People have a lot of questions about saturated fat! This often comes up with my clients because a lot of the dietary protocols that I use are very high in saturated fat. Additionally, make people with chronic illness will have very high cholesterol levels when they get a blood test. And dietary intake of saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels and this is bad, right? Wrong- it is just what we have been told know for multiple generations.
To understand what is really going on, I’m going to talk about the role of saturated fat and cholesterol in the body and why it’s so important for the health and healing of the nervous system and the brain. So let’s talk about the true functions first, and then we’ll discuss the concerns directly.
Every cell in the body needs cholesterol to function. Every cell wall is made of cholesterol and a wonderful mix of fatty acids. Our cells cannot be healthy and they cannot be in integrity with cholesterol. Additionaly, every nerve in our body is covered with a sheath of myelin which protects the nerves and gives it that good strong health and this myelin sheath is also made of fatty acids- a large part of which is cholesterol! And so physiologically speaking for our nerves to be healthy, we need a lot of cholesterol and fatty acids in our bodies. If we have damage in these areas to repair, we need a lot of that raw material to repair our nerves and tissues. Our brain contains a huge amount of cholesterol as well. About 25% of our brain is made of cholesterol. So if you are having issues with your brain function or nervous system, anything from neuropathy, to dysautonomia, to dementia, to depression, to learning issues, brain fog, to anxiety, to anger and irritability, to difficulty focusing- the list could go on and on.
The immune system also uses cholesterol as a reparative substance in the body. That’s right- cholesterol is actually a healing substance! It is actually what carts away toxins as they move around in the blood, and it puts down new material to damaged repair tissues in the body. That’s where this idea of good and bad cholesterol came from. It’s seen as good when cholesterol is doing one half of that job but not the other. But really, both sides are essential to healing and detoxifying and repairing. We need both the cholesterol that carts away and we need the cholesterol that brings new reparative tissue in. So that good and bad cholesterol idea goes away just by understanding this fully.
Without cholesterol, the body cannot heal itself. In fact, cholesterol is SO important that we manufacture enough to survive in our own liver, regardless of how much we are getting in our diet. However, many people have so much damage in their nervous system, brain and immune system that they need extra saturated fat in their diet. That is why a diet that is high in saturated fat can be so beneficial on our journey to health.
What about all the criticisms? Spend just 30 seconds in any conventional medical sphere and you will immediately hear that saturated fat causes high blood cholesterol and that this will clog your arteries and cause all sorts of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
So let’s actually start looking at the the literature- the evidence in research, plus our clinical observations. It turns out, none of this holds up to scrutiny. This hypothesis was started in the 1950’s by someone named Ancel Keys. In short, during this period of time, the health officials in the United States were horrified because through the 40s and into the early 50s, heart disease, especially in middle aged and elderly white men, was skyrocketing. Heart disease had never been an issue before this. In fact, one of the first times we actually even see a heart attack described in the medical literature was in the 1920s. This was not a common phenomenon before that time. Suddenly, people are having heart attacks and strokes and this was really terrifying to the public.
Now, it’s important to think about the context of the history of our food, industry and food production. A LOT changed from the early 1900s into the 1950s. This is precisely the time when our modern food system was being invented. Food advertising began, shelf stable and commodity food was invented, the transition from using animal fats in cooking to industrial seed oils like cottonseed oil and rapeseed oil (and eventually canola oil) were invented. Advertising really targeted the “modern woman”- saying, the women of today don’t spend all this time at home cooking, that is very old fashioned and you need to just buy canned, frozen, processed, ready made food.
All these changes were happening in our food system, and suddenly we start getting this phenomenon of high rates of heart attacks and strokes. But Ancel Keys had another hypothesis. He said, well, maybe it’s the saturated fat! Cooking in beef tallow, eating eggs, bacon and sausages was still very common and popular. As a part of his theory, he made a graph that showed correlations between how much heart disease was occurring and how much saturated fat was consumed, country by country. And- the curve didn’t fit. There was no correlation. So he pulled out all the countries that didn’t fit- and then he presented this perfect curve to government officials. They were thrilled, because now they had something to blame the mystery on! So ever since then, the medical industry has been trying to gain evidence for this hypothesis, and they’ve really failed time and time again. But unfortunately, it still is the dominant idea in mainstream medicine and mainstream health guidelines.
The biggest attempts to prove this theory actually disproved the theory. These were massive interventional studies, done in the 1970s and 1980s. Interventional studies are the best ones, scientifically speaking, because they start with a base line and add an intervention, so they can see the change group and the control group. And none of these studies have been able to show any cause and effect link between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease, OR between saturated fat intake and heart disease. So it really is a failed hypothesis!
The only studies that do show an association between saturated fat and heart disease are a few correlational studies. These studies are not interventional studies and have no control group. But they do show that people who have diets high in saturated fat tend to have higher mortality rates overall from heart disease. The issue is is that these are correlational studies, and we see major lifestyle biases in these kinds of studies. Generally speaking, in western culture, we see that the type of people who tend to be eating a lot of saturated fat in the form of cheeseburgers and bacon are people who are also eating a bun and french fries (white flour and canola oil), and a soda (high fructose corn syrup, flavorings, colorings) and then getting a sugary dessert afterwards. Whereas- people who are eating less saturated fats tend to be people doing other healthy lifestyle practices. They tend to be more physically active, eating more organic produce, use less toxic products in their homes, etc. It is impossible to tease out these correlates and figure out what is causing the higher mortality rate. Frankly, it is very unlikely that out of all those things, it is the meat and saturated fat, which humans across the world have been eating for thousands of years.
Another fascinating fact is that heart disease is not correlated with high blood cholesterol levels. This was described in clinical literature because there have been a lot of doctors and cardiologists who have come forward to say look, when I’m opening up people who have had massive heart attacks, they are not the ones that are testing with high blood cholesterol levels. Doctors were finding that it was often people who had low blood cholesterol that were coming in with strokes and heart attacks, while many of their patients with high blood cholesterol weren’t ever having these events.
We can see some problems anthropologically with these theories as well. For example, many different Maasai tribes have been studied extensively. We have some of the most extensive data on the traditional lifeways and health outcomes because anthropologists have been studying them since the 1930s because they’re such a fascinating culture and they notoriously have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. They also have surprisingly low blood cholesterol levels, even though their diet is approximately 80% saturated fat, from beef and milk. We also have a lot of studies of different countries, which again, are correlational and have significant problems, but the fact is that there are a lot of countries especially European countries such as France, Iceland, Switzerland, etc., that show as average intake of saturated fat goes up, the incidence of heart disease actually goes down. It’s very clear that these things cannot be exactly correlated with each other. High levels of blood cholesterol does not equal heart disease. Intake of saturated fat does not equal high blood cholesterol levels. And therefore, intake of saturated fat does not equal heart disease. None of these things are actually correlated with each other- it is a much more complex relationship.
All that being said, what does cause heart disease? It has become an epidemic in the modern world- we all know multiple people who have had some type of heart disease. Heart disease is really defined by some type of damage to the heart and blood vessels. This damage is not caused by cholesterol, but rather inflammation that cholesterol is trying to repair. To heal and prevent heart disease, we need to find the root of the inflammation. And the biggest culprits for inflammation in the modern world, and the changes in our food system that actually correlated with rates of heart disease increasing, are highly processed foods, toxins we’re encountering in our environment (think pesticides, etc.), and chronic infections that are living in our bodies through a compromised and imbalanced immune system and microbiome.
These are the causes of the inflammation that leads to heart disease.
What happens next is, if the body is trying to repair this damage and inflammation by sending cholesterol in, but you’re continuing to be exposed to or intake all the things that are causing the inflammation and damage in the first place, the body is just going to keep bringing in cholesterol and that is what causes these blockages in the arteries. It’s the body trying desperately to keep up with this reparative process.
From this perspective, high blood cholesterol levels are not an inherently bad thing. It is actually protective. It is marker of how much healing is happening in the body. People who are working really hard to heal their immune system and nervous system and brain are going to have elevated blood cholesterol levels regardless of diet, because your body is using a lot and it’s sending it to different areas of the body through the blood to do all this really important repair work. Blood cholesterol levels will adjust in relation to how much acute healing and repair work is happening in the body. It’s not something to be concerned about, as long as you are addressing the root cause of the damage.
To read more about this perspective, there are some fantastic books:
The Cholesterol Myth by Uffe Ravnskov
Put your heart in your mouth by Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride
Also watch the presentation on YouTube by Sally Fallon Morrell that is called The oiling of America