Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Eat Fat for Weight Loss

As most low-carbers already know, eating fat produces satiety. But in some cases, eating fat also helps a dieter lose weight.

It turns out that the chain length of the fatty acids in the triglyceride is an important factor in choosing a fat that promotes weight loss. Most of the fats found in a normal diet will contain long-chain fatty acids. That is, most of the triglycerides we eat will have fatty acids that contain between 13 and 22 carbons. These long-chain fatty acids are digested in the gut, where they are packaged into chylomicrons. The chylomicrons are moved into the lymphatic system and eventually enter the blood at the left subclavian vein in the upper chest. (A review of the process can be found here.)

When the chylomicrons reach the blood, the long-chain fatty acids in them can be absorbed by any cell, including fat cells, that contain lipoprotein lipase. Once these fatty acids are absorbed into a fat cell, they are still available for later mobilization into the blood via hormone-sensitive lipase. But in insulin-resistant individuals, the activity of hormone-sensitive lipase is down-regulated by high insulin levels. In those people, stored fat tends to remain in storage.

Medium-chain fatty acids contain from 6 to 12 carbons. (In a normal diet, the most common source is probably butter, which contains about 10% medium-chain fatty acids. For those who shop the health food aisles, another source is coconut oil, containing about 66% medium chain fatty acids.) Medium-chain fatty acids are processed differently in the gut. Because they are more water-soluble, they tend not to be packaged into chylomicrons. Instead, they are absorbed from the gut directly into the blood as free fatty acids. Medium-chain fatty acids are bound to serum albumin in the blood, and in that form they travel to the liver where they are used primarily for energy production. Some are converted to ketones that are in turn used for energy by many of the cells of the body.

A 1996 review article by Bach et al. discussed the fact that, compared with long-chain triglycerides, medium-chain triglycerides have more rapid delivery to the liver, higher oxidation rates, poorer rates of incorporation into fat cells, and greater control of satiety. However, there were some counteracting factors that suggested that eating medium-chain fatty acids might not produce the expected reduction in body weight.

After that review article was published, Marie-Pierre St-Onge and her colleagues began studying the effect of human diets that were either rich in medium-chain triglycerides or rich in long-chain triglycerides. The medium-chain triglyceride oil contained primarily caprylic (8 carbons, saturated) and capric (10 carbons, saturated) fatty acids. The long-chain triglyceride oil was olive oil, which contains primarily oleic acid (18 carbons, monounsaturated).

In a randomized crossover controlled feeding trial published in 2003, energy expenditure was measured before and up to 5.5 hours after eating a breakfast meal. Although both groups saw increases in fat oxidation and energy expenditure following the meal, the medium-chain triglyceride group saw larger increases at some though not all of the timepoints after the breakfast meal. The medium-chain triglyceride group also saw a trend toward lower energy intake at the subsequent lunch meal. Not surprisingly, over the four-week duration of the study, the medium-chain triglyceride group saw a significant loss of total adipose tissue of about 1.8 pounds. The reduction in adipose of the olive oil group did not reach significance.

In 2008 Dr. St-Onge and colleagues performed a 16-week double-blind non-crossover weight loss study in overweight men and women. Once again, the groups were divided according to diets containing either medium-chain triglycerides or olive oil. Women consumed 1500 calories per day and men consumed 1800 calories per day, with about 12% of these calories as the prescribed study oil. At the end of the study, those who consumed medium-chain triglyceride oil had lost about 3.7 more pounds of body weight than those in the olive oil group. The loss of total fat mass was also about 3.2 pounds greater in the medium-chain triglyceride group compared with the olive oil group.

These findings are consistent with those of other investigators, both for animal models of obesity and for humans. In 2007 a group in China performed a pilot study to see if other health parameters are affected with the ingestion of medium-chain triglycerides. For ninety days, forty moderately overweight type 2 diabetic patients were given either 18 grams per day of medium-chain triglycerides or 18 grams per day of corn oil. The medium-chain triglyceride group showed a reduction in body weight, a reduction in waist circumference, a decline in serum cholesterol, an increase in serum C-peptide and a reduction of insulin resistance.

The studies discussed in this blogpost are not definitive, and much more research will be necessary to see if medium-chain triglycerides are an effective tool for reducing obesity. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that, at least in an experimental setting, these fats are able to decrease fat mass in both overweight men and women over time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To Eat Saturates or Not to Eat Saturates?

As we discussed in the previous post, saturated fats are not fats that are saturated with calories or saturated with cholesterol. "Saturated" is a chemical term that can be thought of as a measure of the stability of a particular fat in the presence of heat, light and oxygen. Saturated fats are more stable than monounsaturated fats and much more stable than polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature. The richest sources are from animals (lard, butter, tallow) or from tropical plants (coconut oil, palm oil).

When heart disease began to become prevalent in the 20th century, scientists looked for a cause and decided that saturated fats were a good candidate. By the end of the 20th century most people thought that the science was settled--eating saturated fats causes heart disease. But studies are starting to accumulate that suggest that this isn't necessarily so.

Two articles (abstracts here and here) by Ronald Krauss and colleagues were recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They did an analysis of twenty one prospective cohort studies (i.e., these were actual clinical studies, not just correlational number crunching) and examined the relationship between intake of saturated fat and the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease. This type of analysis depends on the integrity of the authors in selecting the studies to be analyzed, especially if the authors have a bias toward a particular outcome. With that caveat, it is noteworthy that the authors concluded that "there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [coronary vascular disease]." (There was also no significant association with stroke, and the authors stated that results were not affected by age, sex or the quality of a particular study.)

The authors noted that when studies replaced saturated fat with a higher carbohydrate intake, this resulted in increased triglycerides, smaller LDL particles and reduced HDL cholesterol. In the studies that replaced saturated fat with mono- or polyunsaturated fat, patients saw a reduction in their LDL cholesterol, but they also reduced their "good" HDL cholesterol.

But these were the only studies that showed no relationship between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease, right? Not exactly.

In his blog, Dr. Michael Eades describes a group of 264 men who entered a study after experiencing their first heart attack. From 1957 to 1963 the treatment group ate a diet with about 13.5% saturated fat. The control group continued to eat their normal diet, which probably contained about 25% saturated fat according to Dr. Eades' ballpark estimate. After six years, both groups had the same heart attack relapse rate and the same death rate.

Eades also describes a study in which patients with ischemic heart disease ate either a high-saturated fat diet, a diet in which most of the fat was olive oil or a diet in which most of the fat was corn oil. After two years, 75% of the high-saturated fat group was alive and free from a second heart attack. Fifty seven percent of the olive oil group was alive and heart attack free at the completion of the study. And the corn oil group had only 52% alive and heart attack free at the end of two years.

Finally, a 2004 study by Mozaffarian et al. examined the progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women with established coronary heart disease. Comparing the intake of saturated fatty acid among these women over three years, they found that the intake of saturated fat was inversely related to the rate of progression of coronary atherosclerosis, and was unrelated both to unstable angina and to death from myocardial infarction. Unexpectedly, investigators saw a positive association between polyunsaturated fat intake and the rate of narrowing of the coronary arteries. This was particularly true in women with diabetes, lower HDL cholesterol, a lower protein intake and a higher carbohydrate intake. (It is important to note that this was a correlational study and the outcome could be affected by confounding factors that were not identified.)

To eat or not to eat saturated fat? It appears that it is up to the individual. Some studies have shown a slightly increased risk of heart disease with consumption of saturated fats, but many studies show no correlation at all. On the other hand, the increased consumption of carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates, is associated with increased triglycerides, decreased LDL particle size, and decreased HDL cholesterol, all of which are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If we have to choose between fat and carbohydrate for heart health, it appears that fat may be the better choice.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Saturated Fats/Unsaturated Fats

Since Dr. Ancel Keys and his colleagues formulated and promulgated the diet-heart hypothesis in the 1960's, the idea of eating saturated fat has become anathema in most nutritional circles. When Americans were told that that consumption of saturated fat was positively correlated with the incidence of heart disease, they began to eat more of the "heart-healthy" mono- and polyunsaturated fats and fewer of the saturated ones. In spite of that, the number of hospital discharges with cardiovascular disease as the first listed diagnosis has continued to increase in the U.S. This is especially surprising in light of the fact that the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke has declined from over 40% in 1965 to about 20% in 2007. Is it possible that saturated fats are not as evil as they have been portrayed?

To begin the discussion, it is important to understand that a saturated fat is not saturated with calories or with cholesterol. In this case, "saturated" is a chemical term, and it means that the molecule in question is saturated with hydrogens--that is, it contains the maximum number of hydrogens it can hold. Here are two fatty acids, one saturated and the other unsaturated:

In the fatty acid at the top, the carbon-carbon bond between the two green C's is a single bond. Each green carbon holds two hydrogens, and they are saturated with hydrogen. In the fatty acid at the bottom, there is a double bond between the two green C's. Each of those carbons holds one hydrogen. The carbons do not hold as many hydrogens as they possibly could and they are therefore unsaturated. This particular fatty acid has only one unsaturated carbon-carbon bond, so it is monounsaturated. If it had two or more unsaturated bonds, it would be polyunsaturated.

The important thing about unsaturated fatty acids is that the presence of a double bond weakens the carbon-hydrogen bonds on the carbons next to the double bond. In the picture above, those carbon-hydrogen bonds are marked with green asterisks. That doesn't sound particularly interesting until we understand what happens when those hydrogens are removed by something like oxygen, heat or metal ions. As soon as we remove one of the vulnerable hydrogens, our heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acid becomes a free radical. In other words, it contains an unpaired electron and it becomes extremely chemically reactive.

Once the first free radical is formed, the generation of free radicals from unsaturated fatty acids happens in a self-propagating manner. One free radical can interact with other unsaturated fatty acids to produce more free radicals, which in turn produce even more free radicals, and so on. Besides damaging the fatty acids, these free radicals can also destroy other molecules, including vitamins and proteins. In addition, the free radicals are able to react with oxygen to produce hydroperoxides. These eventually break down into aldehydes, which produce the odors and flavors associated with rancidity.

The reactivity of fatty acids increases with the number of double bonds they contain. Stearic acid is an 18-carbon saturated fatty acid. If we add one double bond, it becomes one hundred times more likely to form a free radical. If we add three double bonds, it becomes 2500 times more likely to form a free radical. The health effects of saturated versus unsaturated fatty acids won't be addressed until the next blogpost, but it is certain that saturated fatty acids are far more stable than their unsaturated counterparts.

There are several ways to decrease the likelihood of free radical formation and rancidification in fatty acids. One is to be sure that heat is not used to extract the fatty acid from its source. In the case of unrendered animal fats, this is not a problem. In the case of vegetable fats, cold pressing ensures (at least it does in the EU) that the oil will not be heated above about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately the U.S. definition of cold pressed is not particularly rigorous, so it may be necessary to check websites or make telephone calls to the manufacturer to determine the temperature a particular brand of oil reaches as it is extracted. When fat is used for cooking, it is important to realize that the higher it is heated and the longer it is heated, the more likely it will be to form free radicals.

Another strategy to avoid free radical formation and rancidification in fats and oils is to be sure that they are kept away from light, particularly UV light. It is also helpful to keep fats and oils away from oxygen. They should not be stored for long periods, and once a container is opened, it should be used up as quickly as possible.

As we have already seen, some polyunsaturated fats are necessary for growth and for optimal health. However it pays to know which fats are which and to be careful with respect to the amounts and types of dietary fats we consume. In closing, here is a table that presents the approximate composition of some common fats, arranged from the lowest to the highest percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I have a project and a deadline in the real world, so I probably won't be able to blog for a while longer. Questions and comments on previous blogposts are still welcomed, however. (Be sure to include in the comment which specific post you're commenting on. Blogger doesn't provide that information and sometimes I can't find the comments after I've accepted them.)

In the meantime, I know you'll keep moving forward on your journey into good health.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More on Omega-3 and Omega-6

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. They cannot be synthesized by the human body, but are important for growth, for cardiovascular health and for immune function. They may also be involved in a variety of other health-related issues including the prevention of cancer and of central nervous system disorders. Their effects are somewhat non-specific, but because the omega-3s in particular have shown positive effects in many controlled double-blind prospective scientific studies, people who are interested in nutrition are also interested in the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This blogpost, and the previous one, attempt to explain a few principles that may make it easier for readers to evaluate their own use of these essential fatty acids.

The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are unbranched molecules ranging from 16 to 24 carbons in length and carrying from two to six unsaturated bonds. The most common forms are illustrated above. When they are ingested in the diet, these polyunsaturated fatty acids gradually become incorporated into the phospholipid bilayers that form the cell walls of most of the cells in our bodies. As phospholipids, the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids affect the flexibility and permeability of the membrane surrounding each cell. They also exist in equilibrium with the unsaturated free fatty acids that circulate in our blood. It is this pool of free fatty acids that is used by the body as precursors for the eicosanoid signaling molecules, i.e., the prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes and prostacyclins.

From a survey of the omega-3 literature, it appears that the longer the molecule, the more biologically potent it is. (An example is found here.) The body is able to convert one form of omega-3 fatty acid to another, but it is not particularly efficient at it. For instance, although flax seed oil is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), ALA (18 carbons) is converted into EPA (20 carbons) at an efficiency of about 5-10% and into DHA (22 carbons) at an efficiency of about 2-5%. Recent studies indicate that in some individuals the conversion rates may be less than 1%. By contrast, EPA and DHA can be obtained directly from fish oil and require no modification to provide maximum protection against conditions such as coronary artery disease. Vegetarians and those who are allergic to fish will be able to eat extra ALA to compensate for the poor conversion rate to EPA and DHA, but they must bear in mind that not all omega-3s are created equal.

Another consideration in omega-3 and -6 fatty acid intake is the interchangeability of the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the eicosanoid synthesis pathways. Take a look at the figure above. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid with 20 carbons and five double bonds. AA (arachidonic acid) is an omega-6 fatty acid with 20 carbons and four double bonds. Superficially, they look very similar. These molecules also look similar to the enzymes involved in eicosanoid synthesis and, as such, they compete with one another. Metabolites of omega-6 fatty acids, particularly metabolites of arachidonic acid (20 carbons), are significantly more inflammatory than those of omega-3 fatty acids. This becomes important because the Westernized diet has a fatty acid ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that falls between 10:1 and 30:1. If our dietary raw material is almost all omega-6 fatty acids, the metabolites will be predominately pro-inflammatory. For some interesting lists of omega-6 sources, see here. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the lists, but in general they provide some surprising insights.

One way to decrease the omega-6-derived inflammatory intermediates is simply to replace omega-6 polyunsaturated fats with saturated and monounsaturated fats. (A recent journal article suggests that eating saturated fat is not as dangerous as previously thought.) Saturated and monounsaturated fats provide energy, but they cannot be converted into eicosanoid signaling molecules. Another strategy is to take advantage of the metabolic competition between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids by replacing the intake of omega-6s with omega-3s. Although the omega-3 fatty acids can be pro-inflammatory when eaten to excess (probably more than three grams per day), in general they will form less-inflammatory signaling intermediates and will also decrease the omega-6-stimulated production of small pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines.

A review article on omega-3 fatty acids suggests setting a goal of an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio between 1:1 to 1:4, though it gives no rationale for these numbers other than speculation that that was the ratio consumed by our ancestors. The article also recommends consuming fatty fish three times per week. Unfortunately the oceans are no longer pristine, and fish tend to contain pollutants such as mercury, PCBs and dioxin. For those who prefer not to take the risk, purified fish oil supplements are available from manufacturers who use high-vacuum, low-temperature molecular distillation to purify their fish oils. Another source of EPA and DHA is krill oil, which comes from animals that are low on the food chain and therefore low in pollutants. Krill oil is quite expensive, however. Meat, eggs and plant sources also contain omega-3s in varying amounts. For the obsessive-compulsive, here is a list of the total omega-3 content of 200 calories' worth of various foods.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for life. They also affect the quality of life in positive and negative ways. Because they are stored in the phospholipid bilayers of our cell membranes, they take a long time to act. They must build up, reach an equilibrium with their free fatty acid form in the blood and then be converted to intermediates. For that reason, it may take weeks or months before a negative effect starts to decline or a positive effect is noticed. However, there are many scientific articles that indicate that it may be worth the time, effort and expense of attending to our intake of these essential fatty acids.