Have you heard the news that fats are good for us?  Maybe you’ve even heard that saturated fats are good for us.  It’s true.  After decades of being told that we should be eating a low-fat diet, research is proving that low fat is detrimental to our health.  It’s bad for our brains, it’s bad for our hearts and it’s bad for hormone related conditions, but today I’m going to focus on the heart.

We’ve all heard about HDL (the good cholesterol) and LDL (the bad cholesterol).  Doctors look at blood levels of these as indicators of heart health.  In a healthy individual we typically see high HDL and low LDL.   High LDL is seen as being problematic.  But it turns out that not all LDL is bad.  There are different types of LDL particles:  large and buoyant, or small and dense.  It’s the small, dense particles that are the ones that put you at risk for heart disease.  It’s possible to have high LDL levels, and have low risk for heart disease if they happen to be the large particles, and conversely you can have low LDL levels, but if they happen to be small particles then you may be at risk for heart disease.  Just looking at total LDL is NOT a good indicator.  We can thank researcher Ronald Kraus for unraveling the complexity of LDL.

Diet and LDL

With the knowledge that we want high HDL, high large LDL and low small LDL, it’s important to look at how we can accomplish this through diet. In addition to changing how we view LDL, Kraus looked at how different diets affect different LDL particles.  Kraus demonstrated that when people eat a high carbohydrate, low fat diet, it correlates with small, dense LDL, which is the marker that increases your risk of heart disease. In contrast, a low carbohydrate diet increases HDL and large LDL particles and decreases small LDL particles.  That is exactly what you want!  (Source

The idea that saturated fats contribute to heart disease doesn’t hold up against the research. (Source)  It’s time to accept that fats aren’t artery clogging!

The Fat-Carbohydrate Relationship

When we take fats out of our diet, we tend to replace them with carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are found in vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes and of course sugars. People need a feeling of satiety when they eat (or else they don’t stop eating).  Consuming protein makes us feel full and then fat makes that feeling last.  When proteins and fats are not consumed, then people eat more grains and legumes to get that feeling of satiety. In processed foods, more sugars typically get added as fats are removed.  Low-fat yogurts are an example where when fat is taken out, more sugar is added in. 

If you eat a whole-foods diet, you might be asking yourself, “What’s the problem with eating more grains, legumes or fruits and vegetables?”   After all, isn’t this what we’ve been told is a healthy diet?  As we’ve just seen with HDL and LDL, it’s not necessarily a healthy diet if we want a healthy heart.  But let’s look at some other factors involved in fat consumption and heart health.

 Gut Health = Heart Health.

The health of your gut also has significant implications for the health of your heart.  Living inside our guts are trillions of organisms collectively known as the microbiome.  Just like humans have wastes that we excrete through our feces, urine and sweat, the organisms in our guts have metabolic byproducts (or waste products) known as metabolites.  Different species produce different metabolites.  Let’s look at a group of organisms known as Gram-negative bacteria.  These organisms are lumped together based on a staining procedure used for viewing under a microscope. Gram-negative bacteria produce a metabolite called lipopolysaccharides (LPS).  LPS normally isn’t a problem.  However it becomes a problem when you have intestinal permeability (leaky gut).  Leaky gut allows LPS to leak through the barrier of the small intestine.  Just outside that barrier is our gut associated lymphatic tissue (GALT).  An easy way to understand GALT is to think of it as the largest part of our immune system.  It makes up 80% of our immune system, and all of it is imbedded in the tissue of our digestive system.  So when LPS leaks out, it comes into contact with our immune system where it binds onto immune cell receptors.  When this happens, it initiates a whole sequence of metabolic changes that lead to inflammation and heart disease. 

Diet and Gut Health

 So by now it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a low carbohydrate, high fat diet is also the best diet to restore the health of the intestinal barrier.  The GAPS diet is one of the best diets to repair intestinal health, and its founder Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride strongly advocates the use of saturated animal fats as part of a nutritional approach to heal the gut.

Nutritional Approach to Heart Health

If heart health is to be addressed using a nutritional approach, it needs to specifically address small LDL particles and intestinal permeability.  Knowing that a low carbohydrate, high fat diet is beneficial for both of these aspects of heart health leads us to protocols that have these two features.  Ancestral and GAPS diets are good places to start.  These diets include animal proteins such as meat, fish and eggs, vegetables, seasonal fruit, raw nuts and seeds and of course fats.  For people who tolerate dairy, these diets can also include high-fat, fermented dairy items such as yogurt, kefir, cultured cream, and cheeses.

Fat Sources

Great sources of healthy fats include:
Coconut milk (full-fat), coconut butter, coconut oil
Raw nuts and seeds, and butters made from them
Grass fed and finished meats
Eggs from organic, free-range poultry
Wild fish
Butter, cream, yogurt, kefir and cheese from pasture-raised animals (if dairy is tolerated)
Olive oil

Further Reading:

The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz
Eat Fat Get Thin by Mark Hyman MD or order the Fat Summit http://fatsummit.com
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride

Happy, Healthy Eating!