What Does the Running Body Say about Saturated Fat?

How can a runner find out if a particular food is good for his/her running? He/she can eat it and go running.

Runners who’ve been at it awhile know which foods agree with them. They get immediate feedback during the next run. If a food helps us run longer and/or faster, it’s “good.”

It’s a scientifically respectable method for testing the value of food – or just about anything, from running shoes to religious dogmas. The question that matters is “Does it work?”

As you know if you read last week’s article, I’ve been testing saturated fats.

Like most Americans, I’ve gone along with the standard dogma about fats. Yet I’ve felt, over the years, that something was wrong.

If you were born before 1960, you probably remember when margarine was considered “healthier” than butter. We now know that margarine isn’t healthy at all, because hydrogenated and other “trans-” fats have devastating health consequences.

Then, for several decades, we were told that vegetable oils were healthier than butter and lard. And, again, the latest research indicates this isn’t true.

And, of course, there’s the granddaddy of diet dogmas: cholesterol. We’re told that cholesterol causes a host of ills, most notably heart disease. Hmm – surely that hasn’t changed? But, as it turns out, it’s highly unlikely. Today’s research is showing that cholesterol in moderate amounts is health food.

When it comes to diet, I’m inclined to trust my body’s own feedback more than the food scientists’ latest claims. Thus, when I began to suspect that my body wanted saturated fat, I did what any sensible runner would do. I ate foods loaded with saturated fat, then went running.

Last week, I reported on the first test. I ate a two-egg omelet with cheddar cheese the night before my long run, followed two hours later with a glass of buttermilk. The next day, I ran 2 hours 15 minutes in 80-degree heat and felt amazingly strong.

I’m sure my little experiment would be dismissed as unscientific by MDs and food researchers who follow the diet party line.

It’s good to remind ourselves that science isn’t about logic and reason. When scientists want to test a theory, they don’t sit and think about it. They conduct an experiment using appropriate tools, and carefully measure the results.

For a runner, the body is the ultimate lab, and running well is the ultimate proof.

Hearing of my omelet-and-milk experiment, the orthodox diet scientists would probably say “But it isn’t supported by the research.” Or “I’ll believe it after I see reputable studies.” Or “That’s anecdotal.” Or they’d shake their heads and walk away, too stunned by my ignorance to respond.

In fact (hardly surprising), I’ve found sound scientific research that supports my test results. I’ll refer you to it shortly. For now, let me describe my latest experiment.

Having tested the effect of saturated fat on the long run, I decided to see if it would help hard speedwork.

I ate an omelet and drank a glass of buttermilk two hours later (regular milk bloats me). The next morning, I felt horrible – not from the omelet and milk, but from marinated kalamata olives in a salad from the Whole Foods salad bar. I simply couldn’t run that day, so in the evening I ate a little goat milk cheese to sustain the level of saturated fat in my body.

The next morning, I went to the lovely Palo Alto Baylands and warmed up at a slow pace for about 40 minutes (under 67% MHR), and a bit quicker for a half-hour (70-78% MHR). I then ran eight two-minute repeats as fast as I could, with a two-minute rest interval. I suspect I was running about 6:30 to 6:15 pace (at age 66). At the end of each repeat, my heart rate was at maximum –  I wasn’t loafing along.

Did I feel strong? You bet. I can’t say that the hard repeats were easy. But my body felt robust. And from the sensation in my chest, I would never have suspected, if I hadn’t been wearing a heart monitor, that my heart rate had reached absolute maximum. (I attribute this effect – running all-out without excruciating pain – in part to having warmed up gradually for a long time.)

Several points. I’ve been a good boy lately when it comes to following the accepted dogma on saturated fats. I’ve eaten fish a couple times a week, an occasional avocado, lots of raw almond butter, plus cashews and occasionally peanuts. That’s probably why, when I introduced sat-fats before the hard run, I experienced such a radical improvement. I hadn’t been eating any concentrated sat-fats at all. We get a bigger “bump” from a nutrient or supplement when our bodies are deficient.

I’ve discovered two online resources on the science behind my experiences. The first is the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The second is the blog of Dr. Michael Eades. (The links are to information on sat-fats, not the home pages.)

The Weston A. Price Foundation describes itself:

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, whose studies of isolated nonindustrialized peoples established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets. Dr. Price’s research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.

Dr. Michael R. Eades is the author, with his wife, Mary Dan Eades, M.D., of Protein Power: The High-Protein/Low-Carbohydrate Way to Lose Weight, Feel Fit, and Boost Your Health – In Just Weeks!

Right. My inner scientist is wary of diet books with titles longer than five words. The phrase “high-protein/low-carbohydrate” particularly sets my inner alarm bells a-ringing. But the information on fats in Dr. Eades’s blog is intriguing.

In fact, there’s ample evidence, which Joel Fuhrman cites in his modestly titled book, Eat to Live, that high-protein diets are dangerous – because they damage the kidneys, and because a high-protein diet is one of the principal causes of the current pandemic of osteoporosis.

I won’t go into those issues, suffice it to say I believe it’s good, when choosing a diet, to find out if it’s based on hard science and successful experience among large populations over a long time.

The diet books I’ve read uniformly overstate their case, with few exceptions. (One of them is How to Get Well, by Paavo Airola, Ph.D.)

There’s a tremendous amount of extremely useful information in Fuhrman’s Eat to Live. It’s a wonderful book – every argument is backed by reputable scientific studies and tested by thousands of people who’ve improved their health and lost weight. There’s no better book for learning precisely why we should eat our high-nutrient foods such as vegetables, fruit, and nuts.

But Fuhrman goes off the beam when it comes to eating fats. Research now shows, for example, that almonds are a calorie-neutral food that we can eat in moderately large quantities without gaining weight. Yet Fuhrman recommends limiting nuts to a small handful a day (1 oz). And he’s adamant that saturated fats are dangerous.

Fuhrman allows room for individual differences. He acknowledges that not everyone can thrive on strict vegan fare, although he considers it the healthiest diet. And he urges athletes to increase their intake of carbohydrates above his basic weight-loss guidelines.

But I’m suspicious of diets that promote “high”-anything, be it carbs, protein, or fat.

And that’s the particular error of the Eadeses, and of Mary Enig, Ph.D. and Sally Fallon, who manage the Weston A. Price Foundation and have written several books on the body’s need for fats, including Eat Fat – Lose Fat.

Eat Fat – Lose Fat is an extremely useful book, but like most diet “experts,” the authors go too far. They claim, for example, that it’s not only healthy to eat saturated fats, but that doing so can aid weight-loss by improving metabolic functioning.

Like a good runner-scientist, after reading Eat Fat – Lose Fat I promptly tried the diet – and immediately began to gain weight. What the authors fail to mention is that saturated fat, eaten in excess of the body’s metabolic needs, turns to body fat with stunning ease. It takes just 3 calories to turn 97 calories of ingested sat-fat into body fat. Saturated fats may be healthy, but amounts not used for energy or by the organs and cells are transformed into female balloon-butts and male penda-bellies with incredible speed. Nor do they note that consumption of beef and pork is correlated with increased rates of bowel cancer.

In fact, midway through the book, the authors quietly inject an extremely significant qualifier, when they remind readers that eating too many sat-fat calories negates the weight-loss benefits of consuming butter, eggs, meat, and coconut oil, as they recommend.

What about the so-called Mediterranean Diet? It may work for the Mediterraneans, many of whom still do manual labor and walk more than we do, but it isn’t a license to guzzle olive oil. If you do, you’ll pack on fat. I know, because, being a good runner-scientist, I’ve tried it.

I’ll conclude with a story. A little over a year ago, in spring 2007, I was concerned that the roll around my waist was growing larger. Seeking a way to drop the extra pounds, I searched the writings of my spiritual teacher, and found a simple recommendation. A good way to lose weight, he said, is to eat no cooked food, starchy carbs, or butter, and eat four handfuls of finely ground almonds a day, and a handful of dates or raisins.

I thought, “I’ve been doing pretty much that, and I haven’t lost weight.” I’m very careful about challenging my teacher, having tested his advice for over 40 years and consistently found it to be correct. So it was with no small trepidation that I express my doubts, praying cheekily, “The [my teacher’s name] diet doesn’t work – I’ve tried it and I haven’t lost weight.” In fact, I had been on a fairly sloppy version of the diet, eating occasional starchy carbs and cheese.

I then waited for the answer, and it didn’t take long. The next day, I fell ill with severe bronchitis that lasted a month, during which my only exercise was coughing. At the start, I figured that if I would eat a raw vegan diet I might get well faster. I ended up eating exactly as my teacher recommended for weight-loss, and in four weeks I lost 10 pounds, even though I was flat on my back a good part of the time.

I got better just in time to travel to a big three-day conference with my spiritual teacher. When we arrived, I sat on the bed unpacking and wondered how I could stay on the raw diet, given that the retreat kitchen served wonderful cooked meals. Intuitively, I heard my spiritual teacher’s voice say, “Let’s begin eating normally.” I did, and enjoyed the retreat kitchen food very much. But what was important about this unusual experience is that it confirmed for me that the experiment had had my teacher’s guidance.

When I refer to “my teacher” in these articles, it’s shorthand. I actually have two teachers, the “main” one, who passed away in 1952, and a disciple who is now 82. I don’t reveal my path in the book Fitness Intuition or in these articles, because I prefer to talk about nonsectarian principles that runners can test for themselves. I feel that spiritual teachings, if they are to have any value, must be universal and practical, not based on blind belief but testable principles.

I’ve been wondering how much saturated fat my body needs to support health and hard exercise. How much eggs and milk could I eat without putting on weight? When I searched my (first) spiritual teacher’s writings this morning, I found the following passages, written in 1938.

Eating too much starch or sugar, or fried or greasy substances, two eggs instead of one, will usually develop fat instead of energy in the body.

One egg furnishes about 70 calories and its food value is equivalent to that of one glass of milk.

Lunch For Fat People

Eat a big salad of any ground vegetable well mixed with orange juice dressing. Eat 10 leaves of spinach with a little Thousand Island Dressing. Eat six water-soaked or dried unsulphured prunes or six such figs or dates. Eat very little or no cooked boiled vegetables. Occasionally a little piece of broiled fish if desired. Do not eat eggs. Drink no water with meals. Eat your biggest meal at lunch time but do not overeat. Eat a different vegetable salad every day. Grind vegetables and mix with orange juice. Eat no butter and no bread.

My spiritual teacher stressed the need for saturated fat – “butterfat” was the current term in 1938.

For my next experiment, I’ll eat a single-egg omelet the night before the long run, followed by a glass of buttermilk two hours later. Expect a lab report soon.

2 thoughts on “What Does the Running Body Say about Saturated Fat?”

  1. There is one thing you are missing here. When you say that if you consume too much saturated fat, you will gain weight, you need to understand that the weight gain is from the action of insulin, and weight loss occurs in the absence of insulin. So when you eat ANYTHING that causes a resultant rise in serum insulin levels, and the body cannot metabolize all of the blood glucose, it gets turned into FFA’s, Free Fatty Acids, and get deposited into fat storage sites on the body. Blood Glucose and Saturated Fats both need insulin to be metabolized, but there is one exception, a BIG exception too. Coconut oil is the highest source of saturated fats among all of the oils on this planet, it is the saturated fat KING, which is why it was so maligned back when we believed the now disproven line that Sat Fat causes high cholesterol, and high cholesterol leads to heart disease. I hope there is ultimate justice for Ancel Keyes for deceiving all of us and causing me to feed hydrogenated fats to my little ones all during their childhoods. To say that all saturated fats can be turned into fat is wrong because here we have coconut oil, the highest sat fat on the planet, and we know that it does NOT need insulin to be metabolized. OK, so at this point, I will be more specific. Coconut oil is approx 60% Medium Chain Fat (MCT), while most others including animal fats are mostly Long Chain Fats. To be more precise, Long Chain Fats need insulin to be metabolized, MCT’s do not. This is why many find themselves losing weight when consuming coconut oil, even copious amounts. You simply can’t eat too much MCT’s because it enters the cells directly, and if there is not already the presence of insulin due to the diet, you will not make any fat. No insulin, no fat production. Yet here we are eating copious amounts of the highest saturated fat on the face of the earth! I’m like you, I try these things out for myself. I lost 120 lbs over the period of 23 months while consuming approx 40 GALLONS of Coconut oil. Had I ate 40 Gallons of butter, I don’t know if the same would have occurred. I’m not worried about the fat itself, but the insulin. You seem to understand that unsaturated fats are the villian in our diets, and we need to get away from them, even the so-called EFA’s since the body can makes them from saturated fats, and the reverse s NOT true. Dr. Eades said that, as well as another guy, but they are quoting a study which I can’t locate yet. I do have the name but can’t pull it up or I would share it. So look into what I mentioned here for a more complete understanding. Insulin is what ought to concern us, it ages us!

  2. Kano, thanks for this really, really interesting comment. Thanks also for correcting me about my claim that “all” sat-fats pass directly through a special tube from mouth to butts (if female) and guts (if male).

    I first learned of the mistakes in the anti-sat-fat campaign when I read a fine book, “Eat Fat, Lose Fat,” by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon. It was a big revelation to learn that one of the principal authors of the study on which the anti-sat-fat doctrine was based disagreed with the interpretation of the findings of that study.

    I wouldn’t dream of arguing with your conclusions, because clearly, they are based on actual results. Hard to find fault with a diet that enabled you to lose 120 lbs in two years.

    At the same time, I’m skeptical of ANY diet that seems one-sided; where, for example, the proponents say absolutely ridiculous things such as: “All carbs are bad. Eat almost no fruit.” That’s idiotic. I base this conclusion, like you, on actual results – I lost a ton of weight while eating fruit to my heart’s content, but hardly any starchy carbs and virtually not simple sugars.

    There are some real mysteries in the science of diet for athletes that I believe it would be valuable to explore. For example: exactly HOW much carbs do distance runners really need? Tim Noakes (author of Lore of Running) is on a low-carb diet and thriving. Back in the seventies, when I began running, the common belief was that you only need a little carb as “kindling” that enables the body to burn lots of fat. Again, I wonder – how much? I had a roommate who’d been a competitive swimmer for many years. When he turned to running, he did an amazing thing – ran 20 miles a day, mostly under 6:30 pace, much of it at 6:00 or faster, in the hills, on NO carbs – in fact, NO FOOD. He just drank water. He ran 140 miles in 7 days on water. Clearly, his body had a tremendous ability to convert fats, far beyond what most people’s bodies are trained to do. Does it show a potential that all of us can achieve? Does it show that we can get by on much less carb than most of us suspect?

    I suspect that Tim Noakes’s body is very well-adapted to burning carbs, thanks to his decades of serious training. On the other hand, the Kenyans get a very large percentage of their energy from carbs – as did Arthur Lydiard’s runners.

    I’ve found coconut oil to be VERY valuable, especially for recovery. Whenever I’ve logged a hard effort and get that gnawing after-exercise hunger that just can’t be satisfied, I always find that coconut oil does the job – makes the hunger go away. Obviously, to my way of thinking, it means that my body NEEDED something in the coconut oil. I regularly cook with coconut oil and sometimes just eat a teaspoon to a tablespoon when my body seems to crave it – I know it’s very healthy for the GI tract and stomach. It’s also very helpful for healing skin irritations, soothing itchy eyes, etc. (Best dry-eye-syndrome cure I’ve found is evening primrose oil.)

    Again, thanks a lot – I learned something valuable from your post.



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