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What is the best source of fat on a ketogenic diet? The ketosphere is pretty segregated, almost in a religious manner, on this issue. Followers of the primal ‘we-evolved-to-eat mammoths, not vegetables’ faith often argue animal products, like red meat and dairy, are the superior fat sources. By extension, stable saturated fats become superior to more fragile and oxidation-prone monounsaturated fats or, worse yet, PUFAs! However, followers of the primal ‘Blue-zone-Anti-Alzheimer’s-Mediterranean’ faith, myself included, often lean towards believing that a well-formulated ketogenic diet should emphasize monounsaturated fats, from sources like olive oil and avocados, and Omega-3s, from fatty fish.
(spoiler altert), is this: this is no single best fat! The best ketogenic diet almost certainly relies on an optimized balance of different fat sources – not too much of any one good thing, rather just enough of all the good things!
So, let’s begin the analysis by “operationalizing our variables,” i.e. let’s decide what factors are the most important to consider.
1. Long-Chain Saturated Fatty Acid Profile
Not all long-chain saturated fatty acids are equal! Long-chain saturated fatty acids differ in the length of their tails, from 12 carbons to 22 carbons. The four fatty acids I want to focus on are the 12, 14, 16, and 18-carbon fatty acids, lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid. In general, lauric acid, myristic acid, and palmitic acid can all decrease the expression of LDL receptors on your liver. This is not bad because it can increase LDL, it’s potentially bad because of how it can increase LDL. You see, by decreasing LDL uptake at the liver, you decrease LDL turnover and LDL in the blood has more time to get oxidized, condense, and become atherogenic. By contrast, steric acid does not decrease LDL receptor expression on the liver. Therefore, saturated fat sources that have a higher stearic acid-to-(palmitic acid + myristic acid) ratio may, in some people, be preferable. If you take a look at the compare and contrast table, this would imply cacao (chocolate) saturated fat may be better than fat from dairy (ghee) or red meat.
I won’t spend much time on medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), other than to make three points: (i) MCTs go straight to the liver, rather than into systemic circulation, and get used as more immediate fuel and get turned into ketones. This is presumed to be good. (ii) Coconut oil is praised for its MCT content, but it’s only about 16% MCTs. Sorry. (iii) All-in-all, guzzling C8 or coconut oil will not have a huge impact on your ketone levels.
Monounsaturated fatty acids, and their primary sources (olive oil, avocados, and macadamia nuts), many consider to be superfoods. I tend to agree. Real extra virgin olive oil is perhaps the best fat source of polyphenols and has more health benefits than I could list here.
Most of the MUFAs in your diet will be oleic acid. Oleic acid is awesome because it gets converted into a metabolite called oleoylethanolamide (OEA) which activates the fat-burning transcription factor PPARα and stimulates TRPV1 receptors on the vagus nerve to make you feel full. There is, however, another (rarer) MUFA worth mentioning: palmitoleic acid, also known as Omega-7. Palmitoleic acid is richest in macadamia nuts, synergizes with Omega-3s (found in fish), and can help to improve serum lipids and insulin sensitivity.
I have one point to make here: Eat Fatty Fish. Period. Fatty Fish (SMASH: Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring) are your sources of the Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. You need adequate EPA and DHA for optimal health. That’s not really a point that’s in dispute.
Nicholas Norwitz – Oxford PhD Researcher and Harvard Med Student:
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