Healthy fats, healthy heart

by Helen Papaconstantinos


Contrary to what we have been told for over 60 years, saturated fat will not promote heart disease. Nor will fat – despite being high in calories – make you fat. There is an abundance of scientific evidence supporting the view that saturated fat is a necessary part of a heart-healthy diet. Recent studies have exonerated saturated fat from playing a primary role in the creation of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). This is encouraging because, in Canada, heart disease and stroke take someone’s life every seven minutes.

The important distinction is to eat ‘good’ saturated fat and not trans fat. The ‘right’ type of saturated fats can make you feel satisfied, help you lose weight and even lower your serum cholesterol. Saturated fats may even keep your brain from atrophying or losing structure. Some of these saturated fats also come from plant sources such as avocado and coconut oil. More on this later.

Bad science

How could we get it so wrong? The demonization of saturated fat began in 1953 with Dr. Ancel Keys’ publication of a paper comparing fat intake and heart disease mortality. What Ancel Keys and other researchers failed to do was to more carefully evaluate the risks of heart disease by measuring the levels of fructose, omega-6 and trans and saturated fats, separately. Additionally, many of these studies did not take into consideration reducing or eliminating grain carbohydrates or processed foods – both of which are linked to raised triglycerides and inflammation throughout the body. Instead, it established the “lipid hypothesis” ­– that cholesterol and saturated fat leads to heart disease – as accepted fact.

We now know that Ancel Keys hand-picked the evidence so he could associate heart disease with fat and cholesterol intake. Keys studied 22 countries, but only focused on the six countries that supported his thesis. The 16 other countries actually disproved his thesis, but he left them out. Unfortunately, this ‘bad science’ has led to decades of misinformation.

Many of us – researchers and the medical community included – continue to view all low-density lipoprotein (LDL) as ‘bad.’ As more accurate lab testing for cardiovascular disease risk – such as the small particle LDL test – is adopted by healthcare practitioners in Canada, this stance may soon change.

Eighty percent of all blood LDL is of the large, buoyant type and is considered ‘neutral’ from the point of cardiovascular disease. According to Robert H. Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, there are two types of LDL. Large buoyant LDL – such as the kind you get from dietary fats and egg yolk – floats in the bloodstream and does not damage the arteries.

Small, dense LDL, on the other hand, does not float. It sinks. This type of LDL is small enough to get under the blood vessel cells and cause damage. It can get stuck in a network of sugary proteins called proteoglycans and creates atherosclerosis – scarring and thickening of the arteries – and plaque deposits.

There are at least seven types of fat

Trans fats, Lustig cautions, are problematic because our mitochondria – the energy factories in our cells – cannot break them down completely for energy. The remnants of the oxidized trans fat remain in your arteries and start to inflame and break down the lining.

For the uninitiated, trans fats are ‘manufactured’ fats. Using heat, pressure and the metal nickel as a catalyst, ‘liquid’ commercial vegetable oils get hydrogenated and the ‘cis’ bond is transformed into a trans bond, a process which hardens the oil so it can remain solid as well as non-perishable at room temperature. While a great boon to manufacturers, it has been linked to hardening of the arteries and cancer.

Many ‘liquid’ omega-6 fats, such as corn and vegetable oils, can easily oxidize, leading to inflammation and inflexible arteries, all of which can put one at risk for heart attack. It appears that too much omega-6 in the diet creates an imbalance that can interfere with production of important prostaglandins, some of which can help or hinder inflammation.

‘Safe’ omega-6 fats include organic cold-pressed flax seed oil and high gamma-linolenic oils such as organic cold-pressed borage, evening primrose and black current oils. Olive oil is mainly an omega-9 fat. It contains 75% oleic acid, the stable monounsaturated fat, along with 13% saturated fat, 10% omega-6 linoleic acid and 2% omega-3 linolenic acid. The longer chain fatty acids found in cold-pressed extra-virgin organic olive oil are more likely to contribute to the build-up of body fat than the short-and-medium-chain fatty acids found in butter, coconut oil or palm kernel oil.

Future studies need to consider what people
are replacing fat with

When people start to reduce saturated fat in the diet, they often start to increase consumption of refined carbohydrates. A 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was the first of its kind to stress the need for future analysis to take this point into consideration.

Part of the confusion about the science around saturated fat relates to your body being capable of making what it needs from carbohydrates. Gary Taubes is a fat expert and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator in Healthy Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. In his book, Why We Get Fat, he points out, “If you replace the saturated fat in your diet with carbohydrates – replace eggs for breakfast, say, with cornflakes, skim milk and bananas, your LDL (lousy) cholesterol may go down, but your triglycerides will go up and your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) will also lower. For women, HDL levels are so good at predicting heart disease that they are effectively the only predictors that matter.”

Whichever diet choices you make, always listen to your body. It will let you know if what you are doing is right for your unique biochemistry and you can proceed from there.

How much ‘healthy fat’ and what ratio?

The question of how much omega-6 is permissible depends on how much omega-3 we eat daily. Over the course of the last 4-5 million years, human diets were abundant in omega long-chain fatty-acids such as EPA and DHA from fish oil. By contrast, diets were low in omega-6 fats. Anthropological research suggests that back then we consumed omega-3 and omega-6 oils in a ratio of 1:1.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution about 140 years ago – and with that, increased use of cereal grains to feed livestock and production of ‘shelf-stable’ industrial vegetable oils – there was a marked increase in consumption of omega-6 fats. Today the omega-6: omega-3 ratio of the average western diet is 20:1 and often as high as 25:1.

Paul Jaminet, PhD, author of The Perfect Health Diet, and Dr. Ron Rosedale, an expert on treating diabetes through diet, agree the ideal diet includes somewhere between 50-70% fat. Eating that amount of fat will also drastically reduce your grain carbohydrate intake.

Benefits of ‘heart-healthy’ saturated fat

Besides being a source of energy, when you eat fat as part of your meal, it acts as a carrier for the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as Health Canada points out. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption and for a host of other biological processes. Palmitic and stearic fatty acids are especially good for your heart. You get stearic acid from cocoa butter, chocolate, butter and macadamia nuts. It is also present in poultry, mutton tallow and pork lard. Palmitic fatty acids are derived from palm fruit, however, it can also be found in beef tallow, pastured meats, cheeses, butter and dairy products. Human milk fat contains 25% palmitic acid.

Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of your cell membranes. These fats are what give your cells necessary stiffness and integrity. Indeed, your body requires saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources such as meat, dairy, certain oils and tropical plants like coconut for optimal functioning. As fat experts Mary Enig PhD and Sally Fallon Morell point out, saturated fat is actually healthy and humans have been thriving on it for generations.

One of the most important healthy saturated fats to include is animal-based omega-3 from fish oil. If you are vegan, one can opt for microalgae oil supplementation. Deficiency of omega-3 essential fat can cause or contribute to very serious health problems, both mental and physical.

Next steps

Besides eliminating processed foods, the following tips can help ensure you’re eating the right healthy fats – not only for your heart, but also for your total health. First of all, follow healthy eating patterns. Be sure to eat a diet of whole foods, ideally organic, and replace the grain carbohydrates with large amounts of vegetables. The Mediterranean diet consists mainly of whole, fresh foods like fruits and vegetables, along with fatty fish and unsaturated fats like unheated virgin olive oil. Although it is low in saturated fats, the most significant thing about the Mediterranean style diet is the absence of processed foods, which are loaded with sugars and dangerous trans fats.

Far from harming us, good saturated fats could be the key to keeping us healthy. This month, make sure you eat a natural diet of real foods that are zero sugar and devoid of industrial oils and trans fats. Indulge instead in some healthy saturated fats.


Helen Papaconstantinos offers nutritional consulting through her holistic nutrition practice. She is also a research specialist for the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Vancouver ( Reach Helen at and via

Fats and oils for a happy heart

Mercury and contaminant-free wild omega-3 oils do not exhaust our permaculture, and superior triglyceride form elongated omega-3 fats are better retained in your tissues when your diet is already rich in saturated fats. Fat expert Robert Lustig puts wild fish and cold-pressed organic flax seed oil at the top of his beneficial fats hierarchy. These oils are anti-inflammatory, lower serum trigylcerides and repair membranes in the body.


avocados Healthy, non-processed oils: This domain includes avocados, coconuts, coconut oil and coconut butter. Use coconut oil for cooking, as it is heat-stable and loaded with health benefits. Use extra-virgin olive oil cold, drizzled over salad or fish. It is not ideal for cooking as it is easily damaged by heat. Never purchase “shelf-stable” industrially produced omega-6 oils.

Nuts: Consume unheated, organic nut oils and raw nuts such as almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts and seeds.

Not everyone does well on dairy, but if you are using it, stick with organic whole fat dairy and butter made from raw, grass-fed milk – instead of margarines.

Low-to-moderate amounts of high-quality protein: Eat organically raised, pastured animals and eggs from organic pastured poultry.

Read all food labels: The makers of fat-free prepared meals often add sugar for ‘mouth-feel’ when oil is removed. It is therefore important for consumers to stay away from prepared, packaged foods or at least to look at nutritional analysis and ingredient labels, as not all calories are created equal.

fish and nuts photo © Snyfer
avocado photo © Marilyn Gould

5 thoughts on “Healthy fats, healthy heart”

  1. Hi there

    Just wondering what the author’s opinion about how pasteurization effects the fats in milk and milk products.


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