Why Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Don't Cause Heart Disease!

For many years people were told to avoid dietary saturated fat at all costs, because it would raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

There was a narrative about saturated fat and heart disease that people were told so many times that it just became what everyone believed without question.

The main concept that saturated fat causes heart disease is known as the diet heart hypothesis and was published by Ancel Keys.

The hypothesis states that saturated fat intake raises your levels of LDL, and that LDL will wedge into your artery leading to atherosclerosis and a blockage that leads to an eventual heart attack.

There are multiple glaring problems with the lipid heart hypothesis, one being it was never fully proven to be true.

The large flaws with this hypothesis include an incomplete body of relevant evidence, and misinterpreting and summarizing results that did not reflect the actual data.

This all started with Ancel Keys and his seven country study, which tracked the fat consumption and heart disease rates in twenty two countries.

The name for the study came from the seven countries that showed a  correlation between fat consumption and heart disease, BUT there were actually twenty two countries in the study. So what happened to the other fourteen countries ?

Keys chose to omit the countries and data that did not support the hypothesis. Below is a graph that contains ALL the data points from Keys twenty two countries. Not necessarily a clear line there eh ?

As his theory gained ground and became accepted in the mainstream media it would become impossible to reverse the thought that saturated fat causes heart disease.

Ancel Keys even appeared on the cover of time magazine for his “findings” and was dubbed the godfather dietary science.

Most of the follow up studies on the negative impacts of saturated fat have been inconclusive due to lack of evidence or have been poorly designed.

What Is Saturated Fat ?

Saturated fat is a fatty acid that has no available carbon bonds because they are all filled with hydrogen. Without any open bonds saturated fats are much less susceptible to damage from heat or light and more resistant to rancidity.

Saturated fats are essential to many bodily functions including the structure of our cell membranes to containing and absorbing the vitally important fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K.

Saturated fat is also a huge energy source for us as humans whether you want it to be or not. The body fat we have stored on our bodies is predominantly in the form of saturated fat.

That’s right, our bodies store those unused calories as a saturated fat in our body. When you diet or exercise with the goal of burning up body fat you are technically using saturated fat.

Whether eating it in your diet or burning body fat off your body, saturated fat goes through the same process to provide energy to your body.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat like substance that is present in all of our cellular membranes and is made just about every cell in our body because of its importance to our health and well being.

Cholesterol is a main ingredient in your sex hormones and all our cell membranes. It insulates neurons and nerves and makes bile to break down dietary fats. Cholesterol also helps with the metabolism and absorption of fat soluble vitamins.

Because of the importance of cholesterol the liver  regulates the amount of cholesterol  produced, making sure that we have enough of it to meet our needs.

When we eat cholesterol our body will make less, and when we staunchly avoid cholesterol our body will produces more.

Animal products are the richest sources of cholesterol, but plants contain trace amounts of cholesterol and a a cholesterol imposter named phytosterols that helps to lower total cholesterol which is why vegan and vegetarian diets lower cholesterol for many.

But wait, why haven’t I mentioned the good and bad cholesterol HDL and LDL ? Well because as you will read below they aren’t really cholesterol at all, this a gross oversimplification.

Are LDL and HDL Cholesterol ?

LDL stands for low density lipoprotein and HDL stands for high density lipoprotein, and they aren’t actually cholesterol at all.

These lipoproteins are actually proteins that  transport fat soluble vitamins, fats and cholesterol molecules around the body.

People who have excessively high cholesterol are at a greater risk of cardiovascular problems, however it does not mean that cholesterol is the cause of those cardiovascular problems. Correlation doesn’t equal causation!

HDL commonly coined the “good cholesterol”  can be thought of like the body’s cholesterol recycler. HDL will gather damaged cholesterol from the blood stream and deliver it back to the liver to recycle or dispose of.

HDL also removes LDL particles from the artery walls to prevent plaque buildup, which is why increased HDL decreases cardiovascular risk.

LDL known as the “bad cholesterol” is a lot more complicated than meets the eyes. There are different particles of LDL.  

There is LDL particles that are big and fluffy that  no threat, and the small dense particles that get lodged in arteries and cause cardiovascular problems.

The Saturated Fat and LDL “Cholesterol” Connection

Bringing it full circle, you remember the part of the diet heart hypothesis that stated increased saturated fat intake increased the levels of LDL in the blood thus putting you at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

There have been a few studies that show increased saturated fat raised LDL in the short term, but levels soon after normalized.

Many of the studies that examined the saturated fat and LDL connection were unconvincing, and showed a reduction in saturated fats led to no change in LDL but a reduction in the health promoting HDL!

In fact saturated fats have been shown to change the particle size of LDL from small and dense to large fluffy LDL particles which decrease the risk of heart disease!

Saturated fat intake has also shown to increase HDL concentrations in the blood, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In Conclusion

  • The diet heart hypothesis was very flawed. It only provided data that supported the idea that saturated fats increase LDL and heart disease, even though there was no real correlation with all the data.
     

  • Saturated fats are essential to many bodily functions including the structure of our cell membranes to containing and absorbing the vitally important fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K.
     

  • HDL and LDL are proteins that deliver cholesterol all over the body. They are not forms of cholesterol.
     

  • Cholesterol is a main ingredient in your sex hormones and all cell membranes. It insulates neurons and nerves while helping to make bile which helps to break down dietary fats. Cholesterol also helps with the metabolism and absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
     

  • LDL known as the “bad cholesterol” is a lot more complicated than meets the eyes. There are different particles of LDL that are big and fluffy that provide no threat and the small dense particles that get lodged in arteries and cause CVD.
     

  • An extreme reduction is saturated fat intake has been associated with a greater amount of small dense LDL particles and a decrease in the healthy HDL
     

  • Eat in a balanced fashion. I’m not saying to eat a stick of butter everyday, that's ridiculous. But don't shy away from healthy sources of saturated fats in coconut products, red meat, dairy and butter.

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