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Saturated Fat – Is It Actually Good for Heart Health?
March 18, 2014
By Dr. Maiko Ochi, N.D., L. Ac.
For decades now, we’ve been told that to protect our hearts and prevent strokes and heart attacks, we should eat a low-fat diet and stay away from saturated fat found in meat, butter, cream, and cheese. The American Heart Association recommends that people restrict saturated fat intake to as little as 5% of their daily calories, which is about two tablespoons of butter or two ounces of cheese for a typical person eating 2000 calories a day. Unfortunately, even though many of us have faithfully followed these recommendations, the results have been less than spectacular. In fact, rates of heart disease have increased since these dietary suggestions have been adopted, and in addition, rates of diabetes and obesity (and their combination, diabesity) have gone up as well.
Results from a review published yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine support the growing amount of data that saturated fats are not actually bad for our hearts. The review looked at data from nearly 80 studies, looking at what people reportedly ate, as well as more objective measures like the amounts of different fatty acids in their blood and fat. Trans fats, which are in partially hydrogenated oils that are added to processed foods, were associated with heart disease. But there was no increased risk with eating saturated fat. People who ate higher amounts of saturated fat did not have more heart disease than those who ate less. It also showed that people who ate more unsaturated fat, like monounsaturated fat from olive oil or polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oil, did not have less heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that people restrict their saturated fat intake and eat more unsaturated fat, because doing so can lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, which is known as the “bad cholesterol” since it raises heart attack risk. However, saturated fat also increases high-density lipoprotein, also known as the “good cholesterol.” Also, saturated fat increases the subtype of LDL that is large and fluffy. The smallest and most dense/less fluffy LDL cholesterol is the most dangerous type because they’re more likely to form an artery-narrowing plaque. They’re easily oxidized and more likely to trigger inflammation. An LDL profile that consists mostly of these small dense particles is associated with high triglycerides and low levels of HDL, which are both risk factors for heart attacks and stroke. These particles are increased not by saturated fat, but by sugary foods and an excess of carbohydrates.
Some experts caution against taking the findings of this new review as a reason to slather our waffles with butter and whipped cream. It might be that saturated fat is not necessarily good for us, but that when we eat more fat, we eat fewer carbohydrates. And numerous studies have shown that refined carbohydrates, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup are terrible for our metabolism. So what’s the take-away message? Data seem to suggest a diet low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, high in fruits and vegetables, protein, and healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter, nuts and nut butters, and avocadoes, with small amounts of whole grains, may be the most anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy diet to follow.
Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014 Mar;160(6):398-406.