The Hub-bub About Heart Disease and Saturated Fat

Here we go again, folks! It seems like science has shown us the error of our ways with regard to limiting saturated fat in order to decrease heart disease risk. After years of hearing about how bad saturated fat (the kind found in meat, cheese and butter) is for heart health, have scientists now learned it’s okay after all? The headlines and publicity last week from the international study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine might lead you to think so.

Olive Oil
Olive Oil / Smabs Sputzer / CC BY 2.0

What did the study show?

Looking past the flashy headlines to the actual study shows that the researchers reviewed studies that included over half a million people in order to see what differences in heart disease risk existed between those who consumed a high amount of saturated fat and those who consumed a low amount. Their findings? Those eating more saturated fat (found in foods like meat, butter and cheese) were no more likely to have heart disease than those eating low amounts. And, conversely, that those eating more unsaturated fats (like monounsaturated fats in olive oil, or polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oil) were no less likely to have heart disease than those eating unsaturated fats.

This type of flip-flopping science can be frustrating for sure, but it isn’t that surprising. Science evolves and changes; it’s the nature of science—especially when it comes to the human body, a most complex machine. Our collective body of knowledge grows and scientific opinions change to reflect that knowledge. There is no “last word” on a topic in the science world.

What to make of it?

This study also wasn’t the only one to conclude that saturated fat intake has little impact on cardiovascular disease risk—there have been a few before this. However, it did serve to nail down one type of fat that should be avoided, and that is trans fat—the kind found in hydrogenated oils (shortening), some packaged baked goods and baking mixes, fried foods and snack foods. Trans fat consumption was associated with increased heart disease risk. (It’s good to know some things haven’t changed!)

Don’t forget balance.

We tend to get caught up in the “little” question and lose focus on the big stuff. The way to a healthful diet is pretty tricky if one tries to eat according to the latest study.  Our bodies are more complicated than we know, and every little bit of information we discover is just a smidgen of what is really behind the intricate systems that influence how our bodies react to the huge variety of nutrients in the food we eat. When we decrease our consumption of one dietary component, such as fat, we tend to make up for it by eating more of another. In the case of fat, recent history has shown that lots of us eat more carbs when we decrease our fat intake—and that was something the researchers in this latest study advised against. (In fact, they commented that a diet high in processed carbs and sugar was likely to do more damage to blood cholesterol levels that one that had more saturated fat.) So it seems that for now, the finger of dietary “guilt” now points squarely at sugar and a high-carb diet. Indeed, that’s where it’s been pointing for the last couple years at least.

It might be boring to talk about “eating a balanced diet,” but time and again it appears that the way to health is through a diet that is balanced—and includes plenty of produce, some lean protein, some whole grain and a little fat from a variety of sources. Making the best choices isn’t always easy, which is why it’s nice to get a little help. The Guiding Stars system can provide some help. It takes lots of things into account, including saturated fat, added sugar, added sodium and a host of other nutritional pros and cons in order to arrive at an easy-to-understand star rating. Getting back to basics by choosing whole foods as much as possible and selecting minimally processed products or those with the shortest ingredient statements will go a long way toward making your diet satisfying as well as wholesome.

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