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All About Fats

Cholesterol

The body cannot live without cholesterol. Almost every one of the billions of cells in the body produces cholesterol constantly throughout life.  This is because every cell of every organ has cholesterol as an integral part of its structure.  It helps firm up the walls of the cell and this helps to strengthen the structures these cells make up, such as blood vessels.

The flow of blood pounding through our arteries means they must incorporate a layer of cholesterol and saturated fat in the wall to make them tougher and more rigid.  These are called fatty streaks.  These fatty streaks are normal and they form in all of us, starting from birth.  Numerous indigenous populations around the world that have never suffered from heart disease, have been found to have plenty of fatty streaks in their vessels in children and in adults.

Cholesterol is necessary for the production of various hormones by our endocrine system (thyroid, adrenals, sex glands) and is also necessary for proper function of the brain and nerves (production of synapses which form our memories, protection and insulation).  Infants and the developing foetus require large amounts of cholesterol, particularly for the developing brain and eyes.

Cholesterol is needed to efficiently make bile, which is essential for digesting fat properly and for absorbing fat soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K.  Cholesterol is also the major building block of Vitamin D and this is a vitamin that a great proportion of New Zealanders are low on. Cholesterol is also essential for proper immunity. Most people don’t realise that most of the cholesterol in our body does not come from food.  About 85% of our blood cholesterol comes from our body and 15% from food.

So why do some people have more cholesterol in their blood than others and why can the same person have different levels at different times of the day or in different seasons of the year? Why does it go up in people after surgery or during infection? Why is it raised after dental work and why is it so high in times of stress? Why is it normal when we feel well and are relaxed?  The answer is that cholesterol is a healing agent. When the body has healing to do or has an increased demand for a particular hormone or other cholesterol-related product, it will make more cholesterol and send it to the area of interest.

In the case of the blood vessels, when our blood vessels are damaged by infectious organisms, free radicals, toxins or anything else; the lining of the vessel sends a message to the liver letting it know there is damage.  As a result the liver mobilizes low-density lipoprotein (this can be in a large (good LDL) or small (bad LDL) form) cholesterol to the area of damage.  Science has named this “bad” cholesterol.  When the wound has healed and the cholesterol is removed, it travels back to the liver in the form of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.  Science has named this “good” cholesterol.  The reason the body sends cholesterol to the site of damage is because any healing requires thousands of cells made up partly of cholesterol.

In summary, cholesterol is an essential substance if we wish to thrive, let alone function normally.  It has been vilified in the media based on the lipid(fat)-heart hypothesis, a theory spawned from dubious science by Ancel Keys in 1953.  Numerous studies have refuted Keys’ initial claims and even proven the heart protective benefits of cholesterol.  Frederick Stare, a long-time American Heart Association member and (former) proponent of the lipid-heart hypothesis said this; “The cholesterol factor is of minor importance as a risk factor in CVD. Of far more importance are smoking, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, insufficient physical activity, and stress.”

Some noteworthy research papers refuting the lipid-heart hypothesis are listed below with details:

The Framingham Heart Study – has proven there is no correlation between dietary cholesterol intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Japanese Lipid Intervention Trial with over 47,000 participants – “The highest death rate observed was among those with lowest cholesterol (under 160mg/dl); lowest death rate observed was with those whose cholesterol was between 200-259mg/dl”.  This research showed that people with levels that would today be considered “dangerous” were associated with the lowest risk of death of cardiovascular disease.

Honolulu Heart Program with 8,000 participants in 2001 – “Long-term persistence of low cholesterol concentration actually increases the risk of death. Thus, the earlier the patients start to have lower cholesterol concentrations, the greater the risk of death.”

If you wish to increase your cholesterol intake, the following food list will be of help.

Cholesterol Content in Food per 100g:

Caviar                                                    588mg

Cod Liver Oil                                       570mg

Fresh Egg yolk                                   424mg

Butter                                                   218mg

Cold water fish and shellfish

Eg salmon, sardines, mackerel   81-173mg

Lard                                                       94mg

Other animal fats                             <94mg

Saturated Fat:

Saturated fat is a heat stable fat due to it’s structure, meaning it is excellent for cooking at higher temperatures. Roughly half of our cell membranes are made of saturated fat.  Saturated animal fats consist of large amount of Vitamin K2 A and D.  Saturated fat is a great source of energy for our bodies (why else would we store excess carbohydrates as saturated fats).  This means that whether we are eating a fatty piece of meat and using this fat for fuel or burning our own fat stores from our body, the fat goes through the same process of producing energy.  Saturated fat increases HDL (“good cholesterol”) and it also increases the large fluffy good type of LDL which does not oxidise or clog the arteries.  The most predictive risk factor of heart disease according to the latest research is the HDL:Triglycerides ratio.  Saturated fat helps us increase our metabolism which helps us burn fat faster.  Some key health benefits from consuming this type of fat include; nourishment for the brain, stronger bones, more efficient nerve function, better lung health, stronger immunity due to improved white blood cell targeting effect.

There are many options for us to choose from to get our necessary saturated fat and these can be found at Commonsense Organics or at Moore Wilson’s.

Common sources of saturated fat:

Ghee (clarified butter – no milk proteins)             Lard (pork fat)                   Tallow (beef fat)

Cold pressed virgin Coconut oil                                 Butter                                   Duck fat

Goose fat                                                                              Lamb fat                              Chicken fat

Essential Fatty Acids

Many fatty acids our bodies can make, but there is a group called essential fatty acids that we cannot make.  They are called essential because we can’t live without them.  We must get these fats from our food and in cases where our bodies demand more than we can get from food alone, we enlist supplements to help make up the shortfall in supply.  There are two key types of fatty acids: Omega 3 (LNA) and Omega 6 (LA)

Omega 3 (LNA):

From LNA two key amino acids are formed; EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosaheaenoic Acid).  These are crucial for normal brain and eye development and are found in large quantities in brain cells, nerve junctions, visual receptors and adrenals and sex glands.

To convert from LNA to EPA and DHA we need a good supply of Vit C, B3, B6, Magnesium, Zinc and some key enzymes.  These are nutrients many people are low on due to stress, high workload, poor nutrient intake, frequent exposure to environmental toxins, digestive and gut flora imbalances, poor gut health/integrity, adrenal fatigue, pharmaceutical drug intake and poor absorption, among other causes.  A deficiency in these nutrients and enzymes results in poor conversion of LNA to EPA and DHA and this is when supplementation becomes necessary.  This is also why simply supplementing with LNA (flaxseed oil) or relying solely on LNA intake from our diet is not sufficient.  However, increasing our LNA intake in our diet is still an important thing to do in order to maintain good essential fatty acid levels.

EPA and DHA Sources in food:

  • Cold water fish (preferably wild caught rather than farmed where possible)
    • Salmon
    • Sardines
    • Trout
    • Eel
    • Mackerel
    • Seawater and freshwater algae
    • Phytoplankton

LNA Sources in food:

  • Richest sources
    • Flaxseed(linseed) oil
    • Hemp oil
    • Oil from chia seeds
    • LNA found in smaller amounts in:
      • Egg yolk
      • Leafy vegetables
      • Animal fats (particularly from wild animals)
      • Animal milk and cheese
      • Human breast milk for infants
      • Walnuts
      • Pumpkin seeds
      • Rapeseed
      • Rice bran (not rice bran oil)

It is important to not overcook your fish or any other Omega 3 rich food as this will damage the heat sensitive oils.  The best way to avoid this is to eat the foods raw or when this is not possible, cook at a low temperature.

Omega 6 (LA):

LA (linoleic acid) is a parent fatty acid for GLA (gamma-LA), AA (arachidonic acid) and DGLA (dihomogamma-LA).  These fatty acids are essential for the proper function of the brain, immune system, hormone metabolism, inflammation, blood clotting and many other functions in the body. These oils are found in many seeds and nuts.

Omega 6 sources in food:

  • Walnuts
  • Hazelnuts
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds (provided you are not eating an anti-fungal diet)

Just as with Omega 3 fats, the body needs a good supply of Zinc, Magnesium, Vit C, B3 and B6 in order to convert the parent fatty (LA) acid into DGLA, GLA and AA.  As with Omega 3 fats, this conversion can be hampered by a deficiency in these key nutrients or by the other factors mentioned above for Omega 3 fatty acids.  When this conversion is not efficient and/or there is an increased demand and insufficient dietary intake, it means we must supplement with the derivatives of these oils.

Sources of GLA and DGLA:

  • Evening primrose oil
  • Cold pressed Borage oil
  • Cold pressed Blackcurrant seed oil
  • Cold pressed Hemp oil

Arachidonic acid (AA) is an omega 6 fat which is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain  It makes up about 12% of all brain fat.  It is necessary for neuron development in the brain, especially in infants.  It also acts as a precursor to making a group of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids which play a role in controlling various hormones, while also assisting immunity, blood clotting and other vital functions.

Food Sources of AA:

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

Avoid Processed Fats:

Vegetable oils, cooking oils, margarines, butter replacements, spreadable butter, hydrogenated oils and shortenings are processed and are alien to human physiology and therefore should be avoided.  The basis of most processed fats is vegetable oils, extracted from seeds and plant matter – such as corn, soy, sunflower seeds, rapeseed etc. – as these are cheap to produce. The problem with these oils is that they have unstable unsaturated fatty acids which are easily damaged during the extraction process by heat, oxygen, pressure and light.   This damage changes the state of these fatty acids, making them unnatural and harmful to our physiology.  One example of this is the transformation of these fatty acids to trans fats, which can occupy the place of essential fats in the body.  Some of these effects include; detrimental changes in immune function, interference in normal hormone production, liver and kidney damage, disruption of normal enzyme function in the body, such as the ability of insulin to respond to glucose in the blood in a normal fashion.  Trans fats have also been implicated in diabetes, neurological conditions, atherosclerosis, psychiatric conditions and cancer.

These are found in foods such as breads, pastries, pre-prepared meals, crisps, snacks, chocolates, ice cream, biscuits, cakes, takeaway meals, condiments etc.

Common Processed Oils to Avoid:

“Vegetable Oil”                 Rice bran oil                        Soy Oil                  “Hydrogenated Oil”

Corn oil                                 Sunflower Oil                     Canola Oil

Monounsaturated Oils

These oils are more heat stable than polyunsaturated fats and are considered safe for cooking at very low temperatures.  However it is preferable to only use these oils raw as it is very easy to damage these oils when cooking with them.

Common monounsaturated oils to use Raw: (ensure your oil is cold-pressed)

Olive oil                Avocado oil        Macadamia oil

Nut and Seed Oils

Nut and seed oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are very fragile and are sensitive to light, heat, oxygen and pressure.  When we chew whole nuts and seeds we absorb small amounts of these oils in their unadulterated form, but when these oils are extracted on a commercial scale, the use of solvents and very high temperatures damages these oils.  This damage changes their structure, making them no longer healthy for us.  A good quality cold pressed nut or seed oil is a better choice if using a nut or seed oil, but even with cold pressed oils, there is the risk that the oils will be damaging simply from sitting in the bottle on the shelf.  Remember that heat damages these oils so it is best to save them for limited raw use rather than using them for cooking.

Some Common Nut and Seed Oils To Avoid Include:

Peanut oil            Grapeseed Oil                   Safflower Oil                      Sunflower Oil

References:

Campell-McBride, N (2007) Put Your Heart in Your Mouth

Chris Kresser: “Cholesterol Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease”

Mark’s Daily Apple: “The Definitive Guide To Saturated Fat”