Standard American Diet Has 'Optimal' Fatty Acid Ratio to Induce Diabesity. Plus: Study Shows Doubling Saturated Fats Would Yield More Benefits Than Halving Them

Study confirms: The SAD diet yields 'optimal' results (img.
Since this post is already lengthy enough, I will spare you how saturated fatty acids have long falsely been accused as the sole driving force of the western obesity epidemic and how the tides appear to be slowly yet steadily appear to be turning, as scientists delve deeper and deeper into the interactions of the total fat content in the diet, its fatty acid composition and the interaction of both with the two other macronutrients and their specific forms and get right to the study at hand. A study that appears in the current issue of the Journal of Lipid Science and deals with the first of the aforementioned interactions. The one that focuses on the total fat content and the individual fatty acid make-up of the diet (Enos. 2012).

Fat shoot out: Saturated vs. mono vs. PUFA

As Enos et al. point out, the main purpose of their study was to examine the effects of three high fat diets differing only with respect to the percentage of total calories from saturated fats.
  • SFA-6% - contained 6% saturated fats,
  • SFA-12% - contained 12% saturated fats, and
  • SFA-24% - contained 24% of saturated fats
While the the high fat diets were set to have an identical fat (40% of the energy), carbohydrate (45% of the energy) and protein content, the two control diets were low in total fat (12%/68%/20% of the energy from fat/carbs/protein). They did however likewise differ as far as their fatty acid composition is concerned, with the modified chow mirroring the ratios (!) not the amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids of the high fat chow (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Fatty acid composition (left) and their sources (right) that were used in the different diets the rodents were fed for 16 weeks (based on Enos. 2012)
The diets were administered for 16 weeks. Body composition and metabolism (glucose, insulin, triglycerides, LDL-C, HDL-C, total cholesterol) were examined monthly.  Adipose tissue (AT) expression of marker genes for M1 and M2 macrophages and inflammatory mediators (TLR-2, TLR-4, MCP-1, TNF-α, IL-6, IL-10, SOCS1, IFN-γ) was measured and so on and so forth... and the results were... well, not exactly as you may have expected (the latter statement assumes that you expected the SFA to be either the savior or the doom of the human race, depending on which side of the LC/LF divide you are stading).
Figure 2: Body composition (left), adipocyte size (right) and fat pad weight (inset) of the rodents at the end of the study period (Enos. 2012) Values not sharing a common letter (abc) differ significantly over time within the given diet treatment (P≤.05)
If you take closer look at the data in figure 2, there are two things that will probably catch your eye right away. The first 'eye catcher' pertains to the influence of replacing a large amount of the omega-6 fatty acids by monounsaturared fatty acids, as you will find them in olive oil, for example.
  • The rodents who received the modified standard chow, with a fatty acid composition identical to the high fat diets (SFA-6%, SFA-12%, SFA-24%) had the exact same body composition as their mates who received the standard chow with its 3.7x higher n6:n3 ratio. The removal of omega-6 fatty did thus not have any beneficial effects on adiposity in the low fat groups.
The second 'eye catcher' is the non-linear increase in adiposity with increasing amounts of saturated fatty acids in the diets. This does not mean that the expected increase in obesity and adipocyte size was totally absent (read the latest "Get Lean & Stay Lean" item for more information about the association of large fat cells and metabolic syndrome), though:
  • The mice in the SF-6-24% did all gain significantly more body weight and body fat than their peers on the low fat diets, but there appears to be a turning point, when the saturated fat content exceeds 12%. After all the mice in the SFA-24% group had almost the same body composition as their peers on the SFA-6% diet.
So, what do we make of these 'eye catchers'? The first one, you could argue, shows that "omega 6 overload" is not a problem, as long as you are consuming a low fat diet, in the first place. Even with the major part of those 12.2% of energy your diet provides in form of various fatty acids belonging to the potentially inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, that's still way too low to do any harm. It does, by the way, yet explain why low fat diets work so well in a society, where most high fat foods the public consumes are laden with omega-6 fatty acids - not an insignificant result, I would say.

The 12%-SF diet, most closely mimics the standard American diet

Apropos public, the second 'eye catcher' is even more telling in term of public health,... wait, I should write sickness. Why? Well, the 12%SFA high fat diet, which supplies ...
  • 47% of energy in form of carbohydrates (380g sucrose, 100g maltodextrin, 50g cornstarch per 1kg of diet; identical for all SFA groups),
  • 40% of energy in form of fats (of which 12% were saturated fats), and
  • 13% of energy in form of protein (from casein),
... mimics, as the researchers point out, "most closely" (Enos. 2012) the standard American diet (SAD). And the result is obvious: Diabesity!

It's a fat balancing act of macro and micro ratios  - complex and far from being understood 

What's intriguing though, is that the adipogenic effects of the diet were ameliorated, when the SFA content was further increased and the diet contained 68.6g of lard per kg chow instead of just 35.4g and 96.7g of coconut oil instead of just 30g. Since this increase in SFA was at the expense of both mono- and omega-6 fatty acids, you could of course also argue that replacing at least the latter of the two with SFAs must be healthy. Unfortunately, even a brief glance back at figure 2 reveals that this is not necessarily correct. After all, the SFA-6% group was still better off than the SFA-24% group, although they had the highest amounts of oleic and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.

By now you should actually have realized that this is once more a difficult balancing act. Where different baseline intakes of dietary fat and carbohydrates (total) are pair of setscrews and the individiual fatty acid composition of the diet is another one. And the way these setscrews are set will not just influence the body composition:
Figure 3: Serum IL-6, MCP-1, adiponectin and leptin levels, TNF-alpha mRNA expression in the adipose tissue (left), adipose tissue sample form the rodents receiving standard chow, the SFA-12% and the SFA-24% diet (Enos. 2012). The fat cells of the SFA-6% animals looked similar to those on the SFA-6% diets.
Based on the body composition data presented in figure 2 the marked increases in serum leptin and TNF-alpha mRNA expression in the adipose tissue of the rodents in figure 3 (left) should be about as unsurprising as the fact that the adipocytes of the SFA-12% group show the greatest macrophage infiltration and subsequent necrotic tissue.

If anything is surprising, it is the non-significance of the peak in IL-6 in the SFA-24% group (this was due to a very high standard deviation) and the fact that the serum level of MCP-1 a marker of increased macrophage activity was not elevated, while the adipose tissue mRNA expression was significantly higher (5-8x) in all SFA groups compared to both of the control diets. In the end this is yet only another clear sign that far more processes than we have previously thought happen locally and do not depend on circulating and thus endocrine signaling molecules.
Figure 4: Blood glucose and insulin levels of the mice over the course of the study period (Enos. 2012)
If you take the data from figure 4 into account as well, you will certainly agree with the statement Enos. et al. make pertaining to the negative effects of the SFA-12% diet, which is - just to remind you - the mirror image of the standard American diet:
"The 12%-SF diet, most closely mimicking the standard American diet, led to the greatest adiposity (absolute fat mass), macrophage infiltration, and IR [insulin resistance]." (Enos. 2012)
Figure 5: Total  cholesterol (TC, top) and LDL-C to HDL-C (bottom) ratios (Enos. 2012)
And I guess it would actually be about time to get to the bottom line, here, if it was not for the sentence that follows this assertion:
"Although the 24%-SF diet increased adiposity and produced IR, it did not significantly increase macrophage infiltration, it led to a lesser degree of AT inflammation, and it did not raise the TC/HDL-C ratio." (Enos. 2012)
Yep, you are reading right, as the data in figure 5 shows the total to HDL ratio of the SFA-24% group, which were those rodents who consumed the largest amount of "bad" saturated fat, was virtually identical to the one of the rodents on the standard and the modified standard chow and significantly lower than in those rodents who 'lived the American way of life' (SFA-12%). A similar trend was seen in the LDL:HDL radio and the triglyceride levels.

Bottom line: So, does that mean that we would just have to fry our potato chips in lard and all will be good? Not really, no. If we keep munching tons of plain sugar, even a saturated fat only diet is not going to save us from doom (I suspect there will be another inflection point at levels which exceed 50% SFA, anyway). What the study results do yet clearly implicate is that the macronutritent and fatty acid composition of the standard American diet is downright conspicuously obesogenic, pro-diabetic, inflammatory.

While the macronutrient ratio (high carb + high fat) appears to set the body into fat storage mode, the individual ratios of the fatty acids determine the efficacy of body fat storage, the negative effects on blood glucose management, and the degree of adipose tissue inflammation - and the standard American diet excels in all these disciplines.

As far as the saturated fats go (I wonder if it also plays a role that one of the main sources was coconut oil), the study suggests that you can achieve ameliorations of adiposity on both sides of the 'obesogenic optimum' of 12% saturated fats. If you take a last look at the data in figure 4, you will yet have to concede (or triumph?) that eating more not less saturated fat and thus frying your potatoes in lard, appears to be the more promising modification you could make, if the saturated fat content of the diet was your only set screw. Feels good to know it isn't right?

  • Enos RT, Davis JM, Velazquez KT, McClellan JL, Day SD, Carnevale KA, Murphy EA. Influence of Dietary Saturated Fat Content on Adiposity, Macrophage Behavior, Inflammation, and Metabolism: Composition Matters. J Lipid Res. 2012 Oct 28.
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