Saturated Fats for Health!
You may or may not have heard the news, but saturated fat may not be as detrimental to our health as we have been led to believe. In fact, saturated fats may actually contribute to health and wellness through the action of some of the unique fatty acids that fall under the short- and medium-chain fatty acid classification. So, why the recent shift in our understanding about the value of saturated fats and how is this information relevant to those of us in recovery?
The Diet-Heart Hypothesis
For years we have been told that the saturated fats found in meat, dairy and other animal foods are the primary reasons for the increased heart disease and stroke risk facing Americans. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis, as its formally known, was presented by Ancel Keys in the 1953 paper known as the Seven Countries Study that purported to show that the risk and rates of heart attack and stroke was directly and independently related to the level of total serum cholesterol. Keys believed that his finding were incontrovertible proof that the consumption of dietary fat, specifically the saturated variety, was the primary cause of cardiovascular disease. Keys’ findings eventually led to the development of the food pyramid, which many nutrition professionals, myself included, consider a scourge on human health.
However, upon examination of the Seven Countries Study, it was found that Keys manipulated his study to include only those populations that conveniently support his hypothesis at the expense of those that may have actually contributed to reliable scientific and nutritional recommendations. There is also speculation that Mr. Keys had deep ties to “Big Food”, which supported his admonition of the saturated fats found in animal foods and the promotion of those found in vegetable oils, which they produced.
Anyways. Back to where we are today.
Saturated Fat for Health
A diet that incorporates a modest amount of saturated fat may actually be beneficial for those in recovery, because it has been found to improve liver, brain and immune system health.
Shall we look at the science?
Lets look at liver health first. Published in The Journal of Nutrition, one study found that all measures of hepatic pathology and oxidative stress were reduced in a dose-response fashion in rats fed alcohol. Even more relevant for those in early recovery, another study, published in The Journal of Pharmacology, found that, “a diet enriched in saturated fatty acids effectively reverses alcohol induced necrosis, inflammation, and fibrosis…” These studies suggest that including a modest amount of saturated fat in the diets of those early in recovery may actually prevent and reverse alcohol induced liver damage.
Shifting our attention to the brain, fat is an integral component in proper neurological function. Brain matter can be grouped according to its function as either white, responsible for our ability to learn, remember and problem solve; gray, which functions to route sensory or motor stimulus; and myelin, whose primary purpose is to increase the speed of signal transmission through nerve cells. The lipid composition of the different classification of brain matter range from 49-66%, 36-40% and 78-81% for white, gray and myelin, respectively. The numbers that stick out the most to me are the lipid compositions of white matter (approx. 58%) and myelin (approx. 80%). These two areas of the brain are made mostly of fat and cholesterol, which suggests that the consumption of dietary fat and cholesterol is integral in their function. Not so coincidently, the areas of the brain made from white matter and myelin, specifically the prefrontal cortex, are the first area hit by alcohol and the area most likely to be damaged by excessive alcohol intake.
Finally, saturated fats contain specialized fatty acids, which are naturally antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral. These important saturated fatty acids fall into the medium chain triglyceride (MCT) family, which provides the body with what it needs to fight pathogenic substances. Medium chain triglycerides have also been found to mediate the body’s natural inflammatory response so that mitochondrial function and cell integrity are properly maintained. All this equates to improved digestion, metabolism, and immune function, which are all greatly impaired by chronic alcohol abuse.
Food Sources of Saturated Fats
The first thing I think about when I hear saturated fat, which I would argue is the case for the majority of us, is a juicy steak. Whether it be a filet, T-bone, strip, etc., beef contains a good amount of potentially therapeutic saturated fat. Besides saturated fat, beef contains a number of other health nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, and magnesium, in addition to essential vitamins like K, D and B12. A modest portion, approximately 4 ounces, of red meat one or two times a week can definitely improve health and quality of life. However, be careful not to consume too much, because any more red meat than that can slow the digestive process and may cause a wee bit of constipation.
For those of us looking for alternatives to red meat, a few more healthy sources of saturated fat include butter, ghee, lard, tallow, and, probably my favorite source of fat, coconut oil. The benefits of coconut oil are almost too great to count, but the primary benefit may be its abundance of medium-chain triglycerides, which contribute directly to energy production, help heal the gut and, as we just learned, greatly improve immune system function. Coconut oil also has a relatively high smoke point, which makes it well suited for cooking at temperatures that exceed that which olive oil is left undamaged.
When choosing which saturated fats are right for you and your diet, quality is of paramount importance. High quality grass-fed and –finished, free range, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef and products made from it have a more healthful blend of fat that can help the body heal damage caused by chronic alcohol abuse. Personally, I am reluctant to trust what is available at my local grocer and order all of my animal foods online through US Wellness Meats. However, most health food stores will have a diverse selection of ethically sourced animal foods, which may make planning and preparing therapeutic meals easier.
Although I love the therapeutic value of saturated fats, modesty and variety, as in all things in life, are essential.
Wow! Good talk!