Why Saturated Fat Is The Most Important Ingredient

18 min read
What You're About To Get Into
The favourite scapegoat of dieticians is making a resurgence
Why you’re messing up by picking the leaner cuts of steak
Dispelling the myths of clogged arteries
Why it’s the key player in a keto / carnivore diet

It’s Time To Get Biblical

When Cain turned on Abel and committed the world’s first case of fratricide, you’d be forgiven for assuming the biblical message was about the perils of jealousy. In reality, it was the beginning of a long line of attacks against saturated fat.

When God wanted an offering, Cain brought vegetables. Abel brought his fattiest sheep. God knew his nutrition as well as anyone, and chose the latter. But that choice came with deadly consequences.

In case you’re wondering where saturated fat sits in a healthy diet, I’m going to tell you why it’s been on the pedestal since the dawn of time.

If you’re just a buff for the history of dietary guidelines, this guide has you covered. 

I’m only 250-odd articles in, but it may be time to bring saturated fat into the limelight. And I can’t really figure out why I’ve waited this long. Saturated fat has big energy. When it’s in the room, people notice. Then it gets scraped off the plate.

It’s easy enough to figure out what foods have saturated fat, because it’s near enough exclusively sourced from animals. Birds and pigs typically have more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but red meat and dairy have plenty of the saturated protagonists. There are a few outliers in coconut and palm oil, but they shouldn’t get quite the same prestige. Plants come with baggage.

But then again, so does saturated fat. Something we’ve been dining on long before the age of farming. And despite the rise of grains, animal fats continued to be first on the plate, in the literal sense. The Bible itself repeatedly blows smoke, using the phrase ‘fat of the land’ to describe a state of richness. The famous frontier guys, Lewis and Clark, once went on a hunting expedition and brought back a monster haul of 40 deer, 16 elks, and 3 buffalos. They saw it as a failure, because the game was too lean. Inuits would eat the fat around the organs first, while often leaving the muscle meat to their dogs. When the 20th century lumbered into view, it was the dominant fat source. 

There are 60 years of bad press behind it, to the point it’s been conclusively marked down as a health risk. The Seven Countries Study was an infamous piece from 1958 that blamed fat for attempting to assassinate President Eisenhower, as well as playing the grim reaper with the rest of the world.

The reason I call it ‘infamous’, is because it’s been followed up and exposed as a deeply flawed study. Dr Ancel Keys, the guy connecting the dots, came up with the evil fat hypothesis by deliberately missing out the countries that didn’t support his conclusion. But this was all a little late. Several decades worth of extra propaganda had been rolled out, with the full might of government backing behind it. 

The Saturated Fat Scapegoat

High Risk Steams
Raises cholesterol – Leading to heart diseases
Raises LDL – More heart disease
Increases blood pressure
Increases all-cause mortality – Shortens one’s lifespan
Waste of calories – Inherently fattening

Over those years, saturated fat got treated like a punching bag, being repeatedly blamed for a global metabolic epidemic that was only getting worse. Despite people obliging to the new rules and drastically cutting down on their animal fat intake. In the midst of all that, and not for want of effort, no studies found proof to support the claims Ancel Keys and co rode in on. 

There were correlations, but they only amounted to hypotheses. The clinical data didn’t pan out so well, often showing the reverse. Dr George Mann found that the Masai people, who near-exclusively lived on meat and milk, showed low serum cholesterol levels. There are even studies demonstrating higher cholesterol reducing mortality. But they simply shifted the lens to blame high LDL instead. Which started out as just another unproven hypothesis, and is currently sitting in the same state.

The Framingham Heart Study spent millions to reveal the shocking truth that smoking can hasten your demise. That left them with just the observational data gleaned from epidemiological studies. It wasn’t through lack of effort, but they stopped well short of nailing the proof they were chasing since the Seven Countries Study. The Minnesota Coronary Experiment was a huge undertaking that got brushed under the carpet, because the results didn’t match their driving hypothesis on saturated fat.

The scientific community operates on different rules to a court of law. A hypothesis can’t be innocent until proven guilty. It’s quite the opposite. Without proving the cause, it simply doesn’t hold up. Dr. Ancel Keys made his name by shouting the loudest. He published paper after paper in a time when the diet debate was in its infancy. He just didn’t reveal much data to support it. The same can be said of any allegations against saturated fat, including the recent 2012 blow-up of red meat supposedly causing cancer.

For a deeper dive into the defence of saturated fat, you can head to my article here – Mythbusting Red Meat

That really leaves us with just the one bone to pick with. The idea that saturated fat is a waste of calories that invariably leads to more timber around the midriff. This is likely going to be the one that scares off the average fit-conscious person, because heart-attacks can always be sidelined as a worry for the long term. If it’s a fattening agent, then that’s a problem that could really put the dampener on your next holiday.

This fear predates Dr Ancel Keys, and the beginning of the 20th century saw fat becoming used as adjectives of repulsion. Grease, lard, the word fat itself, were increasingly avoided. Leaner cuts of red meat were prized, and chicken was seen as the healthy alternative. Dieticians of the time ran with the expression: ‘fat only burns in the presence of carbohydrate’. Meaning that eating fat in a meal without the pasta to match would be the recipe for obesity. This was accepted as scientific fact, even if it was really another nugget of cultural wisdom.

When this swing in perspective happened is difficult to say, but it seems to be somewhere on the timeline between Cain taking that fateful swing, and Dr. Ancel Keys deciding he’d get the government grant and no matter the cost. 

In Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s book ‘Not By Bread Alone’, he makes the case that it was partly caused by red meat becoming the rich man’s food. The working class had to settle for slurping porridge, and they developed an attachment for grains. There were likely a few more factors in play, but I don’t want this to turn into a book. We had a cultural shift, money was spent, saturated fat got shelved, with even butter getting swapped out for healthier options

But saturated fat is on the road to recovery, thanks to the pioneering likes of Dr. Atkin, and top-notch investigative journalism by Nina Teicholz and co, U-turning medical practitioners, and a whole bunch of curious people happy to put their arteries on the line. And as it stages a surge back up the rankings, I’ll say the sky should be its limit. With the culture’s story told, we can turn to meat and bones of the matter. 

Rating Saturated Fat
The Nutrition Content
The Evolutionary Question
It’s Efficiency As A Fuel Source
Health And Safety
Dieting On A Budget

1. The Nutritional Content

Fat isn’t going to be particularly dense in micronutrients, and that pales in comparison to muscle meat. But that’s not the whole picture, as fatty acids are critical for effectively absorbing certain vitamins and minerals. Then there’s the small matter of cholesterol, which incidentally, exists for other reasons than simply plotting your demise. 

Cholesterol forms the building blocks for cell membranes, while also acting as the precursor for Vitamin D, testosterone, and estrogen. Which all means it’s a critical part of what makes the metabolism tick, and saturated fat raises cholesterol more than any other fatty acid. Might have been seen as its gravest crime, but I’d rather frame as an asset. Because there’s the whole thing with there being no evidence to prosecute LDL and total cholesterol. 

Besides that, saturated fat contains reasonable amounts of Vitamin A, D, E, as well as K2, an animal-only nutrient. Dairy products have plenty of butyrate, which can play the role of fuelling your gut microbiome. It’s worth remembering that we’re just vessels for carrying those little critters around, and we have no option but to keep them happy.

Cliff Notes
A decent source of fat-soluble vitamins, while being critical to the effective absorption of said vitamins. Provides cholesterol which makes up much of your cell structure. 

2. The Evolutionary Energy Source

The vast bulk of our biological evolution took place over the Pleistocene Epoch. The stretch of a couple million years that predated the agricultural revolution of 10,000 B.C. So it stands to reason that the optimal foods for our body would have been regular features on the caveman dinner table. That’s not a legacy we can just drop after a few millennia of being experimental.

Carbs would have been seasonal only, as we hadn’t been domesticated by wheat and maize at that point. Protein is a great macronutrient, but it’s better kept for muscle turnover, it’s a slow and inefficient energy source. Hence why explorers experienced crippling discomfort and lethargy when dining on rabbits, a phenomenon known as protein toxicity.

Monounsaturated fats are there in meat, but they’re more dominant in nuts and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats could have been found in fatty fish, but that would have been limited to the populations straddling seasides and other bodies of water. The hunters who roamed inland and caused a big chunk of the mammal order to virtually go extinct, they would have dined mainly on saturated fat.

Were Our Ancestors Really Carnivores?

Cliff Notes
Saturated fat would have made up the primary fuel source during our hunter-gatherer days, where we did virtually all our adapting.

3. The Efficient Energy Source

By placing it as the centrepiece of the evolutionary past, it would be fair to assume that saturated fat is highly effective and providing our bodies with energy. Because if not, then why were we so bent on wiping the mammoths off the map? The prize had to be worth the effort. As it is, fat is a highly dense concentration of energy, making it ideal for fuel, transport and storage. Exploring the vast stretches of wilderness of the old American frontier was made possible by the use of pemmican, a mixture of buffalo fat and powdered meat that could go years without going rancid. All while being extremely lightweight and backpack-friendly.

But calorie content is something that could be applied to any type of fat, and the saturated fat goes a step further in its efficiency. It induces satiety better than any of its competition, by a phenomenon currently being referred to as the ROS theory. To avoid loading you up with too much information, I’ll sprint through the mechanism at play. 

Saturated fat is a long-chain fatty acid, and the extra chains cause it to overload the mitochondria, creating a Reactive Oxygen Species that block fat storage while quenching appetite. It was this effect that made pemmican work so well. The explorers just didn’t need much to fill their stomachs. Half a pound of the good stuff, and they’d completely forgotten about the hunger that had just been wracking through their bodies.

In addition to that, the effect it has by blocking fat storage is essentially allowing you to remain in blubber burning mode. The body literally wastes the extra energy in the process, acting as a block against excessive weight gain. This all wraps up with the idea of an evolutionary fuel source. Your body has the means to avoid eating its way to an early grave. Where that doesn’t work, is when you fill your plate with foods that have only been staples for a few thousand years. If that.

Cliff Notes
Saturated fat is dense in calories, but also has its own appetite-suppressing and fat-burning signals.

4. Health And Safety

We’re not done with pemmican just yet, it’s not because I’m wistfully remembering a time when it was still sold in stores. I’ve already mentioned how well it stores, lasting years even when exposed to the elements. Much of that is due to a reason of chemistry. 

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats both have multiple bonds, meaning they’re more susceptible to breaking, and the molecules end up loosely fitting together as oils. These fats therefore end up being far more prone to oxidation, and can go rancid within days. Even the upmarket cold-pressed olive oil doesn’t last long. In most cases, the plant oil you’re picking up in the store has already become rancid. They don’t even survive the initial transport.

Saturated fat only has the one bond, allowing it to stay straight and firm, appearing solid at room temperature. Making it, and despite what you’ve been told, the best fat for surviving a fry-up. Margarine is an attempt to mimic that, by hydrogenating polyunsaturated fats. Unfortunately, it’s still highly oxidized, and is a known carcinogen, better referred to as trans fats. 

The problem of oxidation goes deep, as it’s one of the four horsemen of chronic disease. Alongside inflammation, insulin resistance, and catabolism. And since those incoming fatty acids become critical parts of your cell structure, you don’t really want them to be highly toxic, unstable and prone to disintegration. Permeable cells are the setup for a host of autoimmune disorders, and chronic disease. Choose the fats that will last.

Cliff Notes
Saturated fats are shelf-stable, heat-stable, and make you stronger right down to the integrity of your cell walls.

5.  Dieting On A Budget

I’m not going to suggest a saturated fat-heavy diet is the cheapest way to get by, because that would be a blatant lie. If you want to live on the tightest of budgets, when it comes down to the choice of life and death, then carbs are a great option. They come laced with all manners of inflammation, set you up for a bad case of malnutrition, but they do provide calories at the cheapest cost. 

But putting this in the context of a normal, meat-based diet, it’s often going to be less costly to simply pick out the dairy and red meat that have kept their original full-fat state. Brisket is cheaper than a sirloin, while having more fat, and more calories. 20% beef mince beats out the expensive 5% version. That’s without bringing it back to the nugget of protein toxicity. Protein’s great, but it’s a building block, not a way to fuel you up for the day. A high-protein, low-fat diet can result in rabid hunger and intense lethargy. Not that you should flip it into a high fat, low protein setup. For the best results, just do both.

Cliff Notes
The high-fat products are cheaper, more nutritious, and can actually function as an energy source.

Why It’s The Main Ingredient On A Keto / Carnivore Diet

Bringing that all together, saturated fat is highly dense in bioavailable energy, great for satiety and fat loss, while having the best immunity to oxidation. And because the cholesterol hypothesis is guilty until innocent, and following studies haven’t got past correlational links, it’s not worth debating whether your omelette needs three eggs or half a dozen.

All fats are ketogenic in design, and although MCT oil gets touted as a god amongst men, it’s not exactly something you can have in decent doses. Not if you don’t want to be making a desperate sprint for the locker room half-way through your workout. And besides, it’s not great on the gut lining. If you want your fats without baggage, saturated fat should be the first on your plate.

The biggest plan of action moving forward, is to walk on without any fear for excess fat on your steak, because there isn’t really such a thing. Some can experience issues conjuring enough stomach bile to break down rendered fats, but that’s not so much a dead-end as it is a learning curve. 

Limiting rendered fats, while still eating plenty of suet and fatty meat, will allow the digestive system to settle into the new order of things. Low stomach acid often isn’t the issue itself, but a symptom appearing downstream from a nutrient deficiency. Give the body time, and you’ll be able to periodise your way to eating half-a-stick of butter a day.

As for what protein to fat ratio works best, it can depend on the diet you’re on. 

  • Mixed with carbs thrown in? A 2:1 protein to fat ratio by the gram.
  • Low to zero carbs. 1:1 protein to fat.
  • Ultimate ketosis therapy for well being and cognition. 1.2-1.5 fat to protein.

And that’s that for the defence of big juicy ribeyes. These days I even settle for nibbling on crispy kidney fat. I’ll add the recipe on here soon. In the meantime, you can check out a recommendation of foods high in saturated fat, in the Apex Reset series.

For the big daddy list of carnivore perks, including the effects of our star of the day, head here.

If you’re curious to try out a carnivore-based strength programme, you’re in luck. The Fit Awakening Online Membership takes you through the complete coaching experience, with customised plans across training, nutrition, and lifestyle. Even better, it starts with a free 7-day trial. 

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