01.06.2010 Naturopathy

Fat Chance

Moderation is the key, says naturopath Jeremy Hill. And that includes saturated fats.

According to the old tongue twister, when Betty Botter bought some butter for her batter, she found the butter to be bitter, so Ms Botter simply bought some better butter, believing this would make the bitter butter better. Was this the right thing to do for the health of the Botter family? And if not, what should Betty have done?

Would it have been wiser for her to have discarded the rancid butter and promptly replace it with a fresher batch? Or perhaps Ms Botter should have been wary of the rich supply of saturated fats found in butter regardless of rancidity and used a modern monounsaturated-rich oil blend instead? Indeed, should Ms Botter have also been trimming the fat from her meats, the skin from her chicken, choosing low fat dairy produce, taking the butter spread off her bread, enjoying her strawberries without cream, restricting her eggs and making her curries with "lite" coconut milk? How far should she have gone with avoiding saturated fat and what is the evidence? In fact, why restrict saturated fat in the diet any more than other fat, beyond the reason that fat in general provides just over twice as many calories as either carbohydrates or proteins?

The current advice from the Heart Foundation is to limit saturated fat to less than 7% of your daily energy intake. This equates to a maximum of 14 grams a day for someone like me, who has a daily energy intake of around 7730 kilojoules (1846 calories). So, why restrict?

The reason given by the Heart Foundation is that saturated fats found in the diet raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad one), narrowing our arteries and raising our risk of stroke and heart disease. Fair enough, everyone knows saturated fat causes heart disease - or does it? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

We can trace the bad reputation that saturated fat has and the notion that an increased consumption is linked to cardiovascular disease to as far back as 1953 when American physiologist Ancel Keys PhD published a paper titled "Atherosclerosis, a Problem in Newer Public Health". Keys proposed the notion that saturated fat consumption increased cholesterol levels, which increased CVD risk. Keys' research has since been questioned and his idea challenged many times by researchers, but the notion that eating saturated fat will block your arteries has remained a persistent one.

And recently, this idea has been severely questioned again, with a meta-analysis review published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examining the link between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease and stroke risk. In a nutshell, they found no significant evidence for the link!

It seems we actually need some saturated fat in our diet, with this type of fat playing numerous vital roles, including acting as a valuable fuel and providing building blocks. We will even make our own saturated fat if we are not eating enough.

In reality, well before anyone hung their hat on the cardiovascular disease-preventing role of restricting saturated fat, we need to be mindful of the mixed bag of factors, including fruit and vegetable intake, exercise, smoking, alcohol, stress, toxin exposure, inflammation, oxidation, dietary micronutrient levels and glycemic load. And so, just as other research has seriously questioned the ideas that avoiding eating fat will prevent obesity, or that a low fat diet prevents cancer, so, too, has the notion of saturated fat causing heart disease been found to be wanting.

So, do saturated fats have any negative consequences for us? Well, based upon the evidence, it seems that moderate amounts will not cause problems and they do serve several vital roles. An excess, however, will still get you into trouble. Now, if you find yourself feeling a little duped and confused after all those years of cutting fat off your bacon, and you're feeling the urge to chow down on a bacon burger, go steady. Researchers last year found that mice fed a diet rich in saturated fat sustained increased inflammatory damage to their circulation and blood-brain-barrier and developed more amyloid plaque deposits associated with Alzheimer's Disease in their brains than mice fed monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. High intakes of saturated fats are well known to increase inflammatory states and free radical activity within the circulation and it tends to be free radical-oxidised LDL cholesterol as opposed to normal LDL cholesterol, which is involved in the formation of vascular plaques.

So moderation seems to be the order of the day, of course balanced with plenty of healthy exercise and the best diet you can achieve. Mine seems to lie somewhere between the Mediterranean and Palaeolithic approaches, with a bit of extra protein, fibre and my favourite superfoods thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Betty Botter would have been unlikely to suffer much of a problem from the bitter butter as this taste tends not to indicate oxidation, but instead may mark the presence of either some non-pathogenic, lactic acid-fermenting bacteria in the butter which taints the butter taste. Or perhaps the enzymatic hydrolysis of the butter which creates some shorter chain fatty acids such as butyric acid... which is bitter, but not harmful. Now, I just have to let Mr Jack Sprat and his lovely wife know about moderation.

Good Health,
Jeremy Hill.

Jeremy Hill(Diploma of Natural Therapy) is a qualified Naturopath

Jeremy Hill

Jeremy Hill AdvDipNutMed, AdvDipWHM, NDAdv is a Perth-based naturopath