Clearing the Confusion Around Dietary Fat

There may be no more controversial topic in diet and nutrition today than whether or not consuming fats and oils are beneficial for health. Much has been written, and many quality studies free of conflicts of interest have been conducted, for over 60 years. Olive oil, vegetable oils, butter and animal fats are the most common sources of fats in the diet. In this discussion we’ll focus on the effect that dietary fat has on the cardiovascular system.

The Cardiovascular System

Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death of men and women in the US and around the world. Ischemic heart disease and stroke are the world’s biggest early killers, accounting for a combined 15 million+ potentially preventable deaths per year.

The cardiovascular/circulatory system lines the entire body and the importance of how well it functions cannot be overstated. A layer of endothelial cells line every blood vessel, maintaining their permeability, regulating blood flow and actively regulating the body’s inflammatory processes.

Impaired endothelial function in our blood vessels is considered an early marker in the development of atherosclerosis and is observed in people with high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol and type II diabetes. Studies revealing the effect of dietary fats on endothelial cells and blood flow show that vegetable oils and saturated fats, animal fats in particular, worsen endothelial function. Within just a few hours of consuming fat arteries stiffen and their ability to dilate is impaired. Similar impairment is observed in smokers, people eating a lot of sugar or salt or experiencing mental stress or a chronic disease.

A high fat meal (from any source) directly impairs blood flow due to increased systemic inflammation and blood clotting, which may also significantly affect the airways and lungs. This also impairs the antioxidant capacity of HDL cholesterol for about six hours.

Olive Oil

This reportedly heart-healthy oil is at the center of the famous “Mediterranean diet”*. As a mono-unsaturated fat it is supposed to be beneficial, but is it really?

Surprisingly, olive oil showed the same impact on blood flow as other sources of dietary fat, including saturated animal fat. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) contains oleocanthal, an inflammation-blocking compound. Used in moderation it may be helpful for overall inflammation control, but make sure the EVOO you buy is the real thing. Many bottles in stores are likely NOT genuine. Here is a link to information regarding which brands to buy:

Including foods high in plant-based antioxidants with every meal is the most essential part of the Mediterranean diet. Focusing on eating colorful veggies and fruits is essential to prevent cellular damage and is far more important than consuming olive oil. The Mediterranean diet is sparing in its inclusion of animal foods, and therefore low in saturated fat.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil advocates are enthusiastic in their belief that this form of mostly saturated fat (92%) is healthy to consume, but scientists and health practitioners who follow the research view it quite differently.

It’s easy to find claims that coconut oil can cure thyroid disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, viral infections, gastrointestinal diseases and heart disease. Despite multiple studies there is no evidence that coconut oil offers any health benefits at all. It is proven to increase LDL and total cholesterol more than any other source of fat except butter, likely due to its high saturated fat, palmitic acid, lauric acid and myristic acid content. Many say that the lauric acid has antibiotic benefits. The truth is that isolated lauric acid has the effect, but coconut oil is as ineffective at killing bacteria as water.

People living in tropical regions of the world consume coconuts as a significant source of calories. Typically, they eat the coconut flesh without extracting the oil. Coconut flesh is very high in fiber, as is the rest of the diet for most people living in these regions. High fiber diets and active lifestyles are known to be important factors in longevity and avoidance of preventable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, the people of the Philippines are heavy consumers of coconut oil, which may be a contributor to their high heart disease and diabetes rates – significantly higher than the US. The expected average age of death for a man in the Philippines is only 65 years. There is evidence that diets high in coconut oil and coconut milk also lead to increased insulin levels, which may be directly related to the nearly double rates of type II diabetes in the Philippines as compared to the US.

MCT— the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil are said to have a fat-burning effect since they are water-soluble and act more like carbs than fats in the body. There is no evidence of this benefit from consuming coconut oil. It is also likely that the MCT was removed from the coconut oil sold for consumption so that it can be sold separately as an MCT Oil product or for cosmetic uses. Any research showing possible benefits from using MCT oil should not be applied to coconut oil. Studies show that MCT oil raises LDL cholesterol (as compared to a control of safflower oil).

Lately, people have been making claims that coconut oil/MCT oil may improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease. Since the markers for Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol, are similar anything that increases risk for one does so for the other. Studies designed to show benefits to cognition from MCT oil showed short term effects that did not last and by 90 days demonstrated zero clinical improvement.

Animal Fats

All animal fats, with the exception of wild fish, are saturated. Should you decide to experiment with the currently popular Paleo or Ketogenic diets please keep an eye on your cholesterol level, blood sugar level and blood pressure. A recommended counterbalance is consuming walnuts (or walnut oil) which have a measurable protective effect on endothelial cells, especially when added to a high fat meal.

Dr. Ancel Keys  

Beginning in the 1950’s, this scientist’s goal was to discover why heart disease rates were soaring after WW2 ended. During the war many foods, especially meat and butter, were rationed and heart disease rates dropped. Many Americans grew “Victory Gardens” in their yards, and consumed a lot of vegetables, beans and whole grains.

He was convinced that saturated fat was the cause for heart disease and succeeded in proving it. Unfortunately, one of the results of his groundbreaking research was the proliferation and wide use of highly processed and unnatural vegetable oils from corn, soy, cottonseed, sunflower, peanut, etc. These oils are contaminated with chemicals and many are rancid due to processing. These oils are not heart protective and further contributed to the heart disease problem, along with the advent of high fructose corn syrup.

Dr. Keys championed the Mediterranean diet and spent the last 30 years of his life in Italy, living to just short of his 101st birthday.

Healthy Fats to Include in Your Daily Diet:

Ideal sources of plant-based (unsaturated) anti-inflammatory healthy fats: flaxseeds/oil, hemp seeds/oil, Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds/oil and walnuts/oil. Include a portion of one of these foods in your daily diet. Regularly include avocados too, as a food high in beneficial monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. Like olive oil, avocados contain oleic acid, which is associated with reduced inflammation. They are a delicious source of potassium, fiber and antioxidants.

A Note on Oil Pulling

Many people interested in alternative health practices have heard of  and tried oil pulling, an Ayurvedic technique, that consists of swishing sesame oil, coconut oil or another vegetable oil around in the mouth for minutes at a time. It is said to be good for dental health. Whether or not that is true is not part of this discussion, but the potential adverse effect is important to know. There have been reports of people who oil pull regularly repeatedly swallowing /aspirating small amounts of oil into their lungs. The oil can coat the lung tissue and in some cases has led to pneumonia. There are many much safer methods for whitening teeth and improving gum health that won’t lead to lung damage and hospitalization.

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*The traditional Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) is an overall food pattern characterized by high consumption of plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and unprocessed cereals); low consumption of meat and meat products (with special avoidance of red and processed meats); moderate to high consumption of fish, and low consumption of dairy products (with the exception of yogurt and the long-preservable cheeses). Alcohol consumption is included in moderation, in the form of wine and, as a rule, during meals. Total intake of lipids can be high (around or over 40% of total energy intake), but the ratio of the beneficial monounsaturated to the non-beneficial saturated lipids is high, because of the high monounsaturated content of liberally consumed olive oil, which represents a hallmark of the MedDiet, and its main culinary fat.