Have you ever asked yourself, “is cholesterol bad for you?” If so, I want to provide some clarity right off the bat: the answer is “no.” Many people think that saturated fat and cholesterol are evil, and that a diet high in saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels and poses serious health risks. However, the truth is the opposite. Eating saturated fat is healthy, and — contrary to popular wisdom — low cholesterol levels are harmful to your body. Today, thanks to the low-fat diet lie, most of us don’t eat enough fat. In this article, I’ll give you a list of healthy sources of fat (and tell you which ones to stay away from).
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol – Quick Facts
- Saturated (animal) fats are essential for your health
- A high-fat diet that’s low in carbohydrates is healthy
- Most refined vegetable oils are bad for your health
- Refined carbohydrates cause high triglycerides
The Low-Fat Diet Lie
In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the original food guide pyramid, which attempted to set dietary guidelines for the proper intake of foods based on a set of classifications, as shown below.
- Bread, cereal, rice and pasta (6-11 servings)
- Fruits (2-4 Servings) and vegetables (3-5 servings)
- Dairy (2-3 servings) and meat, fish, eggs and nuts (2-3 servings)
- Fats, oils and sweets (use sparingly)
As you can see, the recommendation was to have a high-carb, low-fat diet. Let’s see how the USDA came to this ridiculous conclusion.
Unhealthy Food Categories
Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta
The main reason the USDA recommended grains as the base of your diet is the heavily-subsidized and very influential agriculture industry. In fact, before the food pyramid was published, nutrition experts suggested that fruits and vegetables (not grains) should make up the base of the pyramid, as they are essential to ensuring dietary health.
Related article: Healthy Eating: The Ultimate Guide
I have not found evidence that the human body needs grains. Our ancestors didn’t have access to grains until they figured out how to cultivate crops in about 10,000 B.C. Instead, they got their carbohydrates from vegetables and seasonal fruit. The human body and our genes have changed and evolved over the past several thousand years, but not at the speed our food has. For example, some of us can now process dairy (thanks to an enzyme called lactase), while others are still lactose intolerant.
Many people in Asian cultures eat a lot of rice (grains) and still grow old. But it’s important to understand that almost every food we eat today is much different (due to genetic manipulation, breeding, and selection) from its original form. The way we prepare food is different, and so is our diet and lifestyle. Our paleo ancestors had to hunt and gather their food, and they were thus physically active. We’re mostly sedentary and can eat whenever we’re hungry.
Nevertheless, just because the human body may be better prepared to handle a certain type of food, that doesn’t mean we should do so at the expense of eating food we know is good for us.
Related article: Is Dairy Bad For You? What You Need To Know!
Fats, Oils, and Sweets
Nearly all experts agree that sweets, and specifically added sugar, are bad for your health. I say “pretty much all,” because there are still some “experts,” such as Dean Ornish, who are paid by the food industry and thus conveniently ignore that fact.
Fat and Heart Disease
The German Rudolf Virchow, known as the father of modern pathology, was one of the first to describe lipid (the medical term for fat molecules) accumulation in the walls of arteries.
In 1900, cardiovascular disease was a rare occurrence in the United States. Only ~39,000 deaths were due to the condition, according to the CDC. By the middle of the 20th century, cardiovascular disease had become more widespread, and the so-called lipid hypothesis garnered greater attention. The lipid hypothesis suggested a direct connection between the consumption of fat (specifically, saturated fat) and heart disease.
By the end of the 1980s, there were widespread academic statements that the lipid hypothesis was proven beyond reasonable doubt. Or, as one article stated, “universally recognized as a law.“
Interestingly enough, however, was the fact that while the number of deaths due to heart disease increased drastically, the proportion of animal fat in the American diet declined from 83 percent to 62 percent, and butter consumption plummeted. In parallel, the consumption of refined vegetable oils and sugar increased.
During the 60-year period from 1910 to 1970, the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet declined from 83 percent to 62 percent, and butter consumption plummeted from 18 pounds per-person per-year to just four.
Types of Fats
Fats can be divided into the following groups of fatty acids:
- Saturated fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
Sources of saturated fat include animal fat, butter, coconut oil, etc. The assumption was that consuming saturated fat was directly linked to high blood cholesterol, which is linked to heart disease. The food industry reacted to the public’s new goal of reducing saturated fat intake with the commercial production of trans-unsaturated fatty acids (trans fats, as found in margarine) and other processed fats like hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Is Saturated Fat Bad for You?
Even today, the American Heart Association claims that “eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke” and recommends to “replace foods high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This means eating foods made with liquid vegetable oil but not tropical oils.”
Saturated fats provide cell membrane integrity and enhance the body’s ability to use essential fatty acids. They protect the liver and are the preferred food for the cardiovascular system and brain. They do not cause heart disease. Studies that indicate otherwise did not take into consideration the processed carbohydrates ingested by the study subjects. (PaleoLeap)
That’s shocking considering that there is plenty of evidence that suggests most refined vegetable oils are worse for your health than high cholesterol.
As early as the 1950s, contrary to the lipid hypothesis, the prestigious cardiologist Dr. Dudley White had directly correlated the rise in heart disease with the rise in consumption of vegetable oils.
Saturated Fat Facts
Here are some quick facts about saturated facts (Source: Weston A Price Foundation)
- Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50 percent of the cell membranes and are essential for cell health.
- Plays a vital role in bone health. For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50 percent of dietary fats should be saturated.
- Lowers Lp(a), a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
- Protects the liver from alcohol and other toxins, such as Tylenol.
- Enhances the immune system.
- Necessary for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids.
- Elongated omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when a diet is rich in saturated fats.
- Fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated. The heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress.
- Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids have important antimicrobial properties.
Evaluation of the fat in artery clogs reveals that only about 26 percent is saturated. The rest is unsaturated, of which more than half is polyunsaturated (Felton, C V, et al, Lancet, 1994, 344:1195)
Fat and Obesity
It’s a common belief that dietary fat leads to obesity. After all, 1 gram of fat has nine calories, compared to only four calories in a gram of carbohydrates or protein.
So it’s only natural to assume that consuming high levels of fat makes you fat. In reality, there are two main factors that contribute to obesity:
- The consumption of carbohydrates with a high glycemic load (GL) and glycemic index (GI)
- The intake of more calories than the body needs
The glycemic load (GL) of food is a number that estimates how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it. One unit of glycemic load approximates the effect of consuming one gram of glucose. Glycemic load accounts for how much carbohydrate is in the food and how much each gram of carbohydrate in the food raises blood glucose levels. Glycemic load is based on the glycemic index (GI), and is calculated by multiplying the grams of available carbohydrate in the food times the food’s GI and then dividing by 100 (Wikipedia).
Carbohydrates are the Culprit
On a high level, the GI tells you how quickly the body metabolizes carbohydrates into glucose (glucose has a GI of 100). To be precise, the GI is a function of three things:
- The amount of carbohydrates present
- The type of carbohydrates present
- The presence of other substances (soluble fiber, for example) that slow the metabolism of carbohydrates
So it matters greatly whether you eat a white baguette or carrots. Both types of food contain carbohydrates, but there is a huge difference in their GL and GI. A baguette has a GI of 95 (higher than normal sugar, which has a GI of 65) and a GL of 48. In comparison, carrots have a GI of 47 and a GL of 3.5.
Avoid lots of sugar, eats lots of vegetables, eat lots of healthy fats, and consume quality sources of protein. (Loren Cordain, PH.D.)
Since all carbohydrates convert into sugar, stay away from carbs that have a high GI and GL and instead eat lots of vegetables (low GI/GL) and fruits that are low in sugar (avocados, lemons, limes, olives, etc.).
Saturated Fats – Critical to Your Health
Cholesterol is an alcohol that is produced in your liver and most human cells. It plays important roles in cell chemistry and hormone production, and it is a valuable antioxidant. As we have discussed throughout this article, the risks associated with high cholesterol have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s also important for brain health, as the brain contains over 25 percent of the body’s total cholesterol. Maternal breast milk is especially rich in cholesterol to help the newborn’s brain develop.
In a 2008 study, researchers found that the elderly subjects with higher total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (LDL) had better brain function.
In another study from 2011, researchers found that those with Alzheimer’s disease had lower levels of total cholesterol as well as low-density lipoprotein (also known as LDL cholesterol). Also, those with late-stage Alzheimer’s had lower total cholesterol levels compared to those with less-advanced forms of the disease.
Types of Cholesterol
If you look at the results from your latest blood test, you’ll probably see the following types of cholesterol:
- Total cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol (known as “good cholesterol”)
- VLDL cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol (known as “bad cholesterol”)
This is the number on your lipid panel that you want to be low. Triglycerides levels are directly linked to high carbohydrate intake, and we have already established that that’s not a good thing. Fat intake does not raise your triglyceride levels.
According to the CDC, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, which flushes it from the body. HDL is known as “good” cholesterol because having high HDL levels can reduce the risk factors of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, diets high in carbohydrates can reduce HDL levels in your bloodstream, as researchers have discovered.
Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol is produced in the liver, and high levels have been associated with the development of plaque deposits on the walls of arteries. About half of the VLDL particle is made up of triglycerides. Consequently, lowering your triglyceride levels also lowers your VLDL levels.
LDL cholesterol is known as the “bad” cholesterol, but studies have shown that high LDL levels are necessary to protect your brain.
Increasing LDL cholesterol tended to be associated with a decreased frequency and severity of all MRI markers of cerebral small vessel disease in both studies. Increasing triglycerides but not other lipid fractions were associated with MRI markers of cerebral small vessel disease in older community persons.
This is the bottom line: don’t try to lower your blood cholesterol levels through diet or medication. Both HDL and LDL have important functions in the body. Instead, stay away from processed carbohydrates to keep your triglycerides in check.
Fats and Oils in Your Diet
We now know that fats from animal sources (saturated fats) are necessary to maintain your health. But what about oils? The sheer amount of different oils you can find in supermarkets can be confusing. So let’s take a look at what oils to choose and what oils to stay away from.
Related content: Avocado Oil vs. Olive oil - what's the healthier option?
As pointed out earlier, most vegetable oils are not good for your health. But why? The most important factor in vegetable oils is their fatty acid composition. That includes the omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, as well as erucic acid concentration. Our ancestors maintained an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of ~2, whereas the modern diet, thanks largely to the consumption of vegetable oils, leads to higher and less healthy ratios.
As a result, choosing healthy vegetable oils starts with discarding those that promote a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, with the exception of avocado and olive oil. Despite having a higher omega-6/omega-3 ratio (13.5 and 11.7, respectively), they contain a lot of health-promoting, monounsaturated fatty acids. Just don’t overdo it with those two oils and balance their consumption with longer chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA + DHA) as found in fish and fish oil.
Stay away from the following oils:
- Almond oil
- Apricot kernel oil
- Canola oil: Some studies suggest adverse side effects of canola oil ingestion and to err on the side of caution, while some experts recommend avoiding canola oil all together. Plus, the high heat required during manufacturing destroys many of the omega-3 fatty acids in the oil.
- Corn oil contains a very high proportion of polyunsaturated fats.
- Cotton seed oil
- Grape seed oil
- Hazelnut oil does not have any omega-3 fatty acids.
- Mustard seed oil has a high erucic acid concentration of 42.2 percent. High dietary intake of erucic acid in animal lab tests has shown to cause deleterious changes in heart structure and function.
- Oat oil
- Palm oil
- Peanut oil
- Rice bran oil
- Safflower oil does not have any omega-3 fatty acids.
- Sesame oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil does not have any omega-3 fatty acids.
Now that we know what oils are unhealthy, let’s have a look at what oils you should use. For more information, check out Paleo Diet Primer: Fats and Oils.
- Flaxseed oil is high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and best used for salad dressing or finishing oil over cool vegetables.
- Walnut oil contains many antioxidants and can be used for salad dressing or low-to-medium heat cooking.
- Extra-virgin olive oil contains powerful antioxidants (phenols) and monounsaturated fats. Contrary to popular belief, it can be used for cooking and frying.
- Macadamia nut oil provides the lowest levels of omega-6 fats of any nut oil and has higher levels of monounsaturated fats than olive oil. Can be used at high temperatures, such as grilling.
- Coconut oil consists of more than 90 percent saturated fats, especially medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are easy to digest. The oil got a bad rap because of its saturated fat content but, as we have learned above, saturated fats are healthy and vital. Coconut oil is our favorite cooking oil in Casa Kummer.
- Avocado Oil is technically not a vegetable oil because avocados are classified as a fruit. The cold-pressed avocado oil contains high amounts of vitamin E and chlorophyll.
Cooking with Oils
When cooking with oils, it’s important to understand the so-called smoke point of an oil and how resistant to oxidation the oil is.
- Flaxseed oil is extremely heat sensitive, so refrigerate and never heat it!
- Walnut oil has a smoke point of 320 degrees Fahrenheit. If heated too high, its omega-3s can be damaged and the oil will taste bitter.
- Extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 325 degrees Fahrenheit but is relatively resistant to oxidation. So, you can use it for frying.
- Macadamia nut oil has a very high smoke point of 413 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used for anything, including grilling.
- Coconut oil has a smoke point of 320 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used instead of butter.
- Avocado oil: unrefined avocado oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used in any high-heat cooking.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
When writing this article, I realized just how difficult it is to find good and reliable information on the topic of fat and cholesterol. Opinion, affiliation and pseudo-scientific research are often the basis of so-called “facts.” You can usually identify questionable sources by their lack of references to peer-reviewed studies. But even articles by supposedly trustworthy sources sometimes lack such links, making it difficult to verify if the author’s conclusions match those of the researchers who led the study.
Then there’s factually incorrect information from authoritative outlets such as the American Heart Association.
As a consumer who wants to live a healthy life, you have to dig deep to find sources you can trust. Then you have to double-check those sources by looking at real studies to understand what the study set out to accomplish and what the authors’ conclusions are. That’s a time-consuming task. So, at the very least, apply a few common sense rules and follow these principles:
Don’t consume more calories than your body can burn. It’s as simple as that. Eat more calories than you need and you will gain weight. Eat as many calories as your body burns and you will maintain your weight. Eat fewer calories than what your body needs and you will lose weight.
Stay Away from Processed Food
When deciding what to put on your plate, choose simple foods that were available long before the food industry became involved. Namely, vegetables, seeds, seafood, meat and poultry. Animal fat and seasonal fruit were the main food sources of our ancestors for millions of years. That’s all that humans required to evolve into what we are today (sans heart disease and diabetes).
Ask yourself this question: Why have cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes skyrocketed in western societies at the same time as our diet has shifted from a high-fat/low-carb diet to low-fat/high-carb?
Obesity is common, serious and costly (CDC)
Just look at some of the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the United States:
- Every year, one in four people die of heart disease
- ~10 percent of the population has diabetes
- Heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes cause ~80 percent of all deaths in the U.S.
- ~35 percent of adults are obese
Put the above numbers in comparison with the following food consumption statistics:
- Between 1995 and 2015, vegetable oil consumption (worldwide) has increased by 244 percent, to 175 metrics tons per year. Vegetable oil is recommended by the American Heart Association, despite evidence that most of it is harmful.
- America’s sweet tooth increased exponentially between 1950 and 2000, as the use of corn sweeteners octupled.
- Today, Americans consume an annual average of 142 pounds of caloric sweeteners, out of which 42 pounds is high-fructose corn syrup.
- Annual average grain consumption was 45 percent higher in 2000 than in the 1970s
Evidently, the mainstream advice to maintain a low-fat/high-carb diet doesn’t work, as shown by mortality and morbidity statistics, and high cholesterol levels are not one of the main disease risk factors you should be concerned with. It’s time to make a change instead of waiting for the next industry-influenced food pyramid. However, it’s important to understand that making the right food choices is not about adopting a four-week diet; it’s a lifestyle. If you cannot keep making the right choices, you’ll be back at square one sooner than later.
I’d love your feedback! What sources of information do you use to make dietary decisions?