If you have ever bought an item labeled “low fat” at a grocery store or restaurant because you thought it was healthier for you, this article is for you.
The popular concept that “fat is bad for you” is flawed.
Fats are diverse. Even the widely accepted advice to “reduce your intake of saturated fats” is misleading.
Because just as unsaturated fats are separated into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, each of which has subdivisions with distinct properties, saturated fats are made up of distinct sub-categories and properties as well.
Saturated fats should always be preceded by the terms short-, medium- or long-chain. Each group of saturated fats is metabolized differently by the body.
This is important because not all fats will increase your risk of heart disease; Arguably, no class of fats will consistently increases your risk of heart disease in the absence of other factors.
Context is critical.
Fat intake, along with other factors in your diet and lifestyle, may matter more than fat intake alone.
I will skip the chemistry lesson, but the short-, medium- and long-chain distinctions deal with the number of carbons in the fats. Short chains have 2-6 carbons, medium chains have 8-14 carbons, and long chains have >14 carbons.
Short-Chain Saturated Fatty Acids
Examples of short-chain saturated fatty acids and their number of carbons include formic acid (C-1), acetic acid (C-2), propionic acid (C-3), butyric acid (C-4), valeric acid (C-5) and isovaleric acid (C-6).
These fats are commonly produced from the fermentation of fiber in the colon by healthy bacteria and are associated with a number of health benefits, especially for the immune system and gastrointestinal tract.
Acetic acid is what we know commonly as vinegar. Various vinegars have been touted for their health properties for hundreds of years.
Likewise, butyric acid, also known as butyrate, is an important fuel source for healthy bacteria and the colon cells in your gut. Butyrate also may affect metabolism, stress and inflammation.
Medium-Chain Saturated Fatty Acids
Medium-chain saturated fatty acids include caprylic (C-8), capric (c-10), lauric (C-12), and myristic acid (C-14). When digested, these fats are not carried by cholesterol and carried through the lymphatic system, but instead are sent to the liver directly, where they are burned like simple carbohydrates.
Medium-chain saturated fats may be helpful with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, but also help support weight loss, energy balance and immune health without negatively affecting cholesterol or insulin levels.
I encourage you to re-read that sentence to really appreciate the wide proposed benefits of these fats.
While these fats share similar properties, lauric acid (C-12) and its monoglyceride monolaurin are considered the most active of the fats offering wide-spectrum anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Monolaurin was first discovered in the 1960s in mother’s milk and is may play an important role in milk composition and infant immunity.
Long-Chain Saturated Fatty Acids
Long-chain saturated fats are the type that you typically hear about. These include fats such as palmitic (C-16) and stearic (C-18) acids. These fats are found in animal products and do lead to a rise in cholesterol. Whether that rise is actually harmful is a trickier question as it depends on contextual factors listed later in this section.
Interestingly, high levels of cholesterol can actually be health-promoting, as other inflammatory factors are now believed to take greater precedence in heart disease risk. Surprisingly, one of the riskiest things you can do for your health is to have your cholesterol level drop too low!
In the Standard American Diet, high fat intake is typically combined with high refined starch and/or sugar intake. Additionally, foods are often fried at high temperatures, which changes the structure and stability of these fats. Sometimes this “lipid peroxidation” turns them into ricocheting bullets aimed at your cells. Fried starches (e.g., French fries) combine high fat, high heat, and high starch. These combinations are common in commercial and processed foods and create a highly damaging cocktail for your cells.
Long-chain saturated fats help add stability to hormones and cell membranes and may not be necessarily harmful unless combined with things such as:
1) A high-sugar diet
2) A sedentary lifestyle
4) Exposure to man-made toxins in food, water and air
5) Intake of man-made trans fats
6) Sufficiency of Omega-3 fats
7) Genetic susceptibilities such as being a carrier of an unhealthy MTHFR allele.
Saturated Fats are Good for You
The demonization of saturated fats like those found in coconut oil was actually less a result of sound scientific review, but more a result of a successful lobbying campaign by the soybean oil industry.
The matter became even more complicated as organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association weighed in with well-intentioned (but what now appear as misguided) recommendations. It did not help that statin drugs also became a multi-billion dollar industry over the last 25 years – whose purpose was to lower high cholesterol caused in part by diets high in (long-chain) saturated fats.
When your nutritionists implores you to lower your intake of saturated fats…ask them “Which ones, the short, medium or the long chains?”. If your question is received with raised eyebrows, I suggest that you look around for a new nutritionist or healthcare professional who is better versed with the latest nutrition information.
The way we test for heart disease is changing dramatically. It is less about reducing “bad” cholesterol and “raising” good cholesterol, but more about paying attention to the 7 factors listed above (A high-sugar diet, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, exposure to toxins, intake of man-made trans fats, omega 3 fatty acids, and nutrition-gene considerations).
Notice how these factors all revolve around diet and lifestyle, even for those with “bad” genes.
Functional medicine is now able to more accurately assess your risk for a number of diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes – well before the disease even becomes a medical problem.
Proper healthcare is no longer as simple as black-white charts and fitting you into “x, y, & z diagnostic criteria”. The goal of functional medicine is not to put a label on you and pat itself on the back for a job well-done. The world of biology is dynamic and always evolving, and you need a dynamic system like functional medicine to wade through it all. The new discussion around fats is just one tiny facet of a much larger picture.
The larger picture is about asking: “How are you functioning metabolically? And, how do we get you functioning better tomorrow before something unhealthy happens?”.
Although functional medicine has been around for a few decades, it is still “new” to mainstream medicine and so please contact me if you need help finding someone who practices this type of care need you and I’ll be glad to connect you so that you get the testing and care that’s right for you.