Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.
(10) Saturated Fats and the Lungs
Posted on June 30, 2000 by Mary Enig, PhD