The Big Saturated Fats Debate: Friend, Foe, or Frenemy?

woman black eating fatty foodsSo far, since 1960s,  it’s been well-established that foods with high saturated fat content e.g., butter, beef, pork, lamb and whole fat dairy may increase the risk of heart disease and drops significantly when they are replaced with foods rich in poly unsaturated fats (PUFA) and mono-unsaturated fats (MUFA) (fish, nuts and vegetable oils). However, the new research advocating saturated fat is challenging the data on the association between dietary fat and cardiovascular disease that has been established after unraveling years of suggestive evidence.

Headlines titled “Butter is Back,” “Saturated Fat Link with Heart Disease Questioned” and “The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy are making the public to believe that the previously accepted “truth” is in fact a myth. What happened all of a sudden? Is it actually an emerging research by the wiser scientists or is it just the misinterpretation of the results? These headlines are consequences to the recently published study in Annals of Internal Medicine conducted by scientists from Europe and the United States, comparing individuals with the highest and lowest intake of saturated fats with those having the highest and lowest intake of unsaturated “healthy” fats and concluded that there was no significant difference in the incidence of heart disease in any of the groups!

The Inside Story

What the headlines failed to address is the context of the study’s results. It has far been understood that when foods high in saturated fat are replaced with refined carbohydrates and added sugar, the associated risk for cardiovascular disease may be increased even though saturated fat intake is low. Thus saturated fat intake must be studied in the context of the overall diet rather than in isolation in order to accurately assess its relationship to health.

In a recent interview about the study results, one of the co-authors of the study from the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed that the relative risk of saturated fat intake is dependent on what you are eating instead. An excess intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugar (found in many “low fat” foods) are more detrimental to the diet than fats that contain some saturated fat. He also admits that “the results of this study found that the focus on a single nutrient like saturated fat alone may not be the best approach to fight heart disease”- which is already known!

What’s the takeaway?

When looking at dietary fat and heart health, it is essential to look at the whole picture comprising of all the nutrients. Eating small amounts of whole foods that contain some saturated fat as part of an otherwise nourishes diet may not be harmful; however, choosing more foods higher in unsaturated fats such as fish, avocado, and other plant-based oils are still healthier.

Bottom Line

Olive oil is still healthier than butter!

Thus, you should still hold off on that extra serving of high fat food items, but be mindful of what you are replacing it with as fat- free sugar laden donut might be even worst!

About Jalpa Sheth

J. ShethHi there, I am Jalpa Sheth, a New York based registered dietitian, originally a foodie! Growing up in a very health conscious family, I learned the importance of eating healthy at a very earlyage. Nutrition was always a pronounced area of my interest. Articles on diet/nutrition in health magazines always remained my topics of interest. My nutrition philosophy focuses on self-empowerment and setting realistic goals for healthy eating that allows room for treats (such as my favorite ice cream and chocolate), after all I am a dietitian and not a food police! In my free time I enjoy freelance writing that helps convey my voice to the audience to guide them through the way of smart eating.

References

Chowdhury, R.,MD, PhD; Warnakula, S., MPhil*; Kunutsor, S., MD, MSt*; Crowe, F., PhD; Ward, H. A., PhD; Johnson, L., PhD; Franco, O. H., MD, PhD; Butterworth, A. S., PhD; Forouhi, N. G., MRCP, PhD; Thompson, S. G.,  FMedSci; Khaw, K., FMedSci; Mozaffarian, D., MD, DrPH; Danesh, J., FRCP*; and Angelantonio, E., MD, PhD* Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis (2014) Annals of Internal Medicine 160(6):398-406

Micha, R. and Mozaffarian, D. Saturated Fat and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors, Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: a Fresh Look at the Evidence (2010) Lipids: 45:893–905

Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., Krauss, R. M. Saturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Modulation by Replacement Nutrients (2010) Curr Atherosclerotic Rep 12: 384 – 390.

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