Saturated Fats and Heart Disease

Saturday, February 11, 2012
The answer used to be an almost unqualified yes, before the low-carb backlash. But now, according to an article in the April 2011 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a new consensus on the effect of saturated fats on heart disease has emerged—sort of.

Scientists believe there is evidence that for those eating a typical western diet, reducing saturated fats and replacing them with polyunsaturated fats (examples include safflower oil, sunflower oil, walnuts, and fish) does indeed lead to a lower risk of heart disease. However, if saturated fats are replaced with monounsaturated fats (for example, olive oil, avocados and almonds), there is no evidence of risk reduction. This, they concede, may be because monounsaturated fats are not considered a risk factor in heart disease in the first place.

Replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates has not been shown to reduce heart-disease risk. In fact, replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates (think white flour and sugar) may have an adverse effect: for example, increasing triglycerides (blood fats), lowering HDL (good) cholesterol, and decreasing LDL particle size. Replacing saturated fats with ever-increasing amounts of refined carbohydrates has increased our risk of chronic diseases such diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, as well as heart disease. Simply put, excess sugar is converted to fat, and being overweight puts us at risk of developing these diseases.

Nonetheless, the consensus is that more work needs to be done. At the very least, researchers should examine whether replacing saturated fats with complex carbohydrates, or whole grains, offers any risk-reduction benefit. Scientists also believe more work should be done in examining the effects of various types of saturated fatty acids on heart disease, as some may impact heart-disease risk differently. They also believe that it’s more helpful to examine a food rather than a nutrient. For example, the possible risk associated with the saturated-fat content of cheese may be offset by that food’s protein and calcium content. In other words, the effect of particular foods on heart-disease risk is not necessarily weighted by its saturated fat content.

Ultimately, though, the scientists who form this consensus agree that a healthy dietary pattern that reduces heart disease risk is one that is mostly plant based and low in saturated fats. As funding for the symposium that produced this consensus came partly from the beef and dairy industries, it’s not surprising that this healthier dietary pattern would also include moderate amounts of lean meats and low-fat dairy products.

Source: Am J Clin Nutr April 2011 vol. 93 no. 4 684-688


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