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There are many theories around consumption of fats, an important part of our diet. Saturated fats have been in the line of fire for more than three decades. These are found in butter, ghee, coconut and palm oil. Saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature, has been out of favour and replaced by refined oils and hydrogenated fats (vanaspati and margarine) by most people. The opinion of the scientific community appears to be changing around this.
Saturated fats, also called non-essential (not unimportant) fats. This is because the body does not require saturated fats through diet as it can produce them when needed, unlike essential fatty acids found predominantly in oils, which need to be consumed through your diet.
All saturated fats are not equal and these fats are not as bad as they are made out to be. Until now, it was believed that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease. However, recent research suggests that they also play a protective role towards health and heart disease. The nurses’ health study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2012 — in which 80,082 women participated — reported the strongest association of coronary heart disease was with intake of trans-fatty acids; saturated fat was only weakly and non-significantly associated with risk of heart disease.
Consumption of saturated fat is known to increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol without changing the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. A recent meta-analysis showed a consistent lack of an association between saturated fat intake and heart disease and stroke. It was also reported that LDL and HDL cholesterol are independent predictors of heart disease. Recent animal studies have reported that a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates prevents the development and progression of heart disease compared to low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets.
Incidentally, not all saturated fatty acids in natural fats are atherogenic (lead to formation of fatty deposits in arteries). Butter, clarified butter (desi ghee), coconut oil and palm oil as a part of a healthy diet are not contra-indicated. Epidemiological and experimental data regarding coconut-eating groups note that dietary coconut oil neither leads to high cholesterol nor increased risk to coronary artery disease.
Virgin coconut oil supplementation has been shown to have the capability of reducing the oxidative stress and protective role towards cardiovascular diseases. A study conducted in 2004 at University of Kerala demonstrated the potential beneficial effect of virgin coconut oil in lowering lipid levels in serum and tissues and LDL oxidation by physiological antioxidants and polyphenols present in the oil. This effect is specially noted when saturated fats replace carbohydrates. Another source of saturated fats, palm oil, has been shown to protect against heart disease by increasing HDL (good cholesterol), without raising the overall cholesterol levels.
Remember the principle of variety — use a combination of healthy fats, including saturated fats, to maintain good health and say no to hydrogenated trans-fats.