Everybody knows that saturated fat is harmful to heart health right? Or is it? Not all saturated fats are created equal. Saturated fats are generally thought of as those fats solid at room temperature and commonly found in animal, dairy products and tropical oils. No doubt a link between cardiovascular health and lack of good nutrition has been established, but most studies looking at the impact of saturated fats on cardiovascular health have focused on fats found in commerically produced meat and meat by-products, the standard in most American diets, rather than the type of fats found in grazing animals or wild game.
Though a staple in our ancestor's diet, the fats consumed from wild game and other animals did not appear to have an adverse impact on cardiovascular health of earlier generations. In fact, little on topics of cancer and heart disease can be found in earlier literature.
In The Framingham Study: The Epidemiology of Atherosclerotic Disease, Dawber notes that prior to World War II, the primary cause of mortality in the United States was infectious disease and that if children of the nineteenth century could survive infectious disease such as diarrheal diseases or pneumococcal pneumonia, life expectancy beyond forty was not much different than today. (1)
Prior to 1950, Dawber notes of the cardiovascular disease then present, a large portion was attributable to the late effects of rheumatic fever and syphilis(2). These observations have also been noted by Carl Lowe in Heart Protection citing instead, lack of exercise, consumption of processed foods and tobacco use as causes of current heart disease(3). Cultures that have historically enjoyed a low incidence of heart disease such as Japan and native Alaskan tribes, have done so in spite of eating a high fat diet.
How can this be? Some argue that the high incidence of heart disease in the United States stems from lack of exercise; no doubt exercise is important, but even those extremely fit are not immune. Consider author and marathon runner Jim Fix, a victim of an acute myocardial infarct (heart attack). Closer to home, a cardiologist at a local hospital in my community, known for his devotion to regular exercise, also died from a heart attack. Clearly, lack of exercise was not a factor in these cases.
A closer look at how changes in the cattle, poultry and food industries have produced unhealthy foods may provide further insight into this apparent paradox. With the introduction of the fast food and snack industries into American culture, and the increased demand for inexpensively produced readily available oils for food processing, previously consumed healthy oils imported from Europe such as flax and olive oil were replaced with hydrogenated vegetable oils(4). Hydrogenation was a new process of turning plentiful liquid vegetable oil into industry useful margarine and shortening. By adding hydrogen atoms to the vegetable oil molecule under a super-heated state, unsaturated oils could be converted into saturated oils (5). Originally believed healthier than fats derived from animal sources, trans-fatty acids, a by-product of the hydrogenation process are now believed more harmful than the animal fats they replaced. Trans fats have been shown to synthesize LDL cholesterol, the harmful cholesterol associated with the development of atherosclerosis (plaque build up).
While the fast food and snack industries were feeding us trans fats, the cattle and poultry industries were preparing to expose us to another potential cause of heart disease: grain fed meat. Traditionally allowed to roam in open pasture as nature intended, cattle and poultry obtained a healthy balance of essential nutrients from a diet of grasses, seeds and insects. In addition to being loaded with a broad spectrum of proteins, vitamins and minerals, grasses are also a rich source of plant fats called sterols.
Sterols have been associated with a wide range of health benefits including acting as an anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-carcinogen as well as strengthening the immune system(6). Sterols have also been shown promise in treating hypercholesterolemia. Hallikainan and co-workers followed 26 hypercholesterolemic adults in a six month randomized single blind study. Each subject was given five different dosages of plant sterol daily for four week durations while total serum and LDL cholesterol was monitored. The authors found an inverse relationship between total serum/LDL cholesterol and dosage of sterol administered. The greatest benefit appeared to occur with dosages of 1.6 g/day (7).
According to Robinson, a large percentage of plant fats exist as healthy omega 3 fatty acids found in the chloroplast of grasses. Siscovick et al. has reported grass fed meat contains 200% more omega 3 than conventionally raised meat (8). Omega 3 fatty acids and their derivatives DHA and EPA have been extensively studied and are well known for their cardiovascular benefits (9,10,11). Another beneficial but less publicized fatty acid found in pasture fed animals is conjugated linoleic acid(CLA). CLA has been associated with a wide range of health benefits including supporting the immune system and serving as an anti-carcinogenic. Clement et al. found Dawley rats in their study given Dimethylbenz(a)anthracene(DMBA) , a known carcinogen, had a significant reduction in mammary tumors compared to controls, when CLA feeding began prior to DMBA administration. An inverse relationship between CLA dosage and percentage of tumor formation was observed (12).
Grass fed animals have been reported to contain several times more CLA than conventionally raised animals (13). In stark contrast to pasture fed animals, animals fed primarily grain feed do not develop the proper balance of essential fats. Because commercial grain feed contains a disproportionate amount of omega 6 fatty acids, the fat composition of the animal becomes over weighted with omega 6 as well; this imbalance is transferred to humans when the meat is consumed. The precursor essential fatty acids omega 3, 6 and 9 utilize the same set of enzymes to synthesize their derivatives, so ingesting a disproportionate amount of omega 6 causes interference in the production of the heart healthy omega 3 derivatives DHA and EPA. A healthy ratio of omega 3 to 6 fatty acids is considered to fall between 1 to 2-4 as opposed to the estimated 1 to 10-20 ratio consumed by most Americans.
Returning to a proper balance of essential fats as nature intended may play an important role in reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease.
References:1. Dawber, T.R., The Framingham Study: Epidemiology of Atherosclerotic Disease. Harvard University Press. Cambridge , Mass. , 1980 pp. 1,112. Dawber, T.R., The Framinham Study: Epidemiology of Atherosclerotic Disease. pp. 123. Lowe, C., Heart Protection. Energy Times. Feb 2000 pp. 27-32 4. Rubin, J., Patient Heal Thyself. Freedom Press. Topanga , CA 2003 pp. 1355. Boikess & Edelson, Chemical Principles 2nd ed. Harper &Row Publishers. New York 1981 pp. 2906. Sanderoff, B., www.yourprescription4health.com Plant Fats7. Hallikainen, M.A., et al. Plant stanol esters affect serum cholesterol concentrations of hypercholesterolemic men and women. Jrnl of Nutr April 2000; 130(4): 767-768. Siscovick, D.S., et al. Dietary intake and cell membrane levels of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and the risk of primary cardiac arrest. JAMA 274(17): 1363-1367.9. Kinsella, J., Dietary n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and amelioration of cardiovascular disease: possible mechanisms. Am. Jrnl Clin Nutr. 52: 1-2810. Harris, W., n-3 fatty acids and lipoproteins: comparsion of results from human and animal studies. Lipids. 31: 243-252.11. Daviglus, M.L.,et al. Fish consumption and the 30-year risk of fatal myocardial infarction. N E Jrnl of Med 336: 15: 1046-53.12. Clement, I. , et al. Conjugated linoleic acid: a powerful anticarcinogen from animal fat sources. Cancer 74 (3 suppl) 1050-4.13. Dhiman, T.R., et al. Dairy Sci 82(10): 2146-56 1999.
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