For centuries, our ancestors lived off of animal proteins and foraged foods like berries and different vegetables. Over the years, many health officials have recommended we lay off foods high in saturated fat, which includes red meat, eggs, and even coconut oil. What all of a sudden makes these foods that, for thousands of years, have sustained us now deleterious to our health? Truthfully, it comes down to an outdated misunderstanding of the way fat is processed and stored within the human body, and how this affects cholesterol levels. So let’s start there, and then maybe we’ll have less of a fear of saturated fat, and more of a fear of the real food demons- the processed and packaged stuff from big food companies.
So what exactly is cholesterol, and why are we all so worried when it’s high?
Cholesterol is created by our cells, and is also found in our diets, and is responsible for the structure and function of our cell membranes. Cholesterol also happens to be a precursor for synthesizing vital substances like vitamin D, bile acids (what breaks down your food), and steroid hormones (which help your muscles recover and grow). There are two groups we look at when we test our cholesterol levels, HDL and LDL. HDL (aka the “good” cholesterol) is responsible for taking cholesterol from other parts of the body back to your liver, while LDL (aka the “bad” cholesterol) is sometimes left behind in your arteries. A common thought is that high levels of cholesterol in the body indicate a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases, however the issue with this thought is that our bodies produce and utilize cholesterol very differently depending on our diet and lifestyles. For example, a person that eats a diet high in healthy cholesterol-rich foods (like red meat, eggs, and coconut oil) and regularly exercises, might have a higher level of cholesterol in their bloodstream. This high level of cholesterol doesn’t necessarily indicate a buildup of plaque in the arteries that would lead to atherosclerosis, or other CVD-related issues. However, that being said, a person that eats a diet high in processed cholesterol-rich foods (like fast food, packaged goods, or vegetable oils) and does not regularly exercise, might also have a higher level of cholesterol in their bloodstream, which would indicate a potential problem.
The issue isn’t the cholesterol itself, but the origin of it, and whether or not it can be utilized by the body. In order to ensure the body is prepared and able to utilize dietary cholesterol, we have to ensure that our diet is filled with a variety of healthy fats, including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. The ideal range for most people is 30% saturated fat, 60% monounsaturated fat, and 10% or less polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFA) is an easy one to get, as it is in many processed foods, so it’s best to avoid adding more of them to your diet, however saturated and monounsaturated fats should be consumed in higher quantities to promote healthy hormone function including digestion, immune function, sexual function, and more!
Now that we know what we know more about fat, let’s look a little closer at saturated fat. Should we really fear it as much as “they” say we should?
It is worth noting that sourcing plays a major role in the way our bodies utilize (or whether or not they utilize) the nutrients we take in. If your diet is high in saturated fat from processed or packaged foods, you probably would benefit from limiting it. However, a diet high in saturated fat from high quality, whole & unprocessed food sources wouldn’t have these same inflammatory effects on the body. Sourcing matters because of the makeup of the fats within the products you are consuming. Processed and packaged foods are likely to have more pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids without a balance of omega-3, which ultimately overloads our system with more pro-inflammatories and not enough anti-inflammatories. Whole and unprocessed fat sources (including animal proteins), will have more of a balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory fatty acids, helping support proper digestion and utilization of the nutrients at hand.
So should we really fear saturated fat?
The answer isn’t as clear as yes or no, because sourcing plays a huge role. However, a really good rule of thumb is to focus on eating more high quality sources of whole & unprocessed foods (like regeneratively raised meat, and healthy fats) instead of reaching for the convenience foods, fast food, or ultra-processed “foods”.
Like I mentioned earlier, where our fat sources come from matters. If we are looking at animal proteins as our example, traditional CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), where meat like beef and pork are produced, include a grain-fed diet and no access to pasture or even dirt in some cases. This can be incredibly detrimental to the animal’s life, including raising levels of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and lowering anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. This ultimately wreaks havoc on our own bodies, as those fats (where toxins are stored) are utilized.
Conversely, you can look at the natural diet of pasture-raised beef and pork, and see that the fatty acid profile is wildly different- in a good way. Look at REP Pasture-raised Beef, for example. REP Beef was tested for it’s fatty acid makeup, and the results showed that the ratio of omega-6 (inflammatory fatty acid) to omega-3 (anti-inflammatory fatty acid) is 1:1. To put it into perspective, CAFO-raised beef typically has an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 9:1! That difference just goes to show that how our meat is raised matters more than just how much meat we produce.
Back to Saturated Fat
So, if we take into account how these animals are being raised, and we look at the high quality life of REP Pasture-raised cattle (and pigs), the choice on how and where to buy meat is clear. Saturated fat can actually be incredibly beneficial for the human body, providing fatty acids that are integral for promoting healthy hormone function, including healthy cholesterol and brain function! There’s a reason we want to shoot for around 30% of our fat to come from saturated fat sources. Always remember to look critically at the source of the nutrients you’re putting in your body- if the animal is raised on pasture, with its most natural diet, then the sources of fat can be incredibly beneficial and actually vital for healthy hormone function within our own bodies.
AUTHOR: Arielle Bloom is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Regenerative Rancher in Central Texas. After spending years struggling with autoimmune and gut health issues, she turned to her food to finally make real and lasting change. Now, Arielle educates others on why their food quality matters- not just to look good, but to feel good, and do good for our planet. You can follow Arielle on instagram @arielle_bloom, and learn more about her via her website www.ariellebloom.com