The “Skinny” on Saturated Fats

Saturated fats have been getting some confusing publicity lately, often related to a trend of paleo and low-carb diets, as well as to the popularity of coconut oil. Our research team has not found solid evidence in reviewing the science that indicates it is actually safe for cancer patients to increase saturated fat intake. So we continue to recommend a diet that is low in both total and saturated fat. (But we are always prepared to reinvestigate and reevaluate hotly contested issues.)

This week a research group in Spain published a study that raised alarms about saturated fat for cancer patients. The team studied the protein CD36, which is a fatty acid receptor that helps cells absorb molecular components of fats and oils. The Spanish researchers discovered that human mouth cancer cells that have high levels of CD36, as well as genes for fatty acid metabolism, had a unique ability to jump-start metastasis. CD36 was also found to contribute to metastases or spread of cancer in melanoma, breast, ovarian, bladder and lung cancers, based on lab and statistical analyses of cancer patients,. And very likely, CD36 is relevant in other cancer types.

The researchers implanted human mouth cancer cells into mice, and then gave them diets with different amounts of fat to evaluate the effects of CD36. On a standard mouse diet, 30% of animals would develop metastases from this type of cancer. But some mice were given a diet with fat levels that were 15% higher than normal for mice. 80% of the mice on the high fat diet developed metastases – nearly three times as many as normally expected!

They also focused on one type of fatty acid, palmitic acid, which is a saturated fat component found in meat, dairy and palm oil. After growing mouth cancer cells in palmitic acid for two days, they transplanted them into mice that were eating their standard diet. The palmitic acid appears to have supercharged the activity of CD36 in these cells, since there was a 50% to 100% increase in the rate of metastasis, even though the mice still were eating a standard diet. (Other types of fat, such as oleic acid in olive oil, or the polyunsaturated fats, were not tested, so we don’t know if they would have the same effect.)

By eliminating the activity of CD36 with specific antibodies established metastases were completely removed or dramatically reduced. Although a drug might be developed in the future that targets CD36, developing such cancer drugs is a long and tricky process. So rather than waiting for a cancer drug, we recommend that patients take action on their own to reduce the activity of CD36 by cutting quantity and certain types of fat in their diets. For example, saturated fats containing palmitic acid are a particular concern, because of its effect found in this study. Meat, dairy fats such as butter and cream, and palm oil (which is a common ingredient in processed foods) are all rich sources of palmitic acid.

The holiday season is here, surrounding us with endless temptations of ‘fatty’ treats. So…we are posting an article on how to enjoy a healthy and pleasurable diet during the weeks ahead. Take a look at our posts for more recipes and ideas, or call the Block Center for an appointment, for tips on how to enjoy safe and happy holidays.

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