The facts on fats

When it comes to breast cancer prevention, and in some cases treatment, the so-called bad fats are actually the good guys, and the safe substitutes are increasingly being shown up for what they really are: fabricated foods that can cause disease, including breast cancer.

In today’s nutritional world, fat has become a dirty word. Women, in particular, are encouraged to eat a low-fat diet to help prevent breast cancer and other ailments and types of cancer. Animal fats such as butter have taken a terrible beating in the media over the past few decades and have been blamed for horrific crimes, including obesity, heart disease and cancer. Accordingly, Western people have been virtually brainwashed into thinking that butter and other predominantly saturated fats like coconut oil are unhealthy.

So-called safe substitutes like margarine and various refined vegetable oils, including corn and cottonseed, have been heavily advertised, the result being the public associates them with health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, these contentions and claims are often false.


All fats are not the same

A common misconception held by the general public and some food writers is that all fats are essentially the same. There are, to be sure, certain fats and oils that we need to avoid, but we must always be very specific as to what those are.

Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms linked together in certain ways with an acid, or carboxyl group, attached to their end. When three fatty acids are bonded together with a glycerol molecule, the result is a triglyceride. In lipid biochemistry, all fatty acids are classified according to the number of carbon atoms present in their structure, as well as the degree of saturation, or how many hydrogen atoms are bonded to the carbons. A fatty acid that has two hydrogen atoms linked to each carbon atom is saturated; a fatty acid with two hydrogens missing is monounsaturated; and a fatty acid with four or more hydrogens missing is polyunsaturated. All fats and oils, whether of animal or vegetable origin, are blends of these three types, but with one usually predominating, depending on the food in question.

Saturated fats predominate principally in animal fats, though palm and coconut oils are noted plant sources. Monounsaturated fats abound in nuts, avocado, olive oil and some animal fats (especially lard). Polyunsaturated fats mostly make up vegetable oils, but significant amounts are found in fish oils and chicken skin.

It should be noted here that the more a fat is saturated, the more stable it is chemically. Saturated and monounsaturated fats do not go rancid easily if stored properly. Likewise, these fats are more stable under heat, making them ideal for cooking. Polyunsaturated fats are not as stable and go rancid more quickly, even in the body. Rancid oils breed cancer-causing and tissue-damaging free radicals. For this reason, while some polyunsaturated fats are needed by the body (the so-called essential fatty acids), they should not exceed about five per cent of your total caloric intake.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs)

The two EFAs are linolenic (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic (an omega-6 fatty acid). The 3 and 6 indicate where the first double bond occurs in the fatty acid molecule. For example, in an omega-3 fatty acid, the first double bond occurs at the third carbon atom.

The body takes the EFAs and creates other omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and hormone-like substances called prostaglandins to carry out a host of metabolic functions. Like vitamins and minerals, EFAs must be derived from food intake. In times past, humans consumed a balance of linolenic and other omega-3 fatty acids (found principally in coldwater fish, walnuts, eggs, flax oil, dark green leafy vegetables, cod liver oil and some whole grains) and linoleic and other omega-6 fatty acids (found principally in vegetables). This is as it should be, as both are equally important.

When there is an overabundance of linoleic acid in the diet, however, the body’s ability to absorb and utilise linolenic acid is inhibited. This causes a host of undesirable reactions, including sexual and immune dysfunction and increased cancer risk. The Western world has greatly increased its linoleic acid intake because of its higher use of vegetable oils over the past 60 years. Not surprisingly, cancer (and heart disease) rates have increased.


Trans-fatty acids (TFAs)

There is another type of fatty acid, called a trans-fatty acid (TFA), produced during chemical processing. TFAs are unnatural fats that the body cannot utilise properly because of their chemical structure. With a TFA, a liquid vegetable oil is made solid by forcing hydrogen atoms into it with the help of a nickel catalyst. In terms of visual appearance, a hydrogenated fat looks like a saturated one, since both are solid at room temperature. On a molecular level, however, the TFA is quite different, making it unusable by the body. These fake fats are found in margarine, vegetable oil spreads, vegetable shortening and refined canola oil. It is the consumption of trans-fatty acid, as opposed to saturated fatty acid, that is strongly correlated with cancer, cardiovascular disease and other diseases.


Research on TFAs

Dr Mary Enig, PhD, is a recognised researcher of lipid biochemistry. In 1978 Enig and two colleagues published a ground-breaking paper that analysed the claims made for cancer and fat intake. Then, as now, the widely accepted notion was that a higher intake of saturated fatty acids increased the risk of cancer, while increased consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (the kind found in vegetable oils) offered a protective effect. Enig contended that the data actually showed the opposite.

In the ensuing years, Enig turned her attention to trans-fatty acids, their ever-increasing presence in Western diets and their role as disease promoters. According to Enig, “The TFAs have been shown to correlate with the incidence of breast cancer… When it comes to other diseases, there is evidence of adverse effects of the TFAs as factors in heart disease, diabetes, poor infant growth and development, and hormonal and immune system dysfunction. TFAs also inhibit prostaglandin synthesis.”

It would appear, then, that the bad fats are the very ones women have been told over the past few decades to consume more of: margarine, vegetable shortening and vegetable oils (including corn, soy, safflower and cottonseed oils). Furthermore, the evidence implicating TFAs as causative factors in breast cancer is growing stronger. Because of their wide presence in processed foods, women should check food labels and be on the lookout for these biochemical marauders.

Are saturated fats bad?

Despite current beliefs that saturated fats cause an increased risk of cancer, a long-term study of 60,000 women recently completed in Scandinavia showed no such connection. There was, however, a high rate of cancer associated with vegetable oil consumption.

There are many vital nutrients and substances found in saturated fats. Butter, for example, is rich in several trace minerals, including selenium, a key antioxidant and cancer preventer. Several studies have linked low selenium levels with higher cancer and heart disease rates. Butter also contains all the fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamins A and D, which are both antioxidants and protective against cancer. Butter also contains fair amounts of two fatty acids: butyric and lauric. Both of these are antifungal, antibacterial and anticarcinogenic substances. Butter is also the best source of a particular fatty acid thats been attracting much attention lately: conjugated linoleic acid.

Coconut and palm kernel oils and Roquefort cheese are significant sources of lauric acid. Formerly used widely in baked goods, coconut oil is very rich in lauric acid. This fatty acid converts in the intestines into monolaurin, a powerful antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial substance. Coconut oil also contains caprylic acid, a powerful antifungal. Recent research shows coconut oil to be stimulatory to the immune system and to offer substantial benefits to HIV-positive individuals.

Does increased saturated fat intake increase your chances for heart disease? Enig says, “No. The idea that dietary saturated fats and cholesterol cause heart disease or clogged arteries is completely wrong. Studies have actually revealed that arterial plaque is mostly made up of unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturates.”

In fact, the body needs saturated fats to properly utilise EFAs. In addition, saturated fats are responsible for the following: lowering the blood levels of the artery-damaging lipoprotein A (LpA levels are elevated by TFAs); proper calcium utilisation in the bones; and stimulating the immune system. They are the preferred food for the heart and other vital organs and, along with cholesterol, add structural stability to the cell wall.

One caveat: its important to try to obtain organic sources of fats, as environmental toxins are lipophilic, or fat loving. It’s worth a few more dollars to look for organic butter and other animal foods. If your budget just won’t permit you to buy organic all the time, purchase organic sources of the food items you use the most, to minimise your exposure to possible toxins.


Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

CLA is a fatty acid produced by ruminating animals such as cows. CLA is an isomer of linoleic acid; the natural forms are found in milk fat (especially high-fat cheeses) and meat fat. CLA has been shown to inhibit the development of cancer, including breast cancer. Indeed, the October 2000 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition contained a research abstract describing how CLA inhibited breast cancer cell growth. As a side benefit, several studies have shown CLA to promote muscle growth and fat burning by the body.

Some supplement companies now manufacture CLA in capsule form, but the best source is fat from grass-fed cows. Its important that you look for full-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, butter) and meats from grass-fed animals because cows manufacture CLA from grass in their stomachs. Commercially raised cows that eat only soybeans or cornmeal produce little, if any, CLA. New Zealand’s butter and meat products are from grass-fed livestock, as are those from smaller farms. It should be pointed out here that non- or low-fat dairy foods will obviously contain little to no CLA (or the fat-soluble vitamins A and D).

The right fat diet

Avoiding phony fats like margarine and vegetable shortening, as well as processed vegetable oils that are high in polyunsaturates, is a must for any woman looking to prevent breast cancer and ill health. Taking extra care to include organic sources of healthy fats like olive oil, butter and coconut oil, as well as CLA-rich foods from grass-fed cattle, will help prevent breast cancer and other diseases.


Breast cancer & dairy foods

Scientist Jane Plant, has faced breast cancer five times since 1987. Today her body is cancer-free and she attributes her recovery to a strict dairy-free diet. Despite having no family history of breast cancer, Jane experienced five recurrences of the disease. On her fifth diagnosis, given just three months to live, she decided to cut dairy out of her diet. Seven years later she is cancer-free. Plant ensured she received adequate calcium from certain fruits and vegetables, and spreads such as tahini (a sesame spread).

Plant claims there is a link between Western diets with high dairy consumption and high rates of breast cancer. She had worked in China on the links between the environment and human health, and noticed that many Chinese people did not consume dairy products because they often lack the enzyme needed to digest them.

Plants theory is based on the fact that dairy products contain certain hormones (for example, oestrogen, prolactin and oxytocin) and, in addition, growth factors. These growth factors are designed to keep young cattle developing once they are out of the mothers womb and can eat grass. One of these growth factors, called IGF-1, has been strongly implicated in both breast and prostate cancer by many researchers. Also, milk can contain concentrations of artificial chemicals that the body cannot distinguish from hormones such as oestrogen, and these are thought to disrupt the bodys hormone system.

Plant believes that rather than cause cancer, dairy promotes cancer because of the substances in it. The statistics on breast cancer in countries like Thailand, Japan, China and Korea, which have never adopted a dairy diet, contrast very markedly with statistics in the West where people adopted a dairy diet about 8000 years ago. Migration studies of different populations show that when Chinese people emigrate and live on a Western diet, their likelihood of developing cancer increases. Studies conducted on breast cancer cultures are consistent with dairy products causing both breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.

For further information, read Jane Plants book Your Life in Your Hands: Understanding, Preventing and Overcoming Breast Cancer (St Martins Press Inc, December 2000).

Authors Note

The jury appears to be out on whether the issue at stake here is dairy alone or the processing of dairy fats. I believe the dangers are coming from pasteurised, homogenised milk from commercially raised cattle. If Jane Plant’s theories are correct, we should logically see high rates of breast cancer among women from cultures that consume a lot of dairy products (such as certain East African tribes or groups in the Middle East that consume camel and/or water buffalo milk), but we don’t. The likely reason is that the milk these people drink is raw and/or cultured into yoghurt or similar products. Raw and/or fermented dairy is much easier to digest and contains all the enzymes required to digest it. Once milk is pasteurised, the enzymes are lost and the proteins in the milk are altered, rendering it hard to digest. The higher rates of breast and prostate cancer seen in countries that introduce milk products are invariably those in which pasteurised rather than raw products are consumed. Furthermore, its difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of cancer in a population group where many variable carcinogens are operating simultaneously.


In brief

  • Saturated fats predominate principally in animal fats, palm and coconut oil.
  • Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, avocado, olive oil and some animal fats.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, fish oils and chicken skin.
  • The more a fat is saturated, the more stable it is chemically.
  • Saturated and monounsaturated fats are more stable under heat, making them ideal for cooking.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are not as stable and therefore go more rancid than saturated and monounsaturated fats. Rancid oils breed tissue-damaging free radicals.
  • Its recommended that polyunsaturated fats in the form of essential fatty acids (EFAs) make up five per cent of daily caloric intake.
  • EFAs include linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, coldwater fish, walnuts, eggs, flax oil, dark green leafy vegetables, cod liver oil and whole grains.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids are principally found in vegetables and vegetable oils.
  • An overabundance of linoleic acid (as with excess use of vegetable oils) inhibits the absorption of linolenic acid, causing a host of undesirable reactions.
  • Trans-fatty acids, found in margarine, vegetable oil spreads, shortening and canola oil are strongly correlated with increased cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • High lauric-containing oils (such as coconut and palm oils) prevent experimentally induced cancer.
  • Butter is rich in vitamins and trace minerals, including selenium, a key antioxidant and cancer preventer.
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), found in full-fat dairy products, has been found to inhibit breast cancer cell growth and promote muscle growth and fat burning.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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