Fatt – in the minds of many it’s a four letter word (that’s why there’s the extra ‘t’…). We’ve been told that eating too much fat will result in heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc. There are said to be ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’ – but which is which and does it really matter? Look around the grocery store and you see low fat this and fat free that. They even make ‘fat free’ fat – check out the margarine section and the peanut butter shelves… With such strong anti-fat messages it’s hard not to get caught up in all the hype. The tides are slowly turning and the message that fat is evil is being brought down piece by piece, but that leaves a lot of questions and controversy. Is all fat good, even saturated fat? What’s the deal with omega-3’s, and what the heck is a medium chain triglyceride? It’s hard not to be confused! To help end the mystery the Paleo Dietitians are going to answer some Big “Fat” questions. This is part one of a three part “Big Fat Blog Post” series – be sure to come back next week for part two!
Question #1 – Answered by – Stephanie Greunke, RD
If saturated fat is supposed to clog your arteries when you consume it, then how exactly does it do this? And if it doesn’t, then why has that message been so heavily hammered down our throats for the past decade?
“Artery-clogging saturated fat.” You see those words smoothly strung together throughout almost every piece of health literature and yet, what evidence does that truly play upon? Those words get to me almost as much as the “healthy whole grains” that is stamped all over food packages and advertisements.
This is a great question and is the cause of a lot of controversy within the Paleo realm. While there are certainly some Paleo folks out there that still maintain that saturated fat may increase LDL plasma levels, resulting in possible cardiovascular disease, many Paleo advocates have adjusted their mindset more in favor of saturated fat, provided a few other variables are in order. Those who are not so enthused by saturated fats will most likely agree that saturated fat is not as big of a demon when one is consuming lean meats and adjusting other dietary and lifestyle factors to ultimately decrease systemic inflammation.
The kicker with saturated fat is whether or not the LDL cholesterol is oxidized or not. The “artery-clogging” plaque production is mediated by oxidized LDL. The oxidized LDL then goes through a process where it becomes a fibrous cap. If this fibrous cap gets broken down by, you guessed it – lectins and chronic inflammation, that’s when the ischemic events take place. So what should really be our goal? Reducing inflammation through a clean, Paleo diet, abstaining from smoking and excessive exercise, minimizing alcohol consumption, and engaging in stress-lowering habits. When these variables are in order, we do not need to be so caught up with saturated fats.
Our blood vessels can become damaged in a number of ways (free radicals, viruses, structural weakness, lectins, glycemic load, sleep, stress, immune response), so the evidence that the LDL plasma levels are increased mainly by saturated fatty acids must be taken with a grain of salt. The universal advice to switch to wild meat sources emphasizes not only a lower amount of saturated fat, but also a favorable n-6:n-3 ratio.
So where did all of this madness and mind-washing about saturated fat come from? Look no further than to the infamous Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study*. While seven countries saw an increase in heart disease cases that corresponded with increased fat consumption (hence the name of the study), he “accidently” left out some very important details about the other fifteen countries so the evidence was in his favor. The study is ultimately a correlation, not a causation, but the outcome of the study became mainstream and was warmly accepted into the scientific community. Since no other well-designed studies can support the Lipid Hypothesis and any studies that do not support it get rejected and disregarded for credibility, we all stand here today reading about “artery-clogging” saturated fat day in and day out
Question #2 – Answered by – Elizabeth Legg MS, RD
Is the omega-3:omega-6 ratio overstated?
Many features of a Paleo diet come together to support our genetic profile, allowing our bodies to maintain health. One such feature is the balance between omega 3 (n-3) and omega6 (n-6) fatty acids. Studies indicate our ancestral ratios of n-3:n-6 fatty acids were close to 1:1 as compared to modern Western diets which are close to 1:10. Our modern Western diet is deficient in n-3’s and excessive in n-6’s (in other words, our ratio is way off). This departure from our ancestral balance is fueling health problems from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, to certain psychiatric disorders like depression. The importance of this balance gets very complex and involves many signaling molecules (eicosanoids) that are derived from n-6 and n-3 fatty acids. With current modern ratios (heavy on the n-6, light on the n-3) the cascade flows toward an inflammatory profile. So, is the importance of the n-3:n-6 ratio overstated? Heck no! We need to be aware in order to make a conscious effort to tip the scale in the other direction. If we focus only on getting more polyunsaturated fatty acids in general (as is recommended by many practitioners), we’ll still be fueling the fire. Seeking out grass fed or wild caught meats, wild caught fish, n-3 enriched eggs, and supplementing with some fish oil doesn’t just happen without some thought and conscious effort. Educate yourself a bit on the essential fatty acid balance and how it fits into the bigger picture. If you haven’t already, read Robb’s book or surf the net for some credible research or general information on the physiological tasks of these essential fatty acids.
Question #3 – Answered by – Amy Kubal MS, RD
Are medium chain fatty acids really better for you and why?
Let’s tackle this one by first defining what a medium chain triglyceride (MCT) is. MCT’s are 6-12 carbon fatty acids. Due to their chain length they more closely resemble carbohydrates than fat. These intermediate length triglycerides do not require breakdown or energy to be absorbed into the portal system and metabolized for fuel. Contrarily, long chain triglycerides (LCT’s) require bile acids, energy, and numerous steps to be digested and made available for use. MCT’s are naturally present in milk fat, coconut oil (66% MCT’s), and palm oil. From an energy standpoint MCT’s provide approximately 8.3 calories per gram while LCT’s provide 9 calories/gram.
Are MCT’s good for us? The simple answer is yes. MCT’s have many potential uses and benefits. Due to their rapid absorption and metabolism MCT’s are quickly converted to energy for use by the muscles and organs. This decreases the likelihood of their being stored as fat. Additionally, they are frequently used in enteral and parenteral nutrition formulas for the critically ill; as they are easily absorbed and may enhance immunity. MCT’s are especially useful in treatment of diseases and conditions that result in impaired lipid metabolism including: celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, pancreatitis, enteritis, malabsorption, and cirrhosis to name a few.
That’s not all! MCT’s have a slight hypoglycemic (blood sugar reducing) effect, are useful in epilepsy treatment as part of a ketogenic diet, may prevent atherosclerosis, stimulate thermogenisis (fat burning), and act as antioxidants. Many endurance athletes find MCT’s performance enhancing as they provide quick energy without the insulin spiking effect of carbohydrates. Compared to carbohydrates MCT’s are a more efficient source of fuel. Additionally, they prevent muscle breakdown and conserve lean body mass.
Should you abandon all other fats for MCT’s? No! While they are useful, it is possible to get too much of a good thing! High MCT consumption may result in abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and an upset stomach. Be smart and balance your fat intake incorporating a combination of very long chain omega-3 fatty acids, MCT’s, some saturated fat, and a minimal amount of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.