For the past 30 years, we have been told that fats are bad for the body. But groundbreaking new research has shown that high cholesterol has incorrectly been labeled “public enemy number one” for the heart.
For example, in one study people with higher levels of cholesterol had better heart health and brain function as they aged compared to those with the lowest levels of cholesterol – and they lived a whopping 48% longer! (1,2)
Because cholesterol is so instrumental in the production of cell membranes, hormones, and the precious bile, as well as maintaining healthy brain and nervous system function, the body cannot rely completely on dietary sources of cholesterol. To ensure adequate supply, the liver is employed to make its own cholesterol – ideally about 75% of the body’s total cholesterol, with the other 25% coming from the diet. (3) However, when we starve the body of dietary cholesterol (good fats), it suffers and the liver is forced to make up to 10 times the amount of cholesterol coming in from the diet.
Good fats are not only critical for the production of life-giving cholesterols, they are also critically needed by the liver to make bile. In fact, the bile is made up of primarily cholesterol, the word chole actually meaning bile and sterol being a type of fat.
The bottom line is that we need good fats for many reasons, and our requirements for good fats may surprise you.
Join me in Part II in this series on What’s Missing in Our “Healthy” Diets, where I’ll talk about the magic of – and how to get enough – beneficial fats in our diet.
Looking for Part I of this series? Read it here.
In an attempt to fight a war against cholesterol, we have been eating a dangerously low fat diet for thirty years. New research has declared cholesterol not only innocent, but surprisingly healthy:
1. Higher cholesterol levels increased cognitive function compared to lower cholesterol levels. (1)
2. High cholesterol levels showed no increased risk of heart and cardio-vascular concerns. (2)
3. High cholesterol levels are linked to a 48% increase in lifespan compared to those with lower cholesterol levels.
As I mentioned, cholesterol is also the building block for the production of one of our bodies’ precious substances, bile. Since I will be talking quite a bit about bile in this article, let me recap for you why this substance is so important, and why you should want to take care of it.
Why Your Bile is Precious Currency
Without adequate fats in the body the liver cannot make enough bile, and over time the bile becomes thick, congested, and too viscous to effectively flow through the bile ducts. Without adequate bile production, bad things happen to the body. Let’s take a look at the functions of bile:
1. It emulsifies fat soluble toxins, pesticides, heavy metals and pollutants.
2. It breaks down and delivers good fats to the brain, skin and heart.
3. It buffers the stomach acid. Without bile, the stomach cannot produce digestive acid, as without a buffer it would literally burn the walls of the intestinal tract.
4. It regulates the bowel movements.
5. It stimulates pancreatic enzyme flow.
6. It is the immune scrub for the intestinal tract (as we now know, most of our immunity is located in the intestinal tract).
7. It removes bad cholesterol and toxins out of the body.
Bile is like an army of Pac-Men in the liver gobbling up old toxic cholesterols and other fatty substances include chemicals, drugs, heavy metals and more. (7) When you eat something fatty, the bile is ejected into the small intestine where it keeps right on Pac-Manning toxins and scrubbing the intestinal wall. A low fat diet will reduce bile production and bile flow.
Recycling is Great – Just Not for Your Bile
As I discussed in Part I of this series, the body needs optimal amounts of fat to make sufficient bile and a significant amount of fiber to escort used, toxic bile into the toilet. If the amount of fiber in the diet is not sufficient and the production of bile is low due to a low fat diet, the toxic bile will not make it to the toilet, the body won’t have sufficient raw material to make new clean bile, and up to 94% of the bile – with toxins in tow – can be recycled back to the liver. This toxic bile can be recycled up to 17 times before the bile is finally excreted. (4)
The Fat-Fiber Cycle for Bile
It is the job of the dietary fiber, mostly the soluble fiber, to attach to the toxic bile and escort it to the toilet. If there is not enough fiber and fat in the diet, up to 94% of the toxic bile will be reabsorbed back to the liver. The liver is probably confused at this point. It literally just sent all the toxic bile to the toilet and it is back!!!
These toxins, now old and oxidized cholesterols, find their way to circulating in the heart and arteries, or are stored in the fat, or even the brain.
The Skinny on Fat
Let’s review some of the fat facts that I discussed in Part I of this series.
- The body gets energy primarily from two sources: fat (good fats) or carbohydrates (a long chain of sugars). Fat is the body’s calm, long-lasting fuel. It is pretty logical then, that if you take away the good fats (as we have done as a culture with the low fat diet craze) the body will crave, demand, and overeat the only other reliable energy source – carbs and sugars!
- Instead of health-beneficial and energy-supplying good fats, the food industry has been feeding us a diet of processed fats and oils that sit on shelves for months without going bad – of which the body cannot digest. These processed and cooked oils are found everywhere, even in some of your favorite health foods. These fats congest the liver, which is linked to blood sugar regulation and detox pathways. On top of that, they deliver little energy, packing empty calories that render the consumer hungry and exhausted. They store quickly as fat, contributing to unprecedented weight gain.
- In the 1980’s, with the government subsidies to grow corn and wheat, the price of these foods fell, offering bread and inexpensive corn sweeteners to a carb-craving America for the past 30 years. Without good fats to satiate us and make our energy last, America’s diet swung way out of balance.
Fats Feed the Brain
Experts believe that it was the introduction of large amounts of omega 3 fatty acids and good cholesterols that drove the evolution of man. Records show that, as apes were forced out of rainforests that were shrinking as a result of the coming ice age, they were forced to hunt more, resulting in a significant rise in dietary fat intake from the hunted animals prey, including the fatty organ meats therein. As a result, the apes became more upright and their brain size nearly tripled.
With the addition of energy-sustaining fat in the diet, three things happened:
1. The apes had energy that would last 5 times as long, so instead of eating one banana after another to stay satiated, they had energy to do other things like hunt, think and adapt. (4,5)
2. The fats they ate were rich in healthy fatty acids like omega-3’s. These fats were particularly rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which is one of the most powerful brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF) – which makes up the majority of the structure of the brain and grows its neurons. (4)
3. They began to receive significant amounts of cholesterol, which is essential for the neurons of the body. (4)
In one study that measured cholesterol levels against brain and cognitive function, 789 men and 1105 women were looked at. The results demonstrated that the people who had the highest levels of cholesterol scored higher on cognitive tests that included verbal fluency, attention, concentration and reasoning compared to those with the lowest levels of cholesterol. (1)
The Cholesterol Myth
The notion that cholesterol is bad for the heart has been seriously challenged in recent years. To drive this point home, let me reprint a quote taken from Dr. David Perlmutter’s famous book, The Grain Brain (4). These are the words of Dr. George Mann, researcher with the Framingham Heart Study (one of the more prestigious heart studies in the world):
“The diet heart hypothesis that suggests that a high intake of fat or cholesterol causes heart disease has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprise, food companies, and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”
In a study published in the journal The Lancet, 724 elderly people were followed for 10 years. The researchers found that having high cholesterol demonstrated no increased risk of dying of heart-related issues when compared with those with the lowest cholesterol levels.
They did however see an overall 48% reduction in death rate in those with the highest levels of cholesterol compared with the lower cholesterol groups. (2)
The Life-Giving Fat Bile Connection
Dietary fats cause the gall bladder, which stores and concentrates bile, to contract. This is necessary exercise for the gall bladder, keeping it vital. If we do not eat enough dietary fat to help it contract, the gall bladder will waste away as the bile thickens and congests. Thus, healthy fats are required for healthy liver, gall bladder and bile function.
Consider a hunter-gatherer hunting and eating a Woolly Mammoth. The organ meats were the first to be eaten, as they would go bad quickly. Imagine how much fat that was for the gall bladder to digest in just one sitting. That may be why we evolved to need a gall bladder as a storage container for our bile! Though made by the liver, the gall bladder stores bile and concentrates it to be 12 times as strong as it is when it is first made by the liver. (6)
Nurture Your Gall Bladder
Many experts believe that the number one reason for gall bladder health issues is a low fat diet. If we do not get enough fat in the diet, the gall bladder will simply not be forced to contract and will waste away over time.
Today, it is a routine surgery to have the gall bladder removed, and afterward, most folks feel better and don’t need to make any adjustments to their diet – this is a testament to how little good fats most of us are eating.
What do you think would have happened if we took out the gall bladder of a hunter-gatherer who depended on organ meats and – at the risk of sounding disgusting – the brain and eyeballs of animals that fed them with essential brain-boosting, nerve-growing, life-supporting fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K? They simply would not have the strong, potent bile to digest these life-supporting fats.
So, even though we are designed to digest a ridiculous amount of fat, we are dealing with the consequences of having been on a low fat diet for 30 years, and many of us could not handle a high amount of good fats after not contracting our gall bladders for so long.
The bottom line is that we eat nowhere the amount of fat in today’s diet that spawned our increase in brain size and many millennia ago gave us a disease-free robust hunter-gatherer mind and body. (4)
How Much Fat Do We Need
While some reports suggest that hunter-gatherers ate as much as 75% of their diet as fat, we are not as active as they are, nor are we trying to insulate from an ice age northern European winter.
As you begin to add more good fats to the diet, you must exercise. A high fat diet without exercise will not deliver the same benefits, and may even be harmful. We evolved to be active daily and got our energy from a relative equal supply of carbs and fats. Today, our energy comes primarily from carbs and we need to re-introduce dietary fats and employ that fat as fuel once again.
Here is my suggestion for each meal:
First off, take a look at your plate. This is what it should look like:
- 50% of the plate as veggies
- 25% of the plate as healthy starches, whole grains (not bread) and root veggies
- 25% of the plate as protein (mostly nuts, seeds, legumes, beans), healthy dairy, wild caught fish 1-2 times a week, clean organic and/or grass-fed meats
*These proportions and the kinds of starches, proteins and veggies appropriate will change with each season (see The 3-Season Diet).
Then, add dietary and supplemental fats:
1. Drizzle high quality olive oil (with a press date within 6 months of eating) liberally on each meal.
2. Eat 1 tablespoon of high quality coconut oil a day.
3. Take 4000IU of vitamin D each day.
4. Take 2000mg of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids each day.
5. Cook with ghee or coconut oil only (these are the only oils I recommend for cooking due to their high flash point).
Remember, if you are adding more good fats to your diet, you must reduce the intake of bad fats – most of which are hidden as cooked oils in almost all packaged foods. With the increase of good fats, you must also increase your exercise to make use of the ingested fats as a source of fuel. Also, since carbs and fats are primarily sources of fuel, if you increase fat as the new source of fuel, you must decrease the old fuel supply (carbs).
Importantly, avoid any sweeteners, cooked oils and processed foods.
Eat your way towards optimal health, one meal a day!