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Portland State University study shows pros and cons of saturated fats

In the study, PSU researchers have first-of-its kind results, showing the benefits of saturated fats for fighting off infection.

PORTLAND, Oregon — A new study by Portland State University, researchers pinpoint the benefits of saturated fats for fighting off infection, which is relative due to the recent global pandemic. They also pose a danger to serious inflammatory diseases, like sepsis. But the results may help humans in the future.

PSU researcher and Assistant Professor of Biology, Brooke Napier, led an earlier study that showed mice that were fed a high-fat Ketogenic or "Keto" diet saw a significant impact on their immune systems.

“Meaning that they had worse inflammatory disease but they were clearing infection faster,” said Napier.

Napier and her team worked to figure out which specific saturated fat was responsible for the dramatic change in the immune systems of the test mice.

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They found it was palmitic acid, the most common saturated fatty acid found in the human body. And that it could actually alter stem cells to fight off infection. But can also be very bad for someone at risk of sepsis.

“So it is this double edged sword where it can exacerbate an inflammatory disease but it's actually great in the context of something like an infection, which is pertinent relative to a global pandemic,” said Napier.

Further research brought some good news: oleic acid — a polyunsaturated fat found in many plant-based oils including olive oil — counteracted the inflammatory effect of palmitic acid.

“So it really isn't that one fat is bad and one is good, it's really that we're trying to find the ratio that is best suited for these diseases.”

Napier said next steps may include checking the same things in human studies, to see if the results hold true, in the effort to find how a balance of fat helps or hurts an individual. 

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