How Saturated Fat Wreaks Its Wrath on You

March 27, 2022

How Saturated Fat Wreaks Its Damage on You

Saturated fat is bad. Right? Well, not so fast. Lots of nuance here.

First of all, what is saturated fat? It is fat with all the carbon bonds filled with hydrogen bonds, maximizing the energy content. As a general rule, what you have in calorie storage around your middle is saturated fat made with mostly 16 carbon (palmitic) and 18 carbon (stearic) acids. When you add a double bond and "desaturate" it, you lose two hydrogens in making the double bond and add a 30-degree angle in the molecule. Instead of being straight, and packing tightly into a lattice, the molecule is bent and can't pack tightly. It becomes more liquid. Hence, olive oil has one double bond and is liquid. Fish oil is a rich mixture of DHA and EPA which have 5 double bonds with 5 bends of 30 degrees each. That makes it a spiral that really can't pack tightly and makes membranes very fluid. Hence, plasmalogens have a DHA molecule on them, giving them their fluidity and utility in your central nervous system.

Grass-raised animals don't have much saturated fat in them. It is only when they are stuffed full of corn and beans on feedlots that they generate "marbling" of their meat, and make the meat juicy and tender so you pay more for it. Wild-caught game is largely composed of omega-3 fats, just like wild-caught fish. Humans' diet has been mostly wild-caught game and seasonal edible plants until about 5000 years ago. And fatty parts of the animal were favored. Plants were "starvation food" or when rare, ripe fruit was around. It was only the last 150 years that we developed fine white flour and coffee shops and donuts, making human feedlots where we stuff ourselves with so many calories that we too make saturated fat and marbling of our muscles and livers.

Saturated fat is bad for you. It sets off inflammation. As part of it, we do know that the cell walls of gut bacteria break down and get into our blood. We call them LPSs and they are clearly inflammatory. Here is the synopsis of how saturated fats wreak their havoc. It starts with too many calories arriving in your mitochondria all at once. Our mitochondria are designed to eat one nutrient at a time. Give me a fatty meal, or a protein meal, or a carb meal and I'll do fine. Don't fry my protein and my carbs and combine too many calories and flood my mitochondria with too much energy all at once.

The biochemical pathway is now better understood. Eating lots of saturated fat turns on inflammation in a novel way. Researchers from Arizona found that saturated fat activated the innate immune system with a novel pathway requiring metabolism of the fat to ceramide and activation of PKC-ζ/mitogen-activated protein kinases. Did you get all that? Eating saturated fat activates your innate, built-in immune system. There is a potent amplification of monocyte/macrophage innate immune responses through saturated fat that gets altered and changed into ceramides. Ceramides are then the nexus of trouble, but it started with the full combination of saturated fat in the diet, too many calories, too big a tummy.

Simplify it! Fat was our food of choice in our "pre-history", hunter-gatherer diet. It was a rich source of omega three fats then. Now, animal fat is different. Our animals are overfed. Saturated fat was rare in our "pre-history" food chain. Now, with feedlot animals it is common. We magnify its wicked effect by eating too many calories and exposing ourselves to too many things that turn on gut inflammation and leaky gut (NSAIDs like ibuprofen, wheat, dairy, nightshades, lectins.....). Then, the party begins and our fat tissues spew out inflammation.

www.What will Work for me. Bummer. It's hard to look at our modern food chain and see all sorts of wicked, saturated fat in it. But I believe we are beginning to parse out the details. My belief is that the real engine that drives trouble is insulin resistance that goes hand-in-hand with obesity and big tummies. It is not the cholesterol that's causing the problem. It is the glycation and oxidation of our cells caused by high blood sugar that activates our immune system. Then we have saturated fats on top of it and away we go. I'm wearing a continuous glucose monitor to measure my own glucose excursions. Very interesting. Rice from the Indian Restaurant will give me a blood glucose of 240 in 20 minutes. Now, that's a real bummer.

References: AHAJournals, Arterio Thromb and Vasc Bio, Am Jr Clin Nutr.,Purdue News, Frontiers in Pharma., Frontiers in Immuno., Am Jr of Clin Nutr.,

Pop Quiz 

1. Saturated fat causes inflammation? T or F. Answer: It actually potentiates it if there are other things present. Like too many calories. Life leaky gut and LPS molecules in your blood. 

2. You can measure a unique intermediate metabolite that appears to be the smoking gun nexus with saturated fat activation of inflammation. What it is? Answer: Ceramides. 

3. You mean, if I eat coconut oil (a short-chain fatty acid mix) and a life eating only coconuts and fish on a Pacific Island, I might not get in trouble. Answer: Yup. (No fair - not mentioned in the column above.) 

4. If blood glucose is the problem, then weight loss and reduction of blood glucose reduces the amount of fat in my gut, and reduces the LPS particles in my blood, and that may reduce more risk than not eating bacon? T or F. Answer: Whew, long question. Yes, it is more important to lose weight and control your tummy fat than to avoid bacon. If bacon helps you lose weight. Go for it. 

5. Close your eyes and imagine the one food you can add to anything you eat that makes the food MUCH better. What is it? Answer: Bacon. I find it interesting that the food we all yearn for is fatty animal food. Suggests that is what we have been eating for 4 million years. That must be true because I found a pound in the back of my fridge that looked at least that old.

The column was written by Dr. John E Whitcomb, MD at Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI ( or 262-784-5593