Are High Fat Diets Good For You? It Depends

Genetic Differences 236x300 Are High Fat Diets Good For You? It DependsWe all know them, those people that seem to defy “what they should be doing” and still have an impeccable physique or health.  Often times, if we don’t know too many people like that in our personal lives, it’s impossible to miss them when it comes to movie stars who do things that defy logic.  That movie star then goes on a talk show and their “strategy” gets turned into its own diet as though they are now the experts on health and nutrition information.  A little piece of my soul hurts every time that happens.

Genetic Differences

Rarely are genes talked about in the popular media and as such, rarely do you see the whole picture behind certain recommendations.  Genetics (and one’s gut ecology – another lesson) have really been shown to have a large impact on whether or not someone sees benefits from a low-fat diet or whose health actually deteriorates on a low-fat diet. 

Want to know a secret most fitness professionals won’t tell you?  Some people can work out day after day for months on end, and not improve their cardiovascular capabilities (VO2 max).  This means that two people can start to train for a marathon and one will continually improve, going a bit further every day and the workout gets a bit easier each time.  This happens in the majority of people with different people varying in how much easier the jogging becomes.  On the other hand, the other person can do the same workout program and not see any improvement.  They stay the same and the workout stays just as hard as it was the first time.  It’s hypothesized that only 8-10% of the population has this certain genetic variation that limits their ability to improve their cardiovascular capabilities, but it’s almost never discussed because health officials wouldn’t want to discourage people from working out.  When it comes to improving one’s cardiovascular abilities, some people really can’t improve.

Come on, you know if you struggle with doing cardio, you’re already telling yourself, “I’m in the 8-10%”…but really you’re most likely not.  This doesn’t mean the person doing cardio won’t improve their health or derive other benefits (mental, etc) from their workouts, but it does mean that they will always struggle to “go further” or have their workouts become easier with practice.

In the same manner, did you know that low-fat diets have really only been shown to have benefits in only 10-15% of the population.  The remaining 85-90% of the population derives no benefit from a low-fat diet and can actually increase one’s overall cause of death on a low-fat diet.

Saturated Fat and APOE Genotype

Saturated fat is one of those things that we’ve heard non-stop for the past 40 years to avoid.  Not once in my lifetime have I heard, from official government sources, that saturated fat is good for you.  This is despite the fact that breast milk is made up of 50% saturated fats.  Not only in humans, but in all mammals, breast milk is made up of a majority of saturated fats.  That means, of all of the foods that nature has determined best to raise a healthy offspring, it has chosen saturated fats to make up half of its content. The truth is saturated fats are the most stable of the fats that you can consume.  When from natural sources, (organic, grass-fed butter, organic meats and coconut oil), saturated fats can help to lower oxidation within the body, help to build the cells in your body (in fact, half of all your cell membranes are saturated fat) and can help with brain function.  For most people, Saturated fat is beneficial.

So the question becomes, why is it only for “most people” that saturated fat is beneficial and not all people?

Enter the APOE genotypes.  There are three APOE genotypes, E2, E3 and E4 that help to regulate cholesterol in the body. The Apo E gene provides instructions for making a protein called apolipoprotein E. This protein combines with fats in the body to form lipoproteins which are responsible for packaging cholesterol and other fats and carrying them in the blood.

Here are the Estimated Worldwide Human Allele Frequencies of the ApoE:
E2: 8.4%
E3: 77.9%
E4: 13.7%

In modern times, having E2 is usually the best for those who want to eat a high fat diet, whereas E4 is the worse off.  As you can see, the E3 version is the most common and most neutral showing almost no detrimental effects to a high fat diet.  

The E4 type is not very advantageous in today’s society of fast food and high fat diets, but in developing countries (or even 100 years ago) it served an important role in helping the body stave off dying from fungal and bacterial infections that can feed off LDL from the food you eat.  In other words, the E4 type can survive off very little saturated fat and cholesterol coming in from their diets and could be beneficial for children if they are trying to stave off diseases.

In modern times though, what this means is that a diet high in fat, can have detrimental effects for those who have this E4 genotype.  Although rare in the general population, 8 to 9 out of 10 people won’t have this genotype and won’t see benefits from a low-fat diet, it is still spewed as beneficial to everyone.

The truth is that in modern times, the E2 version has the most heart health and overall benefits.  The people in this category have the lowest inflammation markers and the lowest amount of heart disease.  The E3 category is the “neutral” group and can do well on a higher fat diet, made up of natural fats as long as they control their sugar intake.  On the other hand, those in the E4 category have the highest amount of inflammation and the highest risk of heart disease.  This genotype scavenges and keeps the cholesterol it takes up and therefore, for this group only, are low-fat diets beneficial.

Four Quick Notes About the APOE4 Genotype

1 – They are at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  The reason for this is that the brain is made up of about 25% cholesterol.  The E4 genotype not only codes for cholesterol, but are unusually suspect when it comes to inflammation in the body.  Those with the E4 genotype have a higher incidence of inflammation.  The combination of inflammation and high cholesterol levels cause a build-up of Beta-Amyloid plaque in the brain, which is one of the causes of Alzheimer’s.

2 – Contact sports can be very dangerous for those with the APOE4 Genotype. In the same vein, if you’ve heard of the detrimental effects on the brain in ex-football players (it was a big scandal when the documentary came out that there was a build-up of Beta Amyloid plaque in ex-football players as though they were in their 70’s), all of the players documented were of the APOE4 genotype.  The same is true of boxers that suffer severe brain injuries.

The theory is that if you are the APOE4 genotype, when you get hit in the head, there is more inflammation and build-up of plaque that occurs and is usually dissolved, in those without this genotype, in trying to help heal the brain.  In those players with the APOE4 genotype, there is too large of plaque buildup instead.

3 – Fish oil benefits are reduced without an increase in antioxidants. What is important is not only the amount of DHA (the beneficial fish oil for the brain), but also how much anti-oxidants they are eating from their diet.  Those with the APOE4 genotype should be eating low fat AND need to eat lots of vegetables.

4 – Research is very strong that exercise (obviously not tackle football) can help immensely in lowering one’s risk when it comes to the negative associations that come along with the APOE4 genotype.  Therefore, if you are this genotype, you are not the person that can eat a high-fat diet, little vegetables and not workout and expect to live a long and healthy life.  If on the other hand, you do these things, you can significantly increase your odds of living that long and healthy life, just like anyone else that eats healthy food, including lots of vegetables and works out consistently.

What if you’re the other 85-90%?

The underlying factor is that a healthy diet, irrespective of your specific genotype will work, with some people needing and benefiting from more fat, while others will need less.  Since most of you would do better on a higher fat diet than a higher carb diet, most of my eating plans include lots of natural fats.  With that said, you should also limit your sugar and refined carb intake.  Saturated fats in combination with high sugar or high glycemic carbs (think white bread, a bagel with cream cheese or ice cream) is usually a very bad combination.

Also, after a month on a higher fat plan, with low carbs and sugar in your diet, you should really get blood work done.  If you have followed the eating plan as prescribed and your blood markers went up (in particular HDL went down – it should go up, and triglycerides go up), then you might be in the rarer E4 category and you can make adjustments to your eating accordingly.

Bottom Line

The basic tenets of healthy eating are the same no matter what genotype you have.  Whole, natural food sources with lots of vegetables, some natural and low inflammation carbs (think sweet potatoes) and higher in protein is usually best.  The only difference is the amount of fat you eat.  Those with the E2 or E3 genotypes will normally do better with a higher fat intake when it comes to overall health, concentration, happiness and vitality.  Those with the E4 genotypes won’t need as much fat and as such, would still follow the same basic premise while changing to leaner meats and protein sources.

For more reading on genetic differences between individuals here are two books:
1 – The Sports Gene by David Epstein:
2 – It’s Not Just Your Genes by Ruth DeBusk: 

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