honey-bees.gifA week ago I posted my thoughts on the JAMA article about the potential of antioxidant supplements to decrease longevity. As a part of my commentary I pointed out that my study of the scientific literature (along with a dose of common sense) led me to believe that decreasing the amount of vulnerable polyunsaturated fatty acids in cellular and mitochondrial membranes would make them less prone to oxidation. If membranes are less prone to oxidation, they function better and last longer. If our membranes function better, so do we; and if our membranes last longer, so do we.
I just read a great paper in the Articles in Press section of one of my favorite journals, Experimental Gerontology, that adds confirming data to the greater-membrane-saturation-leads-to-longer-life hypothesis. Unfortunately, the abstracts are not available for the articles in press, so I’ll copy it below. Unlike a lot of abstracts, this one pretty much sums up the entire article. The paper discusses peroxidation, which is the technical term for oxidation of a fatty acid.

Extended longevity of queen honey bees compared to workers is associated with peroxidation-resistant membranes.
In the honey bee (Apis mellifera), depending on what they are fed, female eggs become either workers or queens. Although queens and workers share a common genome, the maximum lifespan of queens is an order-of-magnitude longer than workers. The mechanistic basis of this longevity difference is unknown. In order to test if differences in membrane composition could be involved we have compared the fatty acid composition of phospholipids [the fatty acid structure of cellular membranes] of queen and worker honey bees. The cell membranes of both young and old honey bee queens are highly monounsaturated with very low content of polyunsaturates. Newly emerged workers have a similar membrane fatty acid composition to queens but within the first week of hive life, they increase the polyunsaturate content and decrease the monounsaturate content of their membranes, probably as a result of pollen consumption. This means their membranes likely become more susceptible to lipid peroxidation in this first week of hive life. The results support the suggestion that membrane composition might be an important factor in the determination of maximum life span. Assuming the same slope of the relationship between membrane peroxidation index and maximum life span as previously observed for mammal and bird species, we propose that the 3-fold difference in peroxidation index of phospholipids of queens and workers is large enough to account for the order-of-magnitude difference in their longevity.

A couple of important findings in this paper are a) increasing consumption of pollen leads to a decreased saturation of cellular membranes, and b) decrease saturation (i.e. more polyunsaturated) in cellular membranes leads to a shorter life.
Honey bees destined to become workers eat mainly pollen, which is about 10 percent fat, mostly polyunsaturated. Queens-to-be are fed royal jelly, which contains about the same proportion of fat as pollen, but a more saturated fat. About half the fat in royal jelly is a naturally occurring trans fat that is monounsaturated; the rest of the fats are medium chain fatty acids that are either saturated or monounsaturated. So what we have are bees with the exact same genetics that have different degrees of saturation of their membranes depending upon their diet.
If you want to be a queen (if you’re a bee, at any rate), you’ve got to eat less polyunsaturated fat and more of the good stuff. For my money, the same holds if you’re a human. Perhaps that’s why despite my advanced age I look so much better than, say, Dean Ornish. It’s all that saturated fat I eat daily. I eat the human equivalent of royal jelly–he eats pollen. And consequently, like the queen bee’s, my membranes are more saturated.


  1. Hi Mike,
    Omega 3 fatty aicds are very prone to oxidation, so given the recent discussion on saturated fats and oxidation, do we really need to take fish oil and krill oil on a regualar basis and if yes then should we reduce the quantity considerably. I know Dr Rosedale suggests a high monosaturated diet, as opposed to using saturated fats……….is that the way to go?
    Now for something completely different. Please comment on the Insulin index…….useful tool or does it create more confusion? Dr Cordain is suggesting that dairy products except butter lead to a very high insulin response and so should be avoided in his acne diet regime, so things like plain yougart may be out!! What do you think?
    Hi Tahir–
    I don’t think the doses of fish oil and/or krill oil normally taken in supplements is going to have much to do with membrane saturation because the doses are so small. These products are taken for their anti-inflammatory and other effects having nothing to do with membrane saturation. If one took them in huge doses, I suppose there could be a problem.
    I’m not a fan of the Insulin index–it just seems to add to the confusion.  As to the milk and Dr. Cordain…there is sugar in milk.  It’s milk sugar, lactose, which is half glucose and half galactose.  In terms of affecting insulin these sugars act like any other sugar and need to be counted in a low-carb diet.  Somehow people have gotten the idea that the sugars in milk are more potent than other sugars; I don’t think they are.  If you want to use milk and you account for it in your carb counting (by reducing carbs somewhere else), I don’t see a problem.
    Hope this helps.

  2. Dr. Eades,
    When I cranked up my saturated fat intake through coconut and palm oils and *gasp* eating animal fat, my skin improved. I had typically dry skin that stopped being dry and flaky. I have also noticed that I tan a bit better than I used to. Now, I’m Irish-German, so I don’t tan well, but I can spend more than 15 minutes in the sun without looking like a beet. And my skin doesn’t alternate only between white and red…it actually gets a bit of a brown tone. I bet the extra saturation is keeping the sun from oxidizing my skin cell membranes. On top of that, my energy levels are through the roof when I eat a nicely saturated diet. Nearly all of my fat intake is either coconut, palm, or olive oil and animal fat with a bit of fish or cod liver oil for n-3s.
    Hi Scott–
    Thanks for the tanning anecdote.  That’s the first time I’ve heard of improved tanning with increased saturated fat intake, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t help.

  3. I ran across this quotation which is pertinent to the lowfat paradigm while reading up on the climate change debate:
    Our situation is not so different from the situation Jane Jacobs described concerning city planning in the 60’s:Jacobs’ book – the greatest of the seven she wound up writing – will endure as a guide not just to making cities liveable but also to rooting out intellectual laziness. Jacobs noted the way theorists’ half-baked ideas infected earnest planners, who stoked the avarice of property developers, who passed on their mistaken assessments to bankers, whose misvaluations became guidelines for regulators. Eventually, all society was moving in the wrong direction, without opposition or dissent, and congratulating itself for its mistakes. As she put it in one Johnsonian passage: “They are all in the same stage of elaborately learned
    superstition as medical science was early in the last century . . . As in the pseudoscience of blood-letting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense. The tools of technique have steadily been perfected. Naturally, in time, forceful and able men, admired administrators, having swallowed the initial fallacies and having been provisioned with tools and with public confidence, go on logically to the greatest destructive excesses, which prudence or mercy might previously have forbade.”
    Hi Marilyn–
    Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been on my list of books I have to read for a long time now.  The quote you provided has made me move the book closer to the top.

  4. saw some of your shows on high defition tv, – you and MD both look a lot better than ole saggy wrinkly puffy Dean.. sat. fats and slow burn workouts must agree with you! Imagine poor Dr. Ornish in high definition.. the horror, the horror…
    Hi mrfreddy–
    Some things are better not imagined!
    Here’s a link to an old post about my own high definition angst. 

  5. “Perhaps that’s why despite my advanced age I look so much better than, say, Dean Ornish.”
    Heh heh, MD must find you a treasure to live with given how modest you are… Seriously, though, she’s probably glad to have you to look at across the dining room table instead of ol’ Dean.
    Eating saturated fats has done great things for my skin, too.
    Hi Esther–
    A treasure to live with…?  Probably more like a real pain in the a**.  I can truthfully say, however, that I would much rather look at her across the dining room table than I would at ol’ Dean. 

  6. I’m sure Ray Peat would love to read this article. He says:
    “When I was working on my thesis, around 1970, investigating the effects of aging on the metabolism of the uterus, I found that the changes occuring during aging were (in all the ways I tested) the same as those produced by X-irradiation, excess estrogen, oxygen deprivation, excess polyunsaturated fats, and vitamin E deficiency.”
    “Saturated fats are protective against free radical damage and can reverse liver fibrosis.” both are from “Leakiness, aging, and cancer” from raypeat.com.
    He talks about when using coconut oil instead of pufa’s, our need for vitamin E goes down. Stuff we already knew pretty much but good to here. That and the statement by the gentlemen above about being able to tan reminded me of an old nutrition book I have. The writer, an optometrist talks about using vitamin E before going out in the sun for the first time in the spring. He said when he would use vit E for a few weeks before going outside he would not burn as he normally did. Sooo, if we eat more saturated fats and less pufa’s, we would need less vitamin E and maybe be less prone to burning.
    Hey, I had to do something to occupy my mind so I wouldn’t have that image of Hillary from above in my mind!
    Hi Robert–
    Interesting thought on the vitamin E/saturated fat connection.  It’s probably valid since saturated fats aren’t prone to oxidation since they have no carbon-carbon double bonds, the sites at which free radicals attack.  Vitamin E protects against oxidation, so an increased intake of polyunsaturated fats (a lot of the vulnerable carbon-carbon double bonds) would require more vitamin E to protect.
    As far as I can tell there are no good pictures of Hillary.

  7. Interesting info on increasing saturation of cell membranes and longevity. Wonder if any study have been done on octogenarians? (how do you spell that?) to see if it’s the same on humans.
    Hi antnagir–
    As far as I know there have been no such studies.  It would make a great research project, though.

  8. Seems like it would be an easy study to do on humans post-mortem, assuming there isn’t very rapid change in cell membrane composition. Lots of data could be collected, correlated with age, cause of death etc. If you phrased the grant proposal such that you were studying the positive effects of polyunsaturated fat or cholesterol lowering, you could get big food/pharma to fund it 🙂
    Hi Dave–
    I don’t think membranes stay stable for long after death, so I doubt the study could be done postmortem. But it should be easy enough to do on living centenarians. Or you could check membrane saturation on a group of people who are 60 then wait around until they all die and correlate their age at death with the saturation index at age 60.
    You get the grant; I’ll help with the study.

  9. The politics were bad enough back when I was begging for chump change from NASA – you’d be amazed at how cutthroat scientists can be over $15K. Of course it wasn’t really the amount, it was the intellectual turf that mattered. Nobody loves a pissing contest more than a scientist. I can only imagine the bloodbath involved in trying to get the kind of money required to do a large-scale long-term study.
    What we need is a chump. Someone desperate to prove that sat-fat is evil despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. Somebody deep in the pockets of industry, widely regarded as an expert by the nutritional orthodoxy.
    Anyone have Dean Ornish’s number? 🙂

  10. “Somehow people have gotten the idea that the sugars in milk are more potent than other sugars”
    Another idea is that whey protein is more potent than sugars.
    Inconsistency between glycemic and insulinemic responses to regular and fermented milk products.
    Ostman EM, Liljeberg Elmstahl HG, Bjorck IM.
    Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Jul;74(1):96-100.
    Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects
    Frid AH, Nilsson M, Holst JJ, Bjorck IM.
    Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1):69-75.
    Hi Seamus–
    Both of these studies show that whey has a fairly low glycemic index.  The reason the glycemic index is low is that the whey stimulates a pretty robust insulin response, keeping the blood sugar from going high.  I don’t think there is a real problem with a robust insulin response as long as it is acute and the insulin levels rapidly fall.  It’s the chronic elevation of insulin due to insulin resistance that is the problem.  Even more problematic in my view is elevated blood sugar.  Even a brief elevation of blood sugar is not a totally benign event, whereas a brief elevation of insulin is fairly inconsequential.
    I don’t think the blood sugar effects of milk are any more than their sugar levels would imply, and maybe even a little less.  I would still recommend that people count the sugar in milk as part of their daily carb count and adjust accordingly.  So, if someone wants to drink a glass of whole milk and take out the 9 or 10 grams of carbs contained therein from somewhere else, I say go for it.
    Having said all that, I can say that I’m not a particularly big fan of milk for some of the other reasons Dr. Cordain espouses, but it doesn’t have to do with the carb count.

  11. Dr. Mike:
    I must agree that both Drs. Eades look amazingly young and spry as of course they are. However, Dr. Dean looks terrible because he probably has not lowered his fat consumption enough (roll eyes). LMAO, isn’t that the most common excuse he has for everything, including ugliness?
    Hi Hellistile–
    Lower the fat intake is Dean’s answer to everything, so maybe you’re right.

  12. Dr. Eades,
    I have always loved fats. I plan to be a queen bee for a long time, now that I no longer fear fats. I better load up on butter and coconut oil.
    I wanted to let you know that I answered a question on Yahoo regarding cholesterol. I explained what cholesterol is and how to consider ratios when determining if cholesterol is high or low. I said that I learned this through Protein Power. What is significant is that I won 2 points because my answer was voted best. 🙂
    That’s all for now,
    Hi Mary aka Queen Bee–
    Glad that Protein Power came through for you.  Keep on eating fat!

  13.  From the Wikipedia –
    Bees collect pollen as a protein source to raise their brood
    Dry pollen, is a food source for bees, which contains 16 – 30% protein, 1 – 10% fat, 1 – 7% starch, many vitamins, but little sugar
    Protein 23 parts to Fat 5.5 parts to Carbs 4 parts
    71% 17% 12%
    The overall composition of royal jelly is 67% water, 12.5% crude protein (including small amounts of many different amino acids),and 11% simple sugars, also including a relatively high amount (5%) of fatty acids
    Protein 12.5 parts:Fat 5 parts:Carb 11 parts
    44% 18% 39%
    From the Blog

    pollen, which is about 10 percent fat, mostly polyunsaturated royal jelly, which contains about the same proportion of fat as pollen, but a more saturated fat. About half the fat in royal jelly is a naturally occurring trans fat that is monounsaturated; the rest of the fats are medium chain fatty acids that are either saturated or monounsaturated.

    I read your post a while back. Notwithstanding your previous cautions about applying the results from animal studies to humans (a rule which you bend if not violate in this case), it occurred to me that the other major source of saturated fat is from excess carbohydrates converted by the
    body to saturated fat. Reviewing the above data taken from Wikipedia, Royal Jelly has more carbohydrates which would seem to support the proposition that queens get some of their saturated fat from excess carbs. The queen bees convert their excess carbohydrates to fat some of which
    finds its way into cellular membranes improving their longevity. My question is why can’t humans just eat excess carbs to increase the saturation of membranes. It seems likes a logical contradiction that the body would care about the source of saturated fats. I’d appreciate your
    Note that your data, which is in italics is different in protein and carb percentages which may be due to use of different references, however does confirm your statement that royal jelly and pollen have about the same fat content. Thanks for the time and space.
    Hi Mark–
    Interesting question.  If excess carbs convert to saturated fat (which they indeed do; they convert to a 16 carbon-chain fat: palmitic acid), why don’t excess carbs lead to an increase in saturation of the cell and mitochondrial membranes making them less prone to free radical attack?
    First, although excess carbs do convert to a saturated fat, it takes a lot of excess carbs to do so.  First, they’re burned as much as possible, then converted to and stored as glycogen, and only then converted to fat.  And the conversion consumes some energy so you end up with less than half the calories as fat compared to what you started with as carbs.
    Second, consuming excess carbs – as everyone knows – increases insulin levels.  Insulin activates the desaturatase and elongase enzymes that end up increasing the number of carbon-carbon double bonds in fatty acids, leading to an increase in polyunsaturated fats in the cell membranes.
    The second process would vastly outweigh the first process in terms of final product. 

  14. Thanks for getting back to me. It is indeed a plausible explanation although it does not explain why queen bees get more carbohydrate than than their unlucky shorter lived subordinates. The other item was that the Japanese are among the longest lived people in the world, yet consume large amounts of rice. Part of the reason, to me, at least appears to be that they consume a more nutritious diet that most other cultures due to large consumption of seafood items including kelp, krill which give a more balanced consumption of Omega3 to Omega6. It does make me wonder if in the context of a balanced diet which actually meets all nutritional requirements, excess carbs might not improve longevity.
    From the Wikipedia “krill is also used for human consumption and known as okiami (オキアミ)1 in Japan.”
    Rice is the main carbohydrate food in Japan, consumed with every meal. For the poor, it is the chief source of calories. However, the real basis of the Japanese diet is not rice but fish, consumed at more than 154 pounds per person per year,almost one-half pound per day. This is about the same amount by weight as rice, but in terms of calories, fish provides a greater amount for most of the Japanese. Thanks for the time and space to comment.
    Hi Mark–
    The one item your forgetting to factor in (actually there are two) is the caloric content.  If you consume a fairly low-calorie diet, as I think the Japanese do, then you can get by with more carbs.  If you fast every other day, you can eat a bunch of carbs and not pay the price.  (The other factor with the Japanese is their genetic homogeneity, which might be one that doesn’t have problems with excess carbs.) 

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