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Don’t Fear the Fat!

paleo fatsLet’s talk about fat, shall we?  That wonderful little chain of molecules has been vilified for its high caloric content, its artery-clogging saturated structure, even its rich decadent taboo taste.   There are a myriad of reasons why people get fat and sick, but simply having a healthy source of natural fat in your diet is not one of them!  What breaks my heart is that so many good people are trying hard to lose weight, feel better and reduce their odds of health problems, and in the process, with all the misinformation we’ve been fed, are missing out on a HUGE source of nourishment crucial to good health and longevity.

Why do we need fat in our diet? 

Fat provides the building blocks for every single cellular membrane in the body.  Our brain, nervous system, hormones, and immune system all require fats for their production, function and cellular repair.  Fat is antimicrobial, anti-viral, and reverses gut damage and autoimmune conditions.  Fat is necessary for forming new memories and accessing long-term memories.  It decreases markers of inflammation, improves insulin sensitivity, thins the blood, and blocks the growth of new blood vessels used to fuel tumor growth (which means that it prevents cancer from spreading). It also increases adaptation to exercise and aids in muscle repair.

Fat is also required for the absorption of vitamins A, D, K, E (the “fat-soluble vitamins”) as well as the conversion of carotene to Vitamin A, and is necessary for mineral absorption.

In addition, fat is the body’s preferred slow burn/all day source of energy as well as a way to gain satiety and enjoyment from your diet.  Nora Gedgaudas, Author of “Primal Body, Primal Mind”  explains it this way:

            “If we are to look at the macronutrients in our diet (carbohydrates, protein and fat) strictly from the standpoint of the energy they provide our “metabolic fire”, then carbohydrates in this context can be viewed as a form of metabolic “kindling”… [but if we] becoming a fat burner—someone who uses sufficient dietary fat to satisfy one’s appetite (while simultaneously avoiding sugar and starch) this forces the body to adapt to fat as a primary source of fuel for their metabolic fire. What is the result of this basic metabolic change? You have now become free. You have effectively removed the constant need for “blood sugar” for your primary energy, mood or cognitive functioning.  All of a sudden eating becomes more of a choice rather than a constant necessity. Energy levels maintain more constancy and an even-ness that allows for clearer thinking and stable moods. Your Ice Age-forged body no longer is in the business of greedily storing fat from the carbohydrates you were eating and is freer to burn stored fat for fuel, both away from constant presence of insulin and recognizing that as long as there is “enough” fat at mealtime that “hunting must be good”—therefore stored fat can be comfortably spared and utilized for energy. Not only this, but you suddenly find your food bills lessening considerably. The natural dietary fat you eat quickly fills you up and leaves you less hungry, with cravings rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Insulin sensitivity becomes gradually restored, and all that this implies. Sleep becomes more restful. Aging slows and becomes more graceful. You begin to look and feel younger. Energy is never in short supply.”

So what fats should we be eating?

Natural sources of healthy fats can be found in:

  • avocado
  • egg yolks
  • olive oil
  • coconut oil
  • coconut milk
  • animal fats (both from fresh meat and organs and also rendered tallow, lard and schmaltz)
  • palm oil
  • nuts and seed
  • ghee – See HERE for an explanation of ghee if you aren’t familiar, and
  • pasture-raised full fat dairy and butter (if you tolerate dairy).

But not all fats are created equal!

            As ubiquitous as they are, industrial oils such as sunflower, soybean, vegetable, corn, canola, and industrial animal fats do not provide the same health benefits and are in fact incredibly damaging to the body.  Even if you don’t cook with these in your own home, they are in SO many processed foods it’s almost impossible to stay away from them. (salad dressings, fried foods, canned goods, baked treats, marinated foods, sauces, etc…) I recently came across a jar of olives marinated in canola oil!  I can only imagine how insulted those olives must have been to be denigrated to the level of canola.  These oils are extracted using oxidizing high heat and chemical solvents (as opposed to gentle cold-press extraction) and are full of omega 6-fats which result in systemic inflammation when eaten. That inflammation acts on your cholesterol and your arteries, as I’ll later discuss, causing cardiovascular disease.  This inflammation also contributes to autoimmune issues and allergies, which are heavily linked to systemic inflammation.

These industrial fats are also unstable fats that oxidize at high heats-which makes them a terrible choice for frying/cooking at high temperatures, which is typically when they are used (unlike the traditional saturated fats which do not oxidize easily and are omega 6/3 neutral or better) leading to rancid oil (made worse by the fact that the very production of these oils may cause rancidity) and resulting in free radicals that damage DNA/RNA, skin, tissues and organs leading to potential tumor growth, and damage blood vessels which sets the body up for damage/repair cycle that leads to the build up of arterial plaque.  This imbalance is also being shown through studies to increase likelihood of blood clots, systemic inflammation, and a depressed immune system.

This also includes meat from animals fed industrial feed (namely GMO-sourced soy and corn) in a toxic environment.  Not only is this feed unnatural to the animals causing constant illness that requires them to be treated with antibiotics and other medicines on a regular basis, the food is often poorly sourced and filled with pesticides, herbicides and other industrial chemicals (such as heavy metals) that get passed on from the animal to our dinner plates.  These toxins are “safely” stored in the animal’s fat tissue to get it out of circulation so it does LESS damage to the organs  (though it still does long term damage), and this fat is higher in omega-6 fats as well as toxins than pastured animals.

So Omega-6 fats are evil?  Then why does grass-fed meat still have omega-6 fat?

            The major concern with Omega-6 fats is not so much that they exist, but that we eat them in such abundance while neglecting Omega-3 fats.  Omega-3 fats tend to posses anti-inflammatory properties and Omega-6 fats tend to possess inflammatory properties.  An ancestral diet provided roughly one Omega-3 fat for every two Omega-6 fats (this is also the ratio found in the meat of most pastured animals).  When both are ingested in harmony, the body is able to work in balance and repair and cool the system with temporary inflammation as necessary and then bring the body back to stasis.  The pathology is that the Standard American Diet has skewed this ratio so on average the body is provided one Omega-3 fat for every TWENTY Omega-6 fats.  We are living in a state where our bodies are being bathed in inflammatory chemicals which leads to constant systemic inflammation, arterial damage and oxidized plaque that leads to the heart disease we are trying so desperately in this nation to avoid.  It’s easy to see why even a well-meaning doctor might tell you to avoid fats.  The wrong fats, and even the right fats eaten out of balance, CAN do severe damage to your system and these should be avoided as much as possible.  But you can’t throw the precious baby out with the bathwater.  Nourishing fats are crucial to good health.  If your doctor refuses to acknowledge the importance of healthy fat for your body, brain, immune system, inflammation damage control and the structural integrity of every cell in your body, I suggest it may be time to find another doctor .

Does this mean I can never go out for a juicy steak dinner again? 

This doesn’t mean never have a good Texas wet brisket again, or that you have to avoid Outback’s prime rib like the plague.  But on a regular basis we need to be aware of what we’re ingesting.  If pastured meat isn’t easily accessible or within your budget, consider leaner cuts of “industrial” meat and get clean fats from other sources. Here are two excellent articles on how to eat whole foods on a budget:

***QUICK TIP: For some people this may be all they need to get started down the path to better nourishment.  If you’re comfortable stopping here, skip down to the “take-home tips” section.  If you want to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes, read on!***

Even if I can afford it, what about my cholesterol?!?!  Shouldn’t I be avoiding artery-clogging saturated fats at least?  

Cholesterol is a complicated issue to discuss.  The research is still evolving, and yet its becoming clear that the misinformation, research dogma and bedfellow deals over the last 60 years have done us and our health a terrible disservice.  Heart disease affects so many people and it’s so easy to be frightened and bullied by the medical industry into taking pills.  It’s difficult to argue when you are gambling with your life and you don’t have a clear answer (or in some cases, even a clearly defined problem).  My hope is to shed just a little light on this topic and provide some primers so that you can arm yourself with the knowledge you need to make your own best health decisions, and the power to stand up to dogmatic physicians who refuse to look at where the medical research is going (as opposed to where it started 60 years ago) and find a physician who is willing to work WITH you to find the best solution for your health and longevity.

But my doctor prescribed Statins to LOWER my cholesterol

I doubt there’s anyone left in this country who doesn’t know what a Statin is.  Many of you may have popped some of these little beasties this very day.    Those magical drugs we’re all being prescribed to lower our evil cholesterol must be good for us because cholesterol hardens in the arteries causing heart disease, right?  This misunderstanding about cholesterol makes me incredibly sad, and it pains me to know that so many people are unintentionally robbing themselves of one of the body’s most important substances thinking they are doing something good for them.  ***I’ll take this moment to remind everyone that I am NOT a physician, that every body is different, and you should ALWAYS consult with a knowledgeable and responsible health care professional who will work as a team player to provide you with the proper health care protocol.  That being said, there are some basic things we should all know about cholesterol and the good things it’s SUPPOSED to do in our bodies.

Imagine that someone gets shot and a good Samaritan happens upon the scene and calls 911.  A few minutes later an ambulance comes whirring up, and the EMT hops out of the truck and starts treating the victim.  The police have also been notified and they come upon the scene and see the EMT standing over the patient applying pressure to the wound, stabilizing the victim, checking vital signs, and preparing to speed off to the hospital.  Suppose the police officer walks up to the EMT and handcuffs him, declaring that because he is present at the scene of the shooting, he must have been the shooter.  What will the EMT say?  I would imagine it would be something like “I didn’t shoot him, I just got the call there was an injury and I rushed out to help patch him up, that’s my JOB!”   Similarly, when we have damage to our bodies, one of cholesterol’s many jobs is to try to patch and repair that damage.  This includes inflammation and damage to our arteries (the endothelium (lining) of the artery is only one cell deep, so it’s incredibly fragile!).  The cholesterol is sent out to repair/patch up the damage, or it is sent out to one of its other many destinations (as I’ll discuss below) and as its in transit ongoing oxidative stress reacts with the cholesterol, and the immune system’s response to that oxidative process causing that cholesterol to harden and build up in the fragile arteries, leading to the plaque and arterial stiffness that causes the cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation breaks down that hardened plague which leads to catastrophic ischemic events (such as heart attacks and strokes).  What is often left in the shadow of the somber discussion of heart attacks is that the cholesterol that oxidized had a job to do but it never reached its final destination.  That means that the oxidation prevented one of the body’s most important substances from functioning properly and supporting everything from cellular stability to vitamin D production.  Imagine if every day thousands of people were in horrible traffic jams that froze them in their cars forever.  Not only would the roads get gridlocked, but a whole lot of families and businesses would start functioning poorly and breaking down as loved ones disappeared.

I have a personal vendetta against strokes as I watched my grandfather suffer through NUMEROUS debilitating ischemic events which robbed him of his vitality, his mobility, his ability to communicate, and eventually his life.  Something was horribly wrong in his environment and something DID need to change about the way he lived his life and the treatment options he had available to him.  But we absolutely cannot blame cholesterol simply for doing its job when we subject our bodies to oxidation and constant inflammation.  If you’re interested in learning more, a good place to start is to check out this video of Tom Naughton explaining the importance of fat and cholesterol (video of fat head explaining cholesterol)

What other jobs does cholesterol handle?

Studies have shown only about 25% of your cholesterol comes from the foods you intake.  Because it’s such a valuable substance and has so many jobs, we have a natural bodily production, created both in the liver and MOST CELLS THROUGHOUT THE BODY.   In addition to repairing damaged arteries, cholesterol gives cell membranes form and stability.  It is a necessary component of the hormones that we create to deal with stress and protects us against heart disease and cancer, as well as the major sex hormones (androgen, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone) and a necessary component for proper function of serotonin.  It is a precursor to vitamin D.  As such, it plays a large role in weight management, bone health and mental status.  Bile salts are made from cholesterol.  It also maintains the structural integrity of the intestinal walls (see HERE for why it’s important to maintain a healthy gut)

Cholesterol also transports nutrients to the cells and repairs damage throughout the body, not just arteries. The interaction with inflammation is what causes problems to arise.

Sorry Statins, there’s no such thing as a free ride

Two additional major points I recommend everyone discuss with their doctor when Statins are being considered are:

  • the effects of the drug on HDL: Statins are not a tacticle missile that seeks and destroys one particle type of cholesterol, it lowers EVERTYHNG, including the protective HDL which is correlated with lower mortality rates from cardiovascular disease, cancer and infection and carries anti-microbial proteins to fight disease
  • Statins have their own drug side effects, such as muscle pain, rhabdomyolysis (severe break down of muscle tissue), liver damage, damage to the digestive system and digestive distress, diabetes and glucose disregulation, memory loss, deficiencies in vitamin D, sex hormones and serotonin [in light of all of cholesterol’s jobs in the body, when you starve the body of cholesterol these all make perfect sense, don’t they?]

What if my Cholesterol levels are SUPER high?

While moderate to high levels of cholesterol may be protective for repair purposes and necessary to handle cholesterol’s many jobs in the body, new research is beginning to show that very high cholesterol may indicate that a massive amount of free-radicals are present and in essence the cholesterol ambulance is being sent out all the time trying to repair constant damage.  If it is the case that there is systemic damage going on throughout the body and high cholesterol is an indicator of that damage, then lowering cholesterol is like preventing the EMT from being sent out when someone gets shot.  You aren’t solving the problem by restricting the EMTs, instead you just get a pile of bodies that builds to critical mass.  This does not mean you should flush all your medications down the toilet and run screaming into the woods looking for an antelope to take down and devour, thinking you are cured.  Any treatment or change in treatment for such an issue should be closely monitored and managed by your health care team.  However, healing and cooling inflammation by removing inflammatory foods like grain, processed sugars and industrial fats and replacing them with healthy natural fats and a balanced Omega-6/3 ratio, reducing alcohol and smoking,  avoiding excessive exercise/overtraining,  and working to reduce and process stress in healthy balanced ways which all help heal and cool inflammation and damage in the body may be much more protective then trying to manipulate the messenger.

If you are interested in knowing more about your inflammation levels, a simple blood test for high-sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (aka HS-CRP) is a major marker of inflammation in the body.

What about Ancel and the last 60 years of research?  Was it all bunk?

It’s hard to have a discussion about fat without mentioning Ancel Keys and the “lipid hypothesis”.  Keys was a scientist in the 1950s who is infamous for his research claiming that saturated fat raises cholesterol and cholesterol causes heart disease.  In his initial multi-country study he reported to find a strong trend line for an increase in heart attack in countries with higher fat consumption.  This first study which he published was unfortunately not a work of high ethics.  His original data included 22 countries; however for his report he only focused on the SEVEN that met his original hypothesis.  While it is acceptable for researchers to remove some statistical outliers for the sake of comparison, if someone told you they found a trend of 31% evidence that fat is causing heart attacks, wouldn’t you at LEAST question the potential contributing factors and look at the significant body of “outliers” to see what the countries eating higher fats and NOT getting heart attacks were doing differently?  Especially knowing how many important jobs fat and cholesterol have in the body?  Keys also followed up his study with the recommendation that people eat a diet high in vegetable oils and grains, ouch!  Ironically, the dietary advice given by Keys requires the body to make MORE cholesterol in order to combat the constant damage the grains and vegetable oils inflict on the body.  I guess cholesterol got the last laugh there!   Here’s Tom Naughton explaining this little troubled little scientific whoopsie.

But wait, there’s more!  Keys later changed his recommendations….

Nobody seems to care to discuss that the great wizard came out from behind the curtain, revealed himself as a tiny little man and admitted he was wrong!!!  In later studies Keys actually refined his initial findings in one of his OWN ARTICLES entitled “Prediction and Possible Prevention of Coronary Disease” stating the fact that “dietary cholesterol is not important for man would be predicted from the fact that the biliary output of cholesterol from the human liver is from 10-20 times as much as the daily amount of cholesterol in any diet of natural foods.  Repeated careful dietary surveys on large numbers of persons in whom blood cholesterol was measured consistently fail to disclose a relationship between the cholesterol in the diet and in the serum.”   As I discussed above, Keys basically admitted that the body makes most of your cholesterol stores, in greater numbers than you can even manipulate with your diet.  If your body is making it at rates that have nothing to do with what you are eating, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that it has a necessary place in your health and wellbeing?

*Quick side note about the research on cholesterol- as it was the first blood component we were able to easily study and analyze, it makes sense we have a large body of research on the matter.  But progress and new science must always replace the old.  If it didn’t, the earth would still be flat, we’d be talking to each other through smoke signals instead of across the internet highway, and I’d be heavily invested in the candle wax industry.*

Further shedding light on Keys’ poorly evidenced dietary recommendations and later revelations about the necessity of cholesterol, it’s interesting to note that human breast milk has one of the highest proportions of cholesterol of all foods.  Its makeup is composed of 50% fat, mostly saturated.  These saturated fats are necessary for the construction and growth of baby’s brain.  It is estimated that the human brain (of any age) is made up of  about 70% fat, and the myelin sheaths on the nerves of the brain are 70-80% fat!  Studies have even linked diabetes as a potential limiting factor of cholesterol’s ability to function in the brain, which is believed to be a major factor for Alzheimer’s disease.  That’s some powerful medicine inside of a little egg yolk!

So where does that leave us?

My discussion of cholesterol, although it probably bored you to tears, BARELY scratches the surface [let’s not forget there’s a whole body of research behind triglycerides, LDL particle size and LDL particle number when it comes to oxidation and arterial damage] and as I have said, I am not a doctor.  If you would like to know more to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to make the best health decisions for you and your family, I highly recommend reading this cholesterol primer series by Functional Medicine L.Ac Chris Kresser:

and this 3 part discussion series between Kresser and Chris Masterjohn, Ph. D. (One of the most forward thinking and active researchers on the topic of cholesterol)

As well as visit Masterjohn’s website,  to see the latest research findings

And watch this 4 part lecture  series by Masterjohn:

Takeaway tips:

  • Eat a nourishing diet full of healthy fats such as avocado, egg yolks, olive oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, pastured animal fats, palm oil, pastured full fat dairy {if well tolerated} and butter/ghee
  • Avoid grains and industrial oils such as sunflower, soybean, vegetable, corn, canola, and industrial animal fats
  • Avoid excessive sugar consumption which causes systemic inflammation and may effect the brain’s ability to obtain and process cholesterol
  • Reduce inflammation by avoiding alcohol consumption, smoking, excessive exercise/overtraining, and working to reduce and process stress in healthy balanced ways
  • Consider medical testing for systemic inflammation
  • If you are currently on Statin drugs, consider reviewing the latest medical literature with your health care provider and monitor for vitamin, antioxidant and hormone deficiencies

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