Value of Fat – especially saturated fat

| September 17, 2012
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Even the Paleolithic or Stone Age diet went low fat. Jean Carper’s version of a Stone Age Salad includes “mixed greens, garbanzo beans, and skinless chicken breasts.”2 Not backed by any reference to lipid biochemistry – we’re told to remove skin from the chicken in the mistaken belief that it’s got to be saturated fat. It isn’t. Chicken fat is 70 percent unsaturated – predominantly monounsaturated oleic acid (42%), same as olive oil (70%).

The Paleo diet wasn’t lean and it didn’t include beans or grains. Hunter-gatherers ate meat and fat from every kind of animal – including skin, intestines and brains. They also consumed a variety of nuts, seeds, wild plants, fruits, insects, worms and occasionally eggs. As Nora T. Gedgaudas wrote in her excellent book, Primal Body, Primal Mind:

“We are all – biologically, genetically, and physiologically – without exception – hunter-gatherers.”3

When Europeans rolled into America, Native American staples included moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope, bear, and buffalo. They ate the entire animal and used every bit of the fat. The brains were eaten raw, and the internal kidney fat of grass-eating animals was highly prized.4 

In The Ways of my Grandmothers, Beverly Hungry Wolf describes how foods considered important for reproduction were animal foods rich in fat. “Boiled tongue was an ancient delicacy,” she says, “served as the food of communion at the Sun Dance.” According to Hungry Wolf:

“All the insides, such as heart, kidneys and liver, were prepared and eaten, roasted or baked or laid out in the sun to dry.”5 

Ruminant animal fat is rich in Vitamin A, balanced in omega 3 and 6, and contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat-burning, anti-cancer fatty acid manufactured in the cow’s 4-chambered stomach.6    Grain-fed animals have less Vitamin A, less CLA, less omega 3, and too much omega 6.

Native Americans living on the “fat of the land” had broad faces, high cheekbones, straight teeth and fine physiques. Early explorers consistently described the natives as strong and well formed. According to explorer Cabeza De Vaca, “The men could run after a deer for an entire day without resting and without apparent fatigue…”7

This man did not eat Cheerios and skimmed (of nutrition) milk for breakfast!

No longer Paleolithic or Native American, the 1910 American diet contained mineral-rich organic vegetables, wild berries, whole carbohydrates processed in the home, pasture-raised animals, and up to 40 percent or more of calories from traditional saturated fats.

Fat in the American diet has always ranged from 30 to 43 percent of calories. 8 You can put away your calculator; there is no best one-size-fits-all percentage of calories as fat. Americans have lived for hundreds of years on a wide range of fat – but always a wide range of minimally processed natural fats.

In 1910, one third of the population lived on farms and Americans ate more cholesterol and saturated fat than they do today. People cooked with fat rendered from beef, poultry, chicken and pork. Butter, cream, and “drippings” were highly valued. In 1910, animal fats comprised 83 percent of fat calories. Per capita butter consumption was 18 pounds. 9

By 1970, the proportion of animal fats had declined to 62 percent of fat calories and per capita butter consumption had fallen to about 4 pounds. During the same period, vegetable fat consumption increased 400 percent and our consumption of sugar and refined foods increased 60 percent. 10

Dietary fat consumption during the period 1930 to 1985 increased from 124 to 164 grams per day. Most of the 40 gram increase came in the form of highly processed polyunsaturated vegetable fats such as margarine and shortening. 11

Mary G. Enig, PhD, author, Know Your /Fats

“The presence of the trans fatty acids in the diet today are causing shifts in favor of chronic disease.”

Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are created when vegetable seed oils are partially hydrogenated – turned into a more solid fat – for baking and cooking purposes. According to Dr. Enig:

“The trans fatty acids do not behave like saturated fatty acids in biological systems although they do behave like numerous saturated fatty acids in food preparation.”12

According to Enig, during the hydrogenation process, up to 50 percent of the fatty acids convert from the natural cis-configuration to the not found in nature trans-configuration. Nonetheless, ignoring Dr. Enig’s warnings that span three decades, the federal Dietary Guidelines (1980-2010) continue to recommend these new, untested polyunsaturated commercial vegetable oils while singling out saturated tropical fats as “bad.”

In the official low fat 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the not-found-in-nature trans fatty acids and natural saturated fats are lumped together into a scientifically meaningless category called “Solid Fats.”

Ideal for baking and cooking because they are heat stable, tropical coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil have nourished healthy populations for centuries. Coconut fat is the best source of medium chain (12 carbon) lauric acid, an anti-microbial fatty acid found only in tropical oils, butter and human milk. Used by the body to kill pathogenic viruses and bacteria, lauric acid is readily burned for energy and not stored as body fat. 13

In 1986, the Washington DC-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) – along with the soybean oil industry – spearheaded an anti-saturated fat, anti-tropical fat campaign.  In 1986, while CSPI was lobbying and recommending trans fats, they also petitioned the FDA to introduce legislation requiring “singularly pejorative anti-tropical oils labeling.”

Although the effort failed, the CSPI book, The Saturated Fat Attack, spewed out enough disinformation to deliver the final blow to the U.S. tropical oil business. 14 As a result, fast food restaurants, commercial bakeries and movie theaters across the country replaced traditional time-tested coconut and butter with trans-laden partially hydrogenated soybean oil and imitation butter.

Substituting partially hydrogenated soybean oil in French fries, baked goods and popcorn meant a substantial increase in trans fat consumption as well as increase in overly processed omega 6 fat consumption in the American diet.

 Lancet, 1993, vol. 341.

 “Margarine correlates with the risk of heart disease more strongly than any other food, including butter.”

Throughout the 80s and 90s the Heart Institute, the American Heart Association, and nonprofits such as CSPI were using fear tactics to scare the public into buying more “imitation” fats – margarine and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Now, like the cat who ate the canary, they are backpedaling – warning us to avoid these new fangled ‘bad’ trans fatty acids! Oh really! They’re bad for us? You’re kidding aren’t you?

Michael Pollan in his book:  In Defense of Food   

“The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease and the evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.”

Eat your toast dry or dipped in olive oil?

Butter fat or cream is the most complex food fat of all – containing 12 different fatty acids including 8 different saturated fats.

Has it really come to that? Is butter more fattening? To compare: Butter is 80 percent fat, 20 percent water; olive oil is 100 percent fat. Hence, dipping your sourdough in olive oil – instead of an even spread of butter – will increase your fat intake 2 to 3 times. While a higher fat intake is good, there’s an advantage to using butter on your toast.

Butter contains 15-17 percent short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids. These fats are sent – via the portal vein – directly to the liver and do not enter the general circulation. In the liver, the short chain saturated fats in butter inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungi, and medium chain lauric acid kills or disables many pathogenic viruses and other organisms.

Containing predominantly long chain (18 carbon) oleic acid – a fat that enters the general circulation – the fatty acids of olive oil fat are more readily stored in adipose tissue (fat cells). In a word, olive oil is potentially more fattening than butter, especially when eaten with excess carbohydrate – as in the 6-11 servings of grain recommended in the Food Guide Pyramid.

Butter – not olive oil – is an excellent source of these anti-microbial fats. Use both. Olive oil (extra virgin) and butter (grass fed cows) are healthy natural fats with their own respective roles to play in cooking and nutrition. What you don’t want are the chemically unstable, polyunsaturated, highly processed vegetable oils, margarines, and shortenings.

Big Food Pyramid Schemes created the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

Nor do we need any more unscientific smear campaigns against healthy natural saturated fats. The Anti-Saturated Fat campaign has hurt people, patients, communities and farmers alike. Refined vegetable oils and “plastic” trans fats have set us on this road to ruin – the slippery slope of chronic disease.



  1. “The last days of the low-fat diet fad,” Kristin Wartman, Grist online at
  2. Fallon, Sally; Enig, Mary: “Guts and Grease,” Wise Traditions, Spring 2001, p. 40.
  3. Nora T. Gedgaudas, Primal Body, Primal Mind: Healing Arts Press, 2009, p. 5.
  4. Beverly Hungry Wolf, The Ways of My Grandmother, Quill, 1982, p. 187.
  5. Hungry Wolf, p. 184.
  6. Fallon, Enig, “Guts and Grease,” p.42.
  7. The explorer Cabeza de Vaca is quoted in WW Newcomb, The Indians of Texas, 1961, University of Texas.
  8. Mary Enig, Know Your Fats, Bethesda Press, 2000, p. 96.
  9. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing, 1999, p. 5
  10. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, p. 5.
  11. Enig, Know Your Fats, pgs 93-96.
  12. Enig, Know Your Fats, p. 40.
  13. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, p. 17.
  14. Enig, Know Your Fats, p. 166.




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Category: Lipids

Comments (4)

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  1. Diane says:

    Good article!

    I think you might have a typo…”Nonetheless, ignoring Dr. Enig’s warnings that span three decades, the federal Dietary Guidelines (1080-2010)…” Should that perhaps be 1980-2010?

  2. Alan Watson says:

    Thank you – correction made – 30 years of low fat = good health is enough!

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    I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!