Facing the Fats

Virgin Coconut Oil

Dietary fats (those we get from food) play a critical role in our health. Not only do they provide taste to the foods we eat; they also help us better absorb vitamins and minerals from our food. Additionally, fats slow the release of food from our stomach, which means they help us feel fuller for longer and also help control spikes in blood sugar/insulin.

There are two main categories of fats: saturated and unsaturated. We’ve always been taught that unsaturated fats (from nuts & seeds, avocado, olive oil, etc.) are good and saturated fats (coming from red meat, lard, butter, etc.) are bad. And while there is some truth to this, the issue isn’t black and white.

What about coconut oil, which has plenty of saturated fat but is touted as a “healthy” food? Is all red meat bad? Should we only have fat-free dairy?

Though most large, governing bodies in the health field advocate decreasing saturated fat intake as a way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, this is a large over-generalization. The fact of the matter is saturated fats are an entire category of fats and not all types of saturated fats are created equal. There has not been enough conclusive research to show that decreasing overall saturated fats in our diets will lower our risk for cardiovascular disease. Check out this article by Dr. David Katz for an overview on fats as well as a run-down of the research.

While some studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats helped to lower LDL cholesterol (the cholesterol that deposits into our arteries), these same studies also found that this replacement may lower HDL cholesterol (the cholesterol that helps to remove LDL from our system and has a protective effect). This in turn can shift our cholesterol ratio (total ration/HDL cholesterol) in an unfavorable direction. Cholesterol ratio is a predictor for risk of heart disease.

Furthermore, all foods contain different types of saturated fats. There are longer-chain saturated fatty acids, such as stearic acid, which is found largely in red meat (and in higher proportions in grass-fed versus grain-fed beef) as well dark chocolate. Stearic acid has not been shown to have an effect on the risk for cardiovascular disease. Speaking of grass-fed beef, here is a run-down of the calorie, fat, and protein composition of grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed beef, chicken breast and salmon (values are for 100 grams of the given food):

Protein Source Total Calories Total Fat Total Protein
Chicken Breast (Skinless) 114 2.59 21.23
Beef (Grain-Fed) 117 2.69 23.07
Beef (Grass-Fed) 149 6.29 21.72
Salmon 142 6.34 19.84

So, you can see that grass-fed beef is nutritionally pretty similar to chicken breast (however it contains more iron and more omega-3 fatty acids than chicken). Plus, as noted earlier, the fat found in grass-fed beef is mainly stearic acid (type of saturated fatty acid), which has not been shown to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.

In regards to dairy, recent research has found little link between dairy and heart disease risk, regardless of the amount of milkfat. Plus, if you are drinking organic milk that comes from pasture (grass)- fed cows, the fat profile is more favorable, containing increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids when compared to regular cow’s milk. Grass-fed cow’s milk may also contain higher levels of certain vitamins, e.g. vitamin A.

Lastly, coconut oil, which contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid, may be less easily stored as fat than other types of fat. This is because larger, long-chain fatty acids are more difficult for our bodies to break down and are thus more easily stored as fat. With coconut oil, however, the medium-chain fatty acids are less easily stored and are more apt to being burned by the liver for energy (similar to the way your liver processes carbohydrates, but without insulin spike). Coconut oil may even work to boost your metabolism.

For cooking, coconut oil is excellent because it is more stable when heated to high temperatures than other oils, such as olive oil. It also imparts a delicious, coconutty taste to foods (I love it for sauteeing broccoli and green beans/pea pods).

Some things we can all agree on: added sugar and refined carbohydrates increase our risk for cardiovascular disease and processed meats contain preservatives and other compounds that are deleterious to our health. However, saturated fats are not”the devil” as some have lead us to believe.


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