Saturated fat has gotten a pretty bad rap in the last 50 or 60 years. It was once believed to be the primary cause of heart disease, as the majority of the cholesterol build-up on the arterial walls was comprised of saturated fat. Thus, doctors, dieticians, and nutritionists recommended that saturated fat be avoided at all costs.
Fast forward to the early 2010s, when study after study revealed that saturated fat did NOT cause heart disease as much as previously thought. In fact, saturated fat was actually necessary for healthy heart function, as well as better hormone levels, immune function, and cellular growth.
Saturated fat is no longer perceived as “the enemy”, and it is encouraged for people to eat saturated fat. In fact, many weight loss and fat-burning diets heavily feature foods with saturated fat in order to activate lipolysis (fat-burning).
But is there another danger of saturated fat, one that isn’t taken into account by dieters? Could saturated fat be reducing blood flow by preventing the body from producing nitric oxide? Below, you’ll find out everything you need to know about fats and their effect on blood flow.
The Real Cardiovascular Threats
Before we get into how saturated fat can affect your heart, it’s vital to understand that the REAL cardiovascular threats are trans fats and hydrogenated oils.
Trans fats are found in primarily liquid vegetable oils that have had hydrogen added to them. Most of the vegetable oils used for commercial purposes contain trans fats. Trans fats are the primary contributor to cholesterol.
Hydrogenated oils are any vegetable oils that have been “hydrogenated”, meaning hydrogen is added to the oils. This process turns liquid oils into solid fats, which produces artificial trans fats. The liquid-to-solid transformation occurs not only in the oils, but also in your body. The addition of the hydrogen turns liquid fats to solid (cholesterol), which raises the risk of heart disease.
As you can see, these two fats are the type you want to avoid at all costs. They are the primary contributor to an increase in your cholesterol levels, and they are what will lead to cardiovascular risk.
Saturated Fat and Nitric Oxide
To understand the connection between saturated fat and nitric oxide, you first need to understand what nitric oxide is, what it does, and where it comes from.
Nitric oxide is a molecular chemical compound gas produced primarily in the endothelial lining in the blood vessels. It’s produced to transmit signals between the 50 trillion or so cells in the body, and it plays a role in many important functions:
- Improving the quality of your sleep
- Assisting in gastric motility
- Enhancing strength and endurance
- Increasing your senses
- Fighting off invading pathogens and cancers
- Aiding in memory and cognitive function
But the main benefit of nitric oxide that we’re going to talk about is its cardiovascular benefit. Simply put, nitric oxide is VERY important to your heart because of its ability to dilate your blood vessels. By dilating (expanding) the blood vessels, it allows for more blood to flow throughout your body. More blood flow means more of the cells, tissues, and organs in your body receive the nutrients and oxygen required for healthy function.
As we all know, more circulation in always better. Nitric oxide plays a vital role in your healthy circulation by dilating your blood vessels. As long as the endothelial lining of your arteries is able to keep producing the gas, your circulatory system will continue to function properly.
But when you add cholesterol to the mix, that’s when things get problematic!
Cholesterol is a lipid molecule that the body needs for the production of cellular walls, hormones, and many other important functions. The waxy, fat-like substance is found in literally EVERY cell in your body. It’s also present in your bloodstream, where it is always floating around in order to be available if one of your cells needs repair or strengthening.
If your cholesterol levels are normal, you have nothing to worry about. Your body is able to balance and regulate cholesterol levels thanks to high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which are responsible for keeping the levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in check.
But when your cholesterol levels rise, your HDL cholesterol is no longer able to balance out the LDL cholesterol levels. The LDL cholesterol thickens in your bloodstream, and some of the lipid molecules cling to the walls of your arteries. Your body treats this as a threat, sending the white blood cells to attack those cholesterol cells. The only problem is that the white blood cells cause the cholesterol to harden into what is known as arterial plaque.
Arterial plaque covers the arterial walls, preventing the endothelial lining from producing nitric oxide. Without nitric oxide, your blood vessels are unable to dilate, meaning your body isn’t getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Over time, this can lead to higher cholesterol levels, which in turn leads a spread in arterial plaque and a continued decline in nitric oxide production.
As you can see, cholesterol is the primary enemy of nitric oxide. The more cholesterol in your bloodstream, the higher the risk of arterial plaque, which will in turn reduce nitric oxide levels. It makes sense that fighting cholesterol is the smart way to protect your body’s production of nitric oxide.
Does Saturated Fat Cause Cholesterol?
Until a few years ago, any doctor would have emphatically answered “YES!!” to this question. After all, saturated fat was seen as the primary contributor to high cholesterol levels.
But recent science suggests otherwise. Since 2013 or 2014, more and more studies are finding that saturated fat is not, in fact, directly linked to high cholesterol levels. As long as saturated fat is consumed in moderation, it won’t raise the body’s cholesterol.
Here’s the thing about cholesterol: it’s naturally produced in the liver, and your body regulates the amount it produces every day. Your diet (the amount of fat you eat) can have some effect on your cholesterol levels, but it’s age, genetics, and lifestyle that will cause the most visible changes in your cholesterol production.
People who eat high-fat diets for years will have high cholesterol, this much is true. But which fat is the one causing the high cholesterol? It’s definitely not plant-based fats, as they are unsaturated. So are animal fats to blame? Unless you consume them in VERY large quantities, they won’t have a significant effect on your cholesterol levels.
No, the real culprit here are trans fats. Remember how trans fats and hydrogenated oils can turn liquid fat into solid? Well, that’s exactly what they do to the lipids in your body. They take the fat that has been broken down for absorption and metabolism and turn them into solids that float around in your bloodstream. They increase your body’s natural production of cholesterol, as well as flood your body with dietary cholesterol. These two things combined are what lead to a significantly higher cholesterol levels, which in turn leads to more arterial plaque and a decrease in nitric oxide levels.
Are saturated fats completely blameless, then? Can you eat all the saturated fat you want without worrying about your cholesterol levels? Not totally. Saturated fat does increase the production of cholesterol when consumed in excess. The effects won’t be as significant or visible as those caused by trans fats, but there is a danger of eating too much saturated fat.
The “Fats” of Life
There are three types of fats you can eat:
Trans fats – These are the fats found in deep-fried and fried foods, baked goods, artificial foods, and anything made with hydrogenated oils. As we’ve seen above, they are the primary contributors to high cholesterol levels.
By turning liquid fats into solids, they increase the risk of arterial plaque forming. This arterial plaque will be the main thing to affect your nitric oxide levels. Thus, if you are trying to keep your nitric oxide production normal and maintain healthy circulation, you need to eliminate trans fats from your diet as much as possible.
How do you do that?
- Stop eating artificial foods
- Stay away from anything fried or deep-fried
- Get rid of cakes, cookies, biscuits, margarine, microwave popcorn, candies, donuts, and anything else that contains trans fats
Basically, if it doesn’t come from a plant or animal, it’s a no-no! Reducing the amount of artificial trans fats in your diet will be the key to preventing high cholesterol levels.
Saturated fats – These fats come from animals (beef, pork, chicken, eggs, fish, etc.), and they are the fats that are both good and potentially bad for you.
Saturated fat is high in energy, and it’s a contributor to normal hormone and cholesterol production. As long as you don’t consume saturated fats in excess, you have nothing to worry about.
But what does that really mean “in excess”? How much saturated fat is too much? According to the American Heart Association, you should limit yourself to getting only 5 to 6% of your daily calories from saturated fats—roughly 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
It’s not going to be easy to control your saturated fat intake. It’s present in milk, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, red meat, poultry, fish, and many other animal products. You don’t want to eliminate them altogether, but you should try to limit the amount of saturated fats you eat. As long as you consume them in moderation, you have nothing to fear!
Unsaturated fats –
These are the GOOD fats, the plant-based ones that come from nuts, seeds, olives, coconuts, as well as fish. They are the good Omega-3 fatty acids that reduce the inflammation that causes the buildup of arterial plaque, boost your HDL cholesterol levels, and control the spread of LDL cholesterol.
You can include as much of these healthy fats in your diet as you want. They will not contribute to higher cholesterol levels, but will encourage your body to eliminate and burn lipids. Eating more unsaturated fatty acids can lead to better lipid control in your body, which will in turn prevent your cholesterol levels from rising in the future.
The best thing about unsaturated fats: they can protect your cardiovascular system!
Unsaturated fats contain lots of Vitamin E, which can coat your arterial walls with a protective layer that prevents cholesterol from sticking. This will prevent the buildup of plaque, which will in turn keep your production of nitric oxide levels normal and healthy. Unsaturated fatty acids are one of the best nutrients to encourage better nitric oxide production. They can even help to reverse some of the damage done to your arteries by excessively high cholesterol levels.
So, we have to ask the question once more: do saturated fats lower nitric oxide and impair blood flow? The answer: a little bit yes, but mostly no!
Saturated fat, if consumed in serious excess, can contribute to high cholesterol levels. As we know, high cholesterol will lead to the arterial plaque that reduces nitric oxide production. But remember that saturated fat isn’t the real enemy. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils are the nutrient most likely to cause circulatory problems and impair nitric oxide production.
As long as you keep your saturated fat intake moderated, then ou have nothing to fear. The secret to protecting your cardiovascular system is to eliminate trans fats from your diet, consume a healthy and moderate amount of saturated fat, and get more anti-inflammatory, vasoprotective unsaturated fats in your diet.