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If I asked you what causes heart disease, the leading cause of death (according to the CDC), what would your answer be? I’d be willing to bet many would say something along the lines of, “artery clogging cholesterol.” Five years ago that would have been my answer too because that’s what has been pounded into my head pretty much my whole adult life. If I asked you what causes this “artery clogging cholesterol?” I would guess many would blame dietary fat–specifically saturated fat.
That message certainly made sense to me and here’s why. What do butter, tallow, and lard all have in common? These saturated fats are solids at room temperature. The heart surgeons, flooded with bypass patients, show videos of blocked arteries and it’s easy for me to believe that eating too much fat, especially this solid, sticky saturated substance, would cling to artery walls, eventually harden, inevitably creating a blockage and then a heart attack. In fact, you hear the doctor blaming the patient in the video linked above blaming the fat in the burger and the “butter fat” in the cheese and the ice cream/milkshake for clogging the poor guy’s artery. Pretty convincing, eh?
Our so called experts were so convinced that saturated fat caused obesity and heart disease that in 1977 the low-fat diet was recommended to all Americans. This was the precise time that Americans began suffering from the obesity epidemic. Hmmmm, coincidence? The war on saturated fat even forced McDonald’s to switch from using beef tallow to make their fries to vegetable oil in the 90s.
Now, 40+ years later, our population is fatter and sicker than ever! None of this made any sense which is why, after much research and self experimentation, I made the switch to my version of a Primal/Paleo diet. As a result I eat butter, bacon, and homemade french fries fried in 100% grass-fed beef tallow (just like the McDonald’s fries from my youth ). I’ll admit that going directly against conventional wisdom was a concern, especially after all those years of being told saturated fat is bad.
Well, I no longer have those fears and here’s why. My waist size is the same as it was in high school. According to my FitBit Aria Smart Scale, my body fat % is around 11% give or take. I am in the best shape of my life at 50 years of age and lifting the heavier weights than in my 20s! I’m no expert, so don’t go by me, this is a great article on cholesterol by Chris Kresser if you are interested.
But what about my heart? Eating all that fat–especially saturated fat–shouldn’t my cholesterol numbers must be through the roof? We’ve been warned to keep that total number below 200 or you get to take a pill daily, right? My research leads me to believe cholesterol is a good thing, given the right mix of HDL, the so called good kind, and LDL, the alleged bad kind. This blog is all about transparency, so here are the lipid results from my latest blood work taken on December 23, 2014 as part of my annual physical.
As you can see, my total cholesterol (TC) is 170, the “good” or HDL number is 59 (the recommended level is >39), and my triglycerides are 43 (well below the high number of 149). My VLDL, which stands for Very Low Density Lipoprotein (these are the tiny particles that are very bad because, usually due to inflammation, can stick to the artery walls and create blockage), is 9, nice and low in the range of 5 – 40. Here is another good article on how to interpret cholesterol numbers.
I would bet many physicians look primarily at the metrics above, but my research, like this article from Mercola.com, leads me to look at a couple of ratios to better understand my lab results. The first, is the HDL:TC ratio which is calculated by dividing HDL by TC and then multiplying by 100. Dr. Mercola states in the article: ”
Generally the HDL ratio should be above 25 and preferably in the 30s. If it is in the 40s, that nearly guarantees immunity from heart disease. Whereas if it is below 15, and certainly below 10, a heart attack is inevitable.
Let’s see if I will live based on my latest lab results! My ratio is 59/170 or .34, then multiply by 100 to get 34. Looks like I’m not “guaranteed immunity from heart disease,” but I think I’ll probably live.
Similarly, the Triglyceride:HDL ratio, according to Dr. Mercola, should be below 2.0 (and the lower the better). So, 43/170 comes out to .25–again, I’m pleased with those results.
Clearly a diet high in saturated fat, while avoiding trans fats and industrial seed oils, like vegetable oil, hasn’t resulted in terrible cholesterol numbers, so what does? My theory is excess bad carbohydrates–refined sugar, grains, and processed food–is what drives up VLDL and, when combined with systemic inflammation and oxidation (also caused by bad carbs) is a recipe for arterial damage and potential heart disease.
I’m not a lunatic about consuming fat–if you look at my food diary you probably see I eat lots of fat at times and not so much other times. Hopefully I’ve learned to listen to what my body needs and feed it what it’s hungry for.
I also use fat consumption as a tool–when I get cravings for “bad” food (and believe me, I battle this all the time), I try to fight them off by eating “good” fat. Many times I succumb to the cravings and eat garbage and this, more often than not, leads to more hunger and then more junk food–a bad loop to get caught in. However, when I use fat to combat cravings I feel satisfied and can better avoid the junk food loop.
Incidentally, the biggest objection I get from people when I describe my dietary habits is consuming saturated fat. Given our country’s low-fat nutritional history, I completely understand that fear. I’m not an expert or a medical professional, but my n=1 experiment shows that my high(er) saturated fat, low carb diet works for me and I have the lab results to prove it. But, everyone is different! Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on saturated fat and cholesterol and, as always…
Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!