I’ve noticed a lot of information popping up about saturated fat, including its role in modulating Testosterone levels in men. Of course, the minute you say that saturated fats may increase testosterone most people say ‘and give you a heart attack’.
Saturated fat can quickly divide people into being either pro (sat fat is super awesome) or con (sat fat will kill you).
One thing I feel is really important to point out is that there is no such thing as ‘saturated fat’. There are saturated fats – more than two dozen different types of saturated fats exist, and while not ALL of them are present in high qualities in the typical average persons diet, the fact remains – they are all different.
And while I don’t want to dive into the fat and testosterone research yet (I’m still working on it) I do want to make sure that people understand that there is no such thing as ‘saturated fat’
I’ve asked Kurtis Frank and Dr. Spencer Nadolsky from Examine.com to help me explain….
The Skinny on Saturated Fats
All of the fatty acids in the “saturated fat” category are individual molecules with their own mechanisms and properties. Their common thread is that they are all fatty acids, and that they are all, well, saturated. Their effects on human health are subject to the differences between molecules.
Palmitic and stearic acid, for example, are saturated fats that are found in meat, and that have very different properties from betulinic acid (found in plants) and butyric acid (found in butter), yet all are saturated fatty acids, in the same way that oleic acid and erucic acid are two omega-9 fatty acids that are good for your heart (cardioprotective) and bad for your heart (cardiotoxic), respectively.
The truth is “Saturated Fat” is an entire category of fats all with different properties. For this reason, every saturated fat should be examined individually, rather than attempting to group them and isolate an overall effect. Remember, there are over 30 different types of Sat Fats (Chart from Wikipedia)
The category “saturated fat” is meant to be used for grouping, while the molecules themselves may not be similar enough to warrant drawing group-wide conclusions. Some of these saturated fats are being studied for having anti-cancer properties, others for production of detergents, photographic materials and mechanical lubricants. Some act as second messengers within our bodies to help signal for hunger, while others have no affect on these pathways. The bottom line is that any conclusions directed at the category as a whole should be taken with a grain of salt, as they may or may not accurately reflect on any individual component in the category.
When reading studies on saturated fat, it may be easier to replace the words ‘saturated fat’ with ‘the particular group of saturated fats likely to be consumed by the people in the study.’ It may be wordy, but by doing so you won’t confuse research on hamburgers with research on coconut oil.
Finally, remember, dietary sources of fat are almost always a blend of different types of fat. Even Butter is over 30% monounsaturated. So a diet that is high in butter also contains a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids, and the ratio of saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fats in the diet may be just as important as the effects of each individual type of fat.
In this sense, Coconut oil is more of a ‘saturated fat’ than is butter.
Surveys, Controls, and Biomarkers
You’ve probably heard that saturated fast is bad for you…
The first round of research on saturated fatty acids, as a group, found that they were positively associated with biomarkers of cardiovascular disease.
The key word in that last statement is ‘biomarker’. A biomarker is something that can be measured and is thought to reflect on another variable.
It’s an association.
If a person drives a Ferrari it is a good marker you could use to suggest that that person is wealthy, but it does not prove that that a person is wealthy, nor does it mean that driving a Ferrari is what MADE that person wealthy.
It’s an association – do things that often happen at the same time.
It was later confirmed that saturated fatty acids were associated with cardiovascular disease itself, which fueled the fad to reduce dietary fat.
These studies lacked controls, and when the data was replicated over the course of the following decades, it was found that the saturated fats did not cause heart disease. Rather, it was the lifestyle that accompanied a high saturated fat intake that resulted in heart disease.
Saturated fats are associated with poor diets, and thus cardiovascular disease. When possible confounds like differences in exercise, nutrient and caloric intake, protein, and lifestyle habits like smoking are accounted for, the association no longer exists.
In other words, the people who had high saturated fat intakes were also more likely to smoke, eat too much food, and be sedentary than the people who ate less saturated fats.
Saturated fats are a biomarker of a poor diet in the same way that total dietary cholesterol is a biomarker for cardiovascular disease. Both suggest that the individual is at a higher risk for health problems, despite the fact that neither cholesterol nor saturated fats are actually causing or exacerbating the problem. It is logical to say, “You are at a high risk for cardiovascular disease because of your saturated fatty acid intake,” while never actually saying, “Saturated fats are bad for you.” Biomarkers are not necessarily the problem.
If the average person is told to reduce their saturated fat intake, they may end up eating healthier overall. They’re not going to replace a hamburger brimming with saturated fats with a hamburger dripping with polyunsaturated fatty acids, they’re just going to order a salad. This is what makes cause and effect research in nutrition so difficult. We can study lifestyles, but isolating individual components of that lifestyle is very difficult.
Regardless of the abundance of new research suggesting that saturated fats do not cause cardio vascular disease, saturated fats are still being demonized in society today. This is partly due to social psychology, as a specific problem with saturated fat is rarely pointed to.
Are saturated fats optimal or not?
Dietary research is less ideal than pharmaceutical or nutraceutical research. As I stated above, it’s really difficult to remove the lifestyle factors. Plus, it’s also hard to get accurate reporting. When researching a drug it requires two groups: one that takes the drug, and one that takes the placebo. A diet-based study is more difficult. The food products must be accepted by both groups, and both groups must match calories, which means the control group is still modifying their diet in some way.
This is why it’s more correct to compare one fatty acid to another, rather than claiming one is “good” or “bad.”
That being said, we either know or can assume the following, in regards to cardiovascular health:
Oleic acid (monounsaturated fatty acid, commonly used as the standard) is better than long chain saturated fats from lard.
Oleic acid is comparable or slightly less healthy than medium chain saturated fats from coconut oil and dairy.
Dietary fiber, known to produce short chain fatty acids in the colon, seems most cardioprotective (although not all cardioprotection can be linked directly to the short chain fatty acids).
A high intake of saturated fats are definitely associated with poor dietary habits in the general population. However, there isn’t enough evidence on any specific common saturated fatty acid, or the group as a whole, to suggest that they are bad for health.
Still, encouraging the general population to avoid saturated fats will promote better eating habits. As will the simple concept of eating less food overall (since this would also cause people to eat less saturated fat overall)
As for saturated fatty acids themselves, the medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil may be better than most for promoting heart health, however keep in mind that the the medium chain fatty acids make up a very small component of coconut oil. The bottom line is in general, shorter chain fatty acids tend to be healthier than longer chains.
A bit about the peoples at examine.com…
To say Kurtis and Dr. Nadolsky know their stuff when it comes to nutrition is an understatement.For the past 2.5 years, these guys have been researching supplementation and nutrition over on Examine.com, and if this is the first time you’ve heard of them, you’ve been missing out. They’re independent, they don’t sell any supplements, and they’re about as unbiased as they come.
They recently expanded their editorial team (now includes an MBA/MPH/PhD(c), PhD, and a PharmD), and to celebrate, they’re having a $10 sale off on their Supplement-Goals Reference Guide (until midnight tonight). I’m not one to recommend products, but these guys know their science, know their evidence, and they can be trusted. If you take any kind of supplements, you have to get this guide. It will save you money and is absolutely eye-opening. Best yet – it comes with free lifetime updates.
I’m also on their scientific advisory board, which apparently gives Sol the ability to facebook/email/text/smoke signal me anytime he needs, every time he needs, repeatedly… over and over, until I answer one his questions – so needless to say, these guys are annoyingly thorough 😉