Recent research into the positive role of saturated fat in our diet has been nothing if not surprising given the decades of bad press this vital nutrient has received. Over the years, saturated fat has been blamed for almost everything that ails us from heart disease to cancer to diabetes. Today that is changing. Modern studies** have revealed that saturated fat such as those found in organic, free-range, grass-fed butter and eggs are loaded with valuable nutrients essential for heart health, brain function, immunity, reproduction and basic cellular function.
To help understand why this is so, the aim of this article is to share the vital function that saturated fats and cholesterol play in our physiology.
Fats are simple organic compounds made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Fat molecules are referred to as fatty acids. When fats are saturated that means that they are highly stable and do not go rancid easily. In a nutshell, this is because saturated fats have no room in their molecular bonds to be disrupted by oxygen radicals (which we make copious amounts of on a daily basis as a basic part of energy production by our cells). On the other hand, UNsaturated fats found in seed oils and corn oils go rancid with concerning regularity. Remember that free radicals cause oxidative stress which damages not only fats themselves but also proteins and DNA. We have a powerful antioxidant capacity in our body to offset these free radicals but if our diet contains excessive amounts of these molecules, our bodies quickly become overwhelmed. This situation has the potential to trigger a number of human diseases.
The stability of saturated fats means that they give support to structures. As an example, coconut plants i.e. palm trees in the tropics have saturated coconut oil to give the plant structure, even in the heat. Since we are warm (37 degrees celsius is a toasty ambient temperature) saturated fats are extensively utilized in mammals because it supports cell membrane, tissue and organ structure.
So what do saturated fats do in the body if they are not clogging up arteries? Well, it turns out to be quite a list. Some of the vital functions of saturated fats in the body include:
- Provide the preferred fuel for the heart. Fatty acids provide four times more energy than glucose (sugars) in support of the heart’s continuous pumping action.
- Provide the building blocks to create stable cell membranes.
- Convert carotene (from carrots) to Vitamin A (a good reason to put butter on your vegetables).
- Enhance mineral absorption of calcium into the bones.
- Provides satiety.
- Establish healthy lungs. Saturated fats make up the surfactant that lines the lungs make breathing easier.
- Support optimal brain function. The myelin sheath that coats nerve fibres and expedites nerve conduction is made of cholesterol. In addition, although the preferred fuel for the brain is glucose, the brain structure, in the form of glial (or glue) cells, is dependent upon fatty acids.
- Enhance immune system function. White blood cells are dependent upon saturated fatty acids to recognize and destroy foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria and fungi.
- Act as carriers for essential fat-soluble vitamins including Vitamin A, D, E and K.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like organic compound that your body cannot function without. Cholesterol is in every cell in the body making stable cell membranes in the brain, skin, muscles, organs and nerve tissues. One of it’s key function is to keep the cells waterproof (important in a body that is on average 60% water). You might be surprised to know that cholesterol provides a powerful anti-oxidant protection to the cell membrane. It is produced naturally mostly in your liver. Cholesterol is needed to build sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone as well as cortisol which is the hormone for managing stress and inflammation. When we are stressed, cholesterol levels naturally rise in order to make more stress hormone. Cholesterol is needed to make Vitamin D via your skin from sunshine. It creates bile acids for digesting fats. The highest concentration of cholesterol in the body is in brain and nervous system. Receptors for serotonin require cholesterol to work properly (low cholesterol is associated with depression).
Saturated fats like those found in butter, cheese, whole milk, cream, eggs, poultry fats, fatty fish and meat fats are rich sources of the body’s fundamental building blocks as well as vital nutrients that contribute to optimal health and well-being. Shop the perimeter of your grocery store to find your most nutrient dense foods. This is where the majority of fatty foods are found. It is recommended that you do your very best to purchase organic, free-range, grass-fed, ocean-wise foods for an even more healthy product. One of the best parts of fatty foods is that they taste divine. Enjoy!
** The meta-analysis above pooled together data from 21 unique studies that included almost 350,000 people, about 11,000 of whom developed cardiovascular disease (CVD), tracked for an average of 14 years, and concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.
Kanner J. (2007, Sept.). Dietary advanced lipid oxidation endproducts are risk factors to human health. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. 51(9), 1094-101.
Nourishing Fats: Why We Need Animal Fats for Health and Happiness. Sally Fallon. Grand Central Life and Style, January 2017.