5 Myths about Saturated Fats, Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Whenever I start coaching a new client, I will outline the dietary approach that I’m taking to help the person control and reverse the chronic condition/s that he or she has which is usually Type 2 diabetes coupled with an out of whack lipid profile.
Many times some new clients get concerned when I tell them I intend for them to follow a strict LCHF or low carb high fat diet. Thus, the reason for this article today, in debunking myths about saturated fats, cholesterol and heart disease.
Although you, dear reader, may not be my client, this article is also for you if you’re still confused about whether eating foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol will increase your heart disease risk.
Myth No 1 – Cholesterol is Bad for You
I cringe whenever I hear anyone saying this.
Why? Because this is simply not true! Think about it – over 75% of the cholesterol is produced by the liver and other cells in our bodies!
Cholesterol is a soft waxy substance that is found not only in the bloodstream but also in every cell in our bodies; it helps to produce cell membranes, Vitamin D, hormones and bile acids so that fats can be digested. So as you can see, not only is cholesterol good for us, it is actually very critical for our bodies to function properly. In fact, our brains are the most cholesterol rich organ there is and studies show that cholesterol is critical to daily normal brain functions such as learning and memory.
So do elevated cholesterol levels increase heart disease risk?
Before I even attempt to answer this question, let’s take a look at readings in a typical lipid profile and what they mean:
- Total cholesterol – this is a “measurement of the cholesterol components LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein, which is the triglyceride-carrying component of lipids).”
- High density lipoproteins (HDL) – this is commonly known as the good cholesterol and the higher the reading the better because they keep your arteries clear by removing and transporting the low density lipoproteins (LDL) back to the liver to be processed. They also repair your arterial walls when these are clogged with plague.
- Low density lipoproteins (LDL) – this is the bad cholesterol that the doctors warn everybody about. According to mainstream medical thinking, the higher the reading the higher the risk in atherosclerosis or hardening and narrowing of the arteries. If the atherosclerosis is advanced and a clot forms in one of the arteries that lead to the brain or heart, a stroke or heart attack will occur.
- Triglycerides (TG) – elevated triglyceride levels are associated with increased heart disease risk and diabetes. Overconsumption of sugar, refined carbs, alcohol, cigarette smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and being fat and obese can elevate triglyceride levels.
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, a functional healing and nutritional expert, “Your total cholesterol level Is NOT a great Indicator of your heart disease risk” “I have seen a number of people with total cholesterol levels over 250 who actually were at low heart disease risk due to their HDL levels. Conversely, I have seen even more who had cholesterol levels under 200 that were at a very high risk of heart disease based on the following additional tests:
- HDL/Cholesterol ratio
- Triglyceride/HDL ratio
Dr. Mercola adds, “HDL percentage is a very potent heart disease risk factor. Just divide your HDL level by your cholesterol. That ratio should ideally be above 24 percent. You can also do the same thing with your triglycerides and HDL ratio. That ratio should be below 2.”
Since chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, Dr. Mercola also advises to check on C-Reactive Protein (CRP) levels. “CRP level is used as a marker of inflammation in your arteries. Generally speaking:
- A CRP level under 1 milligrams per liter of blood means you have a low risk for cardiovascular disease
- 1 to 3 milligrams means your risk is intermediate
- More than 3 milligrams is high risk”
In addition, belly fat aka visceral fat has been linked to an increase in heart disease risk. Visceral fat is formed when there is overindulgence in the consumption of sugar and refined carbs. When sugar and carbs are consumed, this leads to an increase in blood sugar and the pancreas releases insulin to get the blood glucose absorbed by the cells. Too often and too much leads to insulin resistance. Because of this, the following tests are also advised:
- Fasting insulin levels
- Fasting blood glucose levels
According to Dr. Mercola, “Studies have shown that people with a fasting blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dl had a nearly 300 percent increased higher risk of having coronary heart disease than people with a level below 79 mg/dl.”
Myth No 2 – Saturated Fat is Bad for You
This is another one that refuses to be nailed into the coffin despite the fact that there have been tons of studies in recent years to disprove that saturated fats increase heart disease rates.
Saturated fats started to get demonized in 1955 when Dr. Ancel Keys presented his study which compared the intake of saturated fats to deaths attributed by heart disease.
His flimsy evidence based on his 7 countries study was accepted because he cherry picked and fudged the data from these countries which supported his hypothesis that saturated fat was bad for the heart while ignoring the other evidence of the remaining 15 countries.
Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist and the author of the bestselling book The Big Fat Surprise tells how Ancel Keys fudged and cherry picked his data to suit his hypothesis in this video.
Since then several major studies have been done which totally tears down Key’s flawed data and theory.
A huge meta-study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 collected data from 21 different studies involving about 348,000 people found no difference in heart attack and stroke risks between those who consumed the least amount of saturated fats and those who consumed the most.
Another meta-study published in BMJ in 2015 pulled together 73 different and very diverse studies with about 339,000 participants and found no link between saturated fat intake and Type 2 diabetes, strokes and heart disease. The conclusion was that those who ate more saturated fats were no more likely to get heart disease, strokes and Type 2 diabetes than those who ate less.
Yet another meta-study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine Journal, 2014 which reviewed cohort studies and controlled trials failed to find any link between saturated fats and the risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death. This huge meta-analysis included 49 observational studies with more than 550,000 participants and 27 randomized controlled trials with more than 100,000 participants. This is the third meta-study that disproved the saturated fat and heart disease myth.
In a fourth meta-analysis that was published in Food and Nutrition Research in 2014, the researchers also found that saturated fat consumption wasn’t linked to any increase in heart disease and Type 2 diabetes risks. The review which included 607 studies, randomized controlled trials, prospective cohort studies and nested case-control studies also looked at the type and amount of fatty acids had on risk of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Now that we’ve dismantled the saturated fat is bad myth, here are some reasons why you should not fear eating saturated fats:
- Saturated fats raise your HDL – the higher your HDL, the lesser your risk of heart disease. For the doubters, here’s the research to back it up, “Lauric acid greatly increased total cholesterol, but much of its effect was on HDL cholesterol. Consequently, oils rich in lauric acid decreased the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol.” Lauric acid is a type of saturated fat that is found abundantly in coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut cream.
- Saturated fats change and raise the harmless large particle fluffy LDL – there are 2 sub classes of LDL: the harmful small dense particle LDL that promotes atherosclerosis and the large harmless large particle LDL. Eating saturated fats raise the harmless large particle fluffy LDL.
- Saturated fats may decrease the risk of strokes – Dr. Paul Jamine cited a study in his blog that found higher saturated fat intake was associated with a 31% reduction in mortality from stroke and an 18% reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease.
Myth No 3 – A Low Fat Diet is Good for You
This one actually came about directly as a result of Ancel Key’s fudged and cherry picked 7 countries study.
When Keys made it to the cover of Time magazine on January 13, 1961, the idea that saturated fats clogged arteries began to slowly take hold in the American public’s minds. Before long this spread to other countries in the Western world, then the entire world.
The final product of Key’s deception was the development and deployment of the infamous Pyramid Diet Guidelines which was centered on a low fat, high carb diet.
So what’s so bad about a low fat diet? Isn’t it supposed to be heart healthy?
Well, if you look at the pyramid diet aka the low fat diet, it calls for 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. All these are highly refined carbs with little nutritional value. Eating refined carbs leads to an increase in triglyceride levels and elevated triglyceride levels increase the risk of heart disease and strokes.
Also when triglycerides are elevated, it means that the liver is turning the excess carbs into fat which contributes to folks being overweight and obese.
Eating a low fat high carb diet decreases HDL levels and this also increases heart disease risk. Low HDL levels increase heart disease risks while high HDL levels decrease them.
Still not convinced?
Okay, here’s more….
A low fat high carb diet also changes the LDL particle size – from the harmless large particle LDL (that one gets when on low carb diets) to the harmful small particle LDL that promotes atherosclerosis and heart disease.
There are also several large randomized control trials that show adopting a low carb diet doesn’t decrease heart disease rates.
- The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial – this involved the study of 48,835 postmenopausal women over 7.5 years. The results showed that eating a low fat diet did not lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.
- The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial – 12,866 men aged 35 to 57 years at high risk of developing heart disease were put on a low fat diet for 7 years throughout the trial. Heart disease did not decrease even though a many of the participants quit smoking in addition to following a low fat diet.
- The Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) Study – this involved 5,145 overweight or obese Type 2 diabetics being put on low fat diets across 16 centers in the United States. Dr. Rena Wing, chair of the Look AHEAD study and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University said, “Although the study found weight loss had many positive health benefits for people with type 2 diabetes, the weight loss did not reduce the number of cardiovascular events.”
Myth No 4 – Poly Saturated Oils are Healthier than Saturated Fats
This one is closely related to the low fat diet myth: health authorities and mainstream medical professionals recommend replacing saturated fats with poly saturated oils for cooking because they lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease.
Poly saturated oils are high in linoleic acid which have 2 or more double bonds in their chemical structures which makes them more susceptible to free radical damage.
When there are more free radicals in our bodies than antioxidants, this leads to oxidative stress. Studies such as this one show that a high intake of linoleic acid increases oxidative stress.
When oxidative stress is increased in the body, it also reduces the levels of nitric oxide and this leads to a condition known as endothelial dysfunction which is damage to the lining of arterial walls; endothelial dysfunction “is an early marker for atherosclerosis”.
Myth No 5 – The Low Carb Diet is Unhealthy Because the Brain Needs Carbs to Function
Okay this myth doesn’t fit into the mold of the title of this article but I couldn’t resist the temptation because this one is also one of the commonest myths about low carb diets.
Most health authorities are of the view that only low fat high carb diets are healthy despite overwhelming evidence that proves this thinking is flawed. They say that low carb diets are unhealthy because there are insufficient carbs to fuel the brain. They assume that the brain is dependent only on glucose to fuel it which is only partly true.
Yes, for the most part, the brain use only glucose as fuel. But in the absence of carbs, the brain can still use ketones (fats) which are converted into glucose. Even if you don’t eat any carbs at all (this is NOT recommended), your body will still be able to convert some of the fats and proteins to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis so that it is readily available for the brain.
Folks who hold onto this myth probably reduced their carbs for a few days and found that they became tired, irritable with foggy thinking so they assumed wrongly that the body and the brain MUST have carbs to function. If such folks had actually bothered to research on the transitional phase of the ketogenic diet aka the low carb or keto flu, they would have realized that this only lasts about a week or at most two; once the body fully adapts to using ketones as fuel, the energy level will not only return but also be much more stable than on a low fat high carb diet.
I personally find that after being fat adapted, I don’t get the blood sugar crashes in the afternoons like before. The energy that is released by using ketones as fuel is much more steady and stable.
I Hope You’re Convinced……
I have presented the evidence before you on why these myths still persist. Other than the studies I’ve listed, there are tons more out there to disprove these myths.
It is unfortunate that the people who perpetuate these myths are very often the decision makers within the health authority establishments, and they wonder why the rates of chronic diseases continue to skyrocket.
I hope that this article has benefitted you, dear reader, so that you’ll be able to take your health in your own hands and question your doctor the next time he or she tells you to reduce your fat intake or decide to put you on statins.
If you decide you want to start on the low carb diet but don’t know how to, just send me a mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll leave you with this testimonial/post that from a LCHF Facebook Group of which I’m a member (I’ve posted it before but I’m posting it again).