Let me first start this post off with my disclaimer. If you are inactive and already eating a diet high in excess carbohydrates, your are likely in constant fat storage mode due to excess levels of the hormone insulin. In this case, eating liberal amounts of saturated fat is not healthy. Please don’t use this post as an excuse to add a potentially fattening food to an already fattening diet. If you’re eating lots of sugar, sweets, and even rice, beans, bread and excessive grains in the context of a fairly sedentary lifestyle, adding ghee, butter or full fat dairy will only make matters worse. When it comes to their health, many people have a tendency to do selective research and pick out what they desire… “chocolate, red wine and saturated fat are good for me, but I’ll push aside the part about cutting back on carbs, eating at least 6-8 servings of multi-colored vegetables and fruit, and increasing activity levels.” Now let’s move on.
A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that current evidence does not clearly support a link between high saturated fat intake and increased heart disease risk. If you sit two groups of researchers at the table, one pro-saturated fat and one anti-saturated fat, they can spend hours in a tennis match citing studies back and forth. Multiple confounding factors and the impact of variables like the healthy user bias make it very difficult to interpret these studies. In this post I’m not going to delve into these studies. Just appreciate that there are plenty of thoughtful, very capable scientists and physicians who question the link between saturated fat and heart disease. Even many mainstream doctors including Dr.Oz have changed their longstanding stance on saturated fat as you can see here. My focus in this post is not on citing studies, but on the psychology of saturated fat and why despite the rising amount of evidence showing saturated fat to be more of an innocent dietary bystander, individuals including physicians and scientists, struggle to pardon saturated fat as the primary dietary offender in heart disease risk. Below are three key reasons for this:
REASON #1-The Word “Saturated”
There is an almost visceral sensation people get when they even hear the word “saturated.” If you’ve clung to the outdated concept of heart disease being due to “clogged arteries,” much like clogged plumbing, then you will be susceptible to this association. Why do we even call fat “saturated” in the first place? Is it because it truly saturates your arteries like clogged plumbing? Not at all. It has to do with the relationship between the carbon atoms (“Cs”) and hydrogen atoms (“Hs”) shown in the image below which illustrates the chemical structure of saturated and unsaturated fat.
Notice how the region I circled for the unsaturated fat only has two attached hydrogens(Hs),while the saturated fat has four Hs (2 on top and 2 on the bottom). So the chemical structure is “saturated” with more hydrogen. This has nothing to do with fat saturating the inside of your arteries! If only the chemist who coined the term “saturated” knew how badly this word would be misconstrued.
REASON #2-Saturated Fat is Solid at Room Temperature
What about the notion that saturated fats like the ghee (clarified butter) pictured below are solid at room temperature, therefore they can clog your arteries. Another completely irrational idea that goes back to our plumbing concept. Do foods that stay solid at room temperature stay solid after you swallow them and then deposit directly into your arteries as solids? If that’s the case, then perhaps we should avoid all solid foods including broccoli since I don’t want it blocking up my arteries. I’m sure drinking liquids like soda would be far better. By the way, coca cola is known to unclog drains, so it must be the same case with my arteries, right? You can see how irrational this notion is, completely overlooking the complex process of nutrient digestion, absorption and metabolism.
REASON #3-Heart Attack Causing Plaques Look Like Saturated Fat
This is one of the most powerful barriers to getting over saturated fat, especially for physicians like cardiologists and heart surgeons who come face-to-face with greasy plaques like the one below in this top down view of an artery partially obstructed by a plaque. The plaque looks far more like butter or the ghee pictured above and nothing like the sugar, sodas, abundant portions of rice, breads and other excessive carbohydrate sources that are the real dietary culprits behind plaque formation and artery blockage leading to heart attacks and strokes.
The saturated fat-heart attack plaque-clogged plumbing association was difficult for me to overcome as well. However, after truly understanding the more complex process of inflammation and plaque formation and seeing my share of Indian heart attack patients, especially vegetarians who ate very little saturated fat but tremendous amounts of carbohydrates in the form of flatbreads, lentils, and large servings of rice prior to their heart attack, I now get it. I discuss this process and the connection between carbohydrates and heart disease in detail in my book. We really need to focus on eating highly nutrient dense foods rather than the completely impractical and ineffective recommendation to “keep saturated fat to less than 7% of your daily calories.” If I’m eating a plate of nutrient dense vegetables and healthy protein sources, cooking or topping that food with ghee or butter is not an issue. It adds flavor and richness to your food and keeps you full. Saturated fat should be renamed “Satiating fat” since it can complement healthy meals and keep your brain satisfied and your stomach full, which prevents you from overeating all of the other garbage you crave throughout the day.
So remember, the spoonful of ghee on top of that large pile of rice or the stack of flatbreads is not the culprit. It’s the rice and bread. The small stick of butter or spoon of sour cream in your baked potato is not the culprit. It’s the potato. The creamy guacamole you’re dipping your chips into is not the culprit. It’s the chips. The cream in your coffee is not the culprit. It’s the biscuits, whole wheat toast slices,bagels or pastry next to your cup of coffee. As I mentioned, these sources of fat may become an issue if consumed with excessive carbohydrates, but the key driver to excess fat-storing insulin are the abundant carbohydrates in your diet. Do not fall prey to oversimplifying this complex process and making loose associations between dietary fat and heart disease. This will only prevent you from making the critical lifestyle changes necessary to lower your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and achieving optimal health.