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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 13 2017

Will Saturated Fat Kill Your Cells?

By Mark Sisson
45 Comments

Inline_Saturated_Fat_CellsNo matter what kind of evidence comes out to the contrary, the anti-saturated fat sect won’t relinquish its dogma. Whenever its advance is rebuffed—perhaps by an observational study showing the lack of relations between saturated fat intake and heart disease, or a study showing the beneficial effects of saturated fat on multiple health markers—they regroup and try another route. The latest is a study that several readers sent to me, worried that the attack had finally made it through the defenses. In it, researchers purport to show that saturated fat increases the solidity and rigidity of cellular membranes, reducing membrane fluidity and eventually leading to cell death.

Is it true? Have we finally lost? What was this study all about?

First, there’s this. They weren’t dealing with live humans or even whole animals fed butter or coconut oil. They extracted living cells and bathed them in solutions of different fatty acid concentrations to see how it would affect the lipid concentration of the cell membranes.

This study focused on the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), which takes up about half of the cell membrane and has high metabolic activity. The ER produces lipids and hormones and contains ribosomes that synthesize proteins. It’s an important part of the cell, and it needs the right amount of fluidity to perform its tasks. Not too rigid, not too liquid.

The setup sounds a bit silly—are our cells really “bathed” in fatty acids?

Before you claim certain victory, this wasn’t an entirely convoluted scenario that would never happen in nature. They weren’t just brute forcing saturated fat into the membranes. They actually found that exposing the cells to different fats had different effects on cellular lipid synthesis—the creation of fats—in the membranes. With more saturated fat (palmitic acid, in this case), for example, the cells synthesized more saturated fat and incorporated it into the membranes.

What happened?

The more palmitic acid a cell was exposed to, and the longer the exposure persisted, the more saturated and less fluid the cell membrane became. This wasn’t good. A cell membrane needs to be fluid for it to perform its functions. Solid membranes will eventually kill the cell.

So, saturated fat is bad again?

Not quite. We must keep in mind that more fluidity isn’t always desirable. In some Alzheimer’s patients, for example, platelets and brain cells are excessively fluid.

And finally, this wasn’t a diet study. They weren’t feeding fat sources to animals or humans and studying the effects of cell membrane fluidity. There’s no indication that the cellular environments they created bear any relation to the cellular environments we create by eating different fats. When you do that in actual humans, the fluidity of the dietary fatty acids consumed has no relationship to stroke or heart attack risk. The fluidity of the plasma, which is a more similar scenario to the one examined in this study, does. The next phase of this study would need to look at how the foods we eat affect the fluidity of our membranes.

I don’t think it will show what they expect.

All that said, it’s a good idea to eat a mix of fatty acids. Many studies show that the incorporation of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats into saturated fat-rich cellular membranes normalizes their function. We need both. We need them all. Hell, the study featured in this post got the same results by adding a little oleic acid or DHA to the palmitic acid soup. It completely normalized membrane fluidity and, in their words, was able to “rescue the cytotoxicity” of palmitic acid.

We see this pop up in other studies. Isolated palmitic acid has a number of dastardly effects on health, while adding different fats changes the game entirely:

  • One example is that pure palmitic acid reduces LDL receptor activity, which can increase the concentration of LDL particles in the blood and increase the chance that they’ll become oxidized and damage the endothelial walls. But if you add a little bit of oleic acid, the LDL receptor activity normalizes.
  • Another is that palmitic acid is toxic to muscle cells, impairing glucose uptake and increasing insulin resistance. But if you add a little arachidonic acid (an omega-6 found in most animal foods), the lipotoxicity goes away.
  • Pure palmitic acid also triggers an inflammatory cascade that disrupts insulin signaling and looks an awful lot like pre-diabetes. Good thing that adding a little oleic acid blocks the inflammation.

That’s a more realistic situation for our cell membranes. And while it’s easy to get caught up in scary research results, we have to understand that the situations they contrive are not representative of waking, eating, walking reality. We don’t eat pure palmitic acid. We eat food containing dozens of different fatty acids. About the only time we get a huge influx of pure palmitic acid is when we eat too many carbohydrates and our liver converts the excess into palmitic acid. Thus, olive oil isn’t “rescuing” us from the palmitic acid we eat. It’s all just food. The “rescuing” comes built in, as long as you’re eating food.

Unless you’ve got a fatty acid fractionator for isolating your own palmitic acid which you then inject directly into your blood, don’t worry about this one. Not yet, anyway.

Just keep eating your Primal diet—and the diverse fats in it:

Your avocado oil and olive oil.

Your butter and cheese and yogurt.

Your red palm oil.

Your meat, your eggs, your fish.

And keep doing all the other good things you’re doing.

All will be well.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think? Still worried? Share your thoughts down below.

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45 thoughts on “Will Saturated Fat Kill Your Cells?”

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  1. Lard has a combination of Oleic acid, Palmitoleic acid, and linoleic acid so by their own study its good for you. Its almost as if nature gave us the components in other animals to feed ourselves and not slowly kill ourselves via heart disease and the like, weird, who knew. Im waiting for vegan/vegatarian minded friends and family who are easily swayed to bring it up. Thank you mark, I figured the headlines were biased.

  2. Dr. Barry Sears, PhD, who authored the Zone and has a background with MIT, etc., has stated since his first book that Saturated Fatty Acids are inflammatory. He recently stated on his website, “Saturated fats are pro-inflammatory compounds nd will antagonize the benefits of the polyphenols.” (www.drsears.com September 2017) So, what is the bottom line from science?

    1. Barry Sears is not science. He is an inventor of a crazy diet no evidence based.

      1. Really? So, his work at MIT doesn’t count nor PhD or patents? Or his schooling to include University of Virginia Medical School, Department of Biochemistry, or, Boston University Medical School, Department of Medicine? Unfortunately, you are not aware of the facts.

        1. On page 87ff of his most famous book Enter the Zone, Sears demonstrates seemingly beyond doubt that he is neither competent or honest. After spending chapters extolling his scientifically designed 30% ‘healthy’ fat diet he proceeds to outline in detail a diet that contains just 16 grams of fat(!) See also his tables on page 88. He seems to sense something is wrong with his numbers, and winds up saying “Actually that’s not much fat at all- remember a Zone favorable diet is a low fat diet.” (p 87) This from a man who has claimed throughout the book to have carefully designed, used himself and prescribed successfully to many others the zone diet- a pillar of which is carefully controlled 30% fat intake. Yet when he tells the reader how to implement said diet he gives tables and recipes which constitute a below 10% fat diet. How is it possible that he has used and prescribed the diet for years, and when it comes to describing the details of the diet, he completely flounders? Not to put to fine a point on it, but the man is a confabulator.

    2. The bottom line from science is that there rarely is a bottom line. Typically and historically, researchers change their stance every few years as new information comes to light, and, of course, depending on the agenda of whoever is funding the study. I doubt that Barry Sears has all the answers. No one does because there are way too many variables. Since there aren’t any guarantees, Mark’s advice is probably the best advice.

      1. Sears isn’t claiming all of the answers; in fact if you look at the history of current low carb ‘diets’, Sears was actually the guy who took the heat back in the 90s for saying fat is good, focus your carbs on vegetables and some fruits and don’t overdo the protein. (He also showed the fallacy of Atkins’ metabolic advantage claims.) This was before similar books like Protein Power and others followed suit. Sears has also worked with Dr. David Ludwig, MD/PhD, who is an endocrinologist at Harvard School of Medicine. Ludwig’s recommendations aren’t too far off from Sears’. I enjoy Mark’s information, but, I want the applicable and peer-reviewed science.

        1. Parker, you seem a tad too impressed by credentials. The only bottom line to be had is what works or does not work for each of us as individuals, which is subject to change at any given point in our lives. Peer-reviewed science can’t help you with that because those people don’t live in your body.

          1. Shary…because credentials are to be ignored? Just like that? There is a diff between being overly impressed, simply impressed (why is that a bad thing?) And citing them to strangers like you, to bolster an argument, that someone is not relying on uncredentialed sources. Esp. in this absurd fake news climate.

            You dont have the right to dismiss peoples scien ce creds, because yoube become an advocate for a personal choice.

            And unless you have a a fair amount of extra cash lying around, you are guessing as to whats going on inside your body, not truly knowing on a metabolic level.

          2. Boregard, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lame advice from people with credentials who persisted in barking up the wrong tree simply because they assumed (as you do) that their creds were an adequate replacement for intelligence.

          3. There you go again…assuming you fully know a posters opinions, because they defended, logically, that credentials just cant be dismissed out of hand. Never did I or the other poster say we equate educational, and/or experiential creds, with general intelligence. But you put that on us, due to your anecdotal experience. Im sure we’ve all had a bad experience with an “expert”, but Ive had more positive ones, to outweigh the bad. Especially with medical issues, or anything science based.

            Maybe you just dont know how to pick good credentialed professionals…? Or take advice from people with X cred, on Z subject? I dont rely on an engineer to give me tax advice.

          4. Credentials aside, if you study logic you will find that appeal to authority is perhaps the weakest logical argument.

          5. If you studied logic, you’d know I did no such thing.

            But IF you and the other poster has studied logic, and used it with reason, youd see how youve set yourselves, and perhaps Sisson up as an authority. And even yourselves, perhaps? Relying on personal anecdotal evidence as enough to make you experts, but who act like zealots… perhaps?

            Plus, if a poster just names drops, with no creds, you/others will then ask for them. So around and around your reasoning goes. The poster in question avoided the problem, posted the creds, then was roundly dismissed by another for relying on a contrary POV, from not just any Joe Schmo poster, but somone with some expertise. How evil.

            Then you chime with an irrelevancy.

      2. To expand on Shary’s point, defenders of Saturated fat (e.g. Jeff Volek, Mark Hyman) have been very clear that high saturated fat in the context of a high carb diet is not good. And high Saturated fat in the bloodstream is not good, which is what it sounds like Barry is talking about. However, as has been shown both through logic and metabolic ward experiments, Saturated Fat in the blood stream is significantly higher for people who eat high carb (due to conversion of the carbs to a form of saturated fat by the liver), not for those who eat a lot of Saturated fat but who are lower carb and are fat adapted so the fat is burned for fuel rather than being stored.

        And Parker, No, all the fancy titles and “peer reviewed” science don’t matter if the evidence doesn’t support the position. That is called an appeal to authority and if that’s all you have, you have no argument. It was people with fancy titles and “peer reviewed” science that are largely responsible for getting us into the mess we’re in, and people like Mark and Paul Jaminet and others have no formal related title and who are not under the influence of dogma who have largely been leading the charge to challenge the dogma. I could go on all day about the bad science that has passed “peer review”.

    3. Saturated fat has been found to be inflammatory in many studies. It is well documented. However, according to Mark Hyman, MD it is supposed to be inflammatory in the presence of a high carb diet. It is not said to be so in a low carb setting. I have not looked at the research myself but I do trust Hyman to do his due diligence before making such a claim. But maybe I am being naive and he is all about selling his books, but I don’t think so. He is a good functional Medicine doctor and I trust his research, just like I trust Mark to do a good job of his. I am not going to worry about it too much because if I am eating right I am getting a variety of fats, and really the amounts we are talking about on our diet, even a keto version, really isn’t all that much.

  3. Sent this study into the bin as soon as I read it. As you observe, all real foods come with a mix of fatty acids. I would imagine that if they bathed the cells in pure PUFA, this would also create issues with the membranes, probably wouldn’t be stiff enough and prone to oxidative damage.

  4. Saturated/monounsaturated/coconut oil (Medium chain saturated fatty acids) clog my blood vessels. Heated oils make free radicals. I can eat poached cage free/antibiotic free/organically fed eggs and raw walnuts (open shells to avoid hidden gluten and freeze so not rancid). I can have fish oil/evening primrose oil/lecithin/CLA/phosphatidylserine/DMAE. I can’t eat meat/dairy/olive oil/coconut oil and more. I have to be very careful .Capillaries break for coconut oil and I have no circulation where I put coconut oil on my skin. Polyunsaturated fat is good for me. When my thyroid was too low I could not even have fish oil.

    1. I’m curious to what genetic factors are at play that makes so many normally healthy oils dangerous for you. How do certain fatty acids break or clog your blood vessels? I’m not doubting your claims, I’ve just never heard of that reaction to fats.

      1. Mitochondrial issues/Celiac. My dad died of 100% clogged blood vessels. I am sure more people are affected like me and they will have to change their promotion of eating mostly saturated fat etc . Some Alternative doctors died of heart attacks. Were any of these due to fat they ate? I think my body is going too slow to use these fats.

  5. Good read as always Mark. I just find it extremely hard to believe that with all the complexities involved in cholesterol, metabolism and heart health that we can so easily say “saturated fat is bad”. Just gut health alone changes that equation.

  6. I don’t question if my Primal lifestyle is doing me good because of how I feel at rest and during strenuous work. If I was out of breath after a sprint I would then begin to wonder if this lifestyle was actually doing me any good but the fact is after an all out sprint, I’m not even breathing very hard. I’m 56 yrs old and my 25 yr old son has even commented how I’m not out of breath after a sprint. It wasn’t that way before going Primal and I’m near the 100% Primal lifestyle now.So I’m one of those people that have to see it to believe it so after seeing what Primal has done for my body and life, why would I question if what I’m doing is right just because of a naysaying article. That’s the main reason I don’t read mainstream articles on health like AARP, etc…

    1. Very good, Roger. Lucky you for your super life style. I’m 72 every day I do some sets of push up of 40-50 reps, 40-50 reps of squats, 7-10 reps pullups, 20-40 reps of sittup. I eat everything but always vegetable dominate my meals. Now my BMI 22.23. Thx heaven.

  7. It’s so amazing as to how determined these deluded people are.
    Funny thing is that it’s so obvious as to what happens if you eat a high carb diet and either low fat or high fat, low protein or high protein…metabolic syndrome.

    This public delusion created by profiteers reminds me of a famous 1927 song

    “50 Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong!’….oh yes they can!

  8. I recently heard on Ben Greenfield’s podcast that if someone has the APOE-4 gene then a high saturated fat intake might not be optimal, even detrimental. It appears 20% of the population might have this gene. The recommendation was to switch to olive or avocado oils.

    1. Although maybe not as well known as the APOE-4 gene … folks with certain polymorphism of the FTO gene also don’t do so well with high saturated fat intake. It’s always good to include other non-saturated fat sources like fatty fishes, e.g. salmon, sardines, etc. and or nuts.

  9. All these studies make me crazy! Because most people just look at the headline, and not at the study itself (since they are usually pretty boring to read.) This one has nothing to do with what we are actually eating. Even if you are consuming nothing but saturated fat, it wouldn’t be straight palmitic acid anyway. And a primal diet includes a wide variety of fats. And bottom line, don’t worry what the studies say…pay attention to yourself. I’ve been primal for years now, and can honestly say I keep feeling even better as I have increased my fat consumption and gone more keto. More energy, better focus, prettier skin and more muscle definition…I’ll gladly take those results.

  10. Good points made here. Every type of fatty acid (except trans) has a purpose and a place. In fact, various endocannabinoids incorporate Omega 3, 6, 9 and saturated (anandamide, oleamide and stearamide).

  11. > sigh < Why do people make things so convoluted and complicated! Love knowing I can send people your way, Mark, for the real deal on the latest sat-fat scare. Thank you!

  12. This is one challenge I find with research. Many of the people who read studies like this don’t know much about the science or the implication of cell-based studies compared to ones in humans. People represent much more complex systems with many more aspects than a in vivo study could ever hope to replicate.

    Studies like this are basically just the first steps in understanding whether a topic is worth studying in detail. They certainly shouldn’t be taken as solid conclusions on the topic.

  13. The food industry will forever battle to demonise fat as it is not shelf stable and goes rancid quickly, they cannot have this. Food has to last an eon & always taste the same for them, forget that we need the vitamins & minerals incorporated in fat.

  14. Mark, thank you for taking the time to do the in depth studying on these “studies” and not helping spread the fear and misinformation. MOST people do not know the info that you publish, but it is life changing.
    Keep doing what you are doing my friend.

    1. Jakson, I wish the mainstream media and conventional medicine would change enough to put me out of a job (at least this one), but until then I’ll keep scrutinizing. Thanks – M

  15. I agree with Darleena and Victor. I’d also put more emphasis on individual differences here.

    “Because medium and small LDL particles are more highly associated with cardiovascular disease than are larger LDL, the present results suggest that very high saturated fat intake may increase cardiovascular disease risk in phenotype B individuals.” PMID: 28166253

    1. However, phenotype B is just a function of insulin and carbohydrate, not something you’re born with; it’s reversed to pattern A when the fasting TG/HDL level goes below 1.5, and saturated fat contributes to pattern A at low carbohydrate intakes, pattern B at high ones.

      1. “Complex segregation analyses in families, heritability analyses in twins, and recent linkage analyses, uniformly support the presence of genetic influences on LDL subclass phenotypes. However, environmental and behavioural influences on LDL subclasses have also been documented” PMID: 1485942.

        Did you look at PMID: 28166253 ?

  16. Hi Mark,

    With respect to smoke point, is it safe to pan sear a steak using avocado oil?

  17. Hi, Mark,
    I really appreciate your normalizing attitude: it’s nutrition-ism that freaks us out. If we just eat real food the body takes care of itself! Thanks for the encouragement. Sincerely, Sylvia (medical anthropologist)