Q. My husband has been on a low-fat regimen for over a decade, ever since his doctor said that this was a possible way to avoid taking statins. Although my husband likes cream in his coffee, he now uses skim milk, soy milk or non-dairy creamer. (I drink my coffee black, so it doesn’t matter to me). He never uses butter, though I know he prefers it to margarine. We buy the kind that advertises zero trans fat and is endorsed by the American Heart Association.
Red meat has disappeared from our menu, replaced mostly by fish and chicken. We eat lots of vegetables. We keep our fat intake to a minimum and if I fry anything it is primarily with canola oil. I do use olive oil to make salad dressing.
Although we both love ice cream, we haven’t bought any in at least five years. We figured such sacrifices were worth it because saturated fat is supposed to be so bad for your heart.
Needless to say, we were astonished to read your article about saturated fat not being tied to heart attacks. How can that be?
We’re not likely to change our diet any time soon, but I know my husband would love to sometimes splurge and put cream in his coffee.
A. The study you are referring to (Annals of Internal Medicine, March 18, 2014) has created a firestorm of controversy within the nutrition community. Cardiologists and other health professionals are shaking their heads in disbelief. That’s hardly surprising since for the last 60 years we have been told that saturated fat is a killer.
Investigators analyzed 72 studies that included more than 600,000 subjects. These research articles included the best data available on the topic of diet and heart disease. Here are the key points
Substituting polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oil for the saturated fat from butter or meat did not protect people from heart attacks. Most dietitians have advised that corn oil, peanut oil and safflower oil would be good for the cardiovascular system. The finding of this meta-analysis did not support this belief.
The researchers did not find an association between the amount of saturated fat consumed and heart attack rate. They did find a possible inverse relationship between margaric acid (a saturated fatty acid found in milk and dairy fat) and coronary disease. In other words, more dairy consumption seemed related to less heart disease rather than vice versa, though the association was not very strong.
Trans fat consumption was linked to coronary disease risk.
In their own doctorspeak, here are the researcher’s conclusions:
“In conclusion, the pattern of findings from this analysis did not yield clearly supportive evidence for current cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats. Nutritional guidelines on fatty acids and cardiovascular guidelines may require reappraisal to reflect the current evidence.”
This is not the first time saturated fat has come up innocent. A decade ago, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Nov. 2004) produced heretical conclusions that were pretty much ignored by health professionals. Here were the conclusions:
“In postmenopausal women with relatively low total fat intake, a greater saturated fat intake is associated with less progression of coronary atherosclerosis, whereas carbohydrate intake is associated with a greater progression.”
An editorial in the journal assessed the data this way:
“It is an article of faith that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol and accelerates coronary artery disease, whereas unsaturated fatty acids have the opposite effect…
“In this issue of the Journal, Mozaffarian et al report the opposite association. They found that a higher saturated fat intake is associated with less progression of coronary artery disease according to quantitative angiography…
“In conclusion, the hypothesis-generating report of Mozaffarian et al draws attention to the different effects of diet on lipoprotein physiology and cardiovascular disease risk. These effects include the paradox that a high-fat, high-saturated fat diet is associated with diminished coronary artery disease progression in women with the metabolic syndrome [big belly, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, triglycerides and low levels of HDL cholesterol], a condition that is epidemic in the United States. This paradox presents a challenge to differentiate the effects of dietary fat on lipoproteins and cardiovascular disease risk in men and women, in the different lipid disorders, and in the metabolic syndrome.”
It is hard to give up on old beliefs, especially those that have been hammered into us for so many decades. We are not encouraging people to go whole hog (so to speak) on saturated fat because of this meta-analysis. That said, a little cream in your husband’s coffee now and again does not seem like such a dangerous thing, given this new analysis. It might even be beneficial.
Here is what other visitors to this website have had to say about the new research:
“As someone who has tried to eat a healthy diet which included no eggs, butter, whole milk, etc, I am now going back to how my grandparents ate – WHOLE FOODS! I avoid processed foods, GMO contaminated foods, and try to buy organic whenever possible.” M.L.T.
“Michael Pollen’s book, ‘In Defense of Food‘ demonstrated that it is real food that we are meant to eat, and not an overabundance of any one food item. Trans fats, sugar, corn and soybeans in addition to chemical ‘stabilizers’ and preservatives have been used to make foods last longer and they have been our downfall.
“Portion sizes got out of hand as well. However, I think we will learn ultimately that sugar is the worst of all for us, and not just the artificial sugars. And it is hidden in so many things. Real, whole food is the key.
“Thanks for your proactive approach to information and getting the word out!” Diana
“It is especially difficult for me to believe the reversal in theories. I once was employed by the Mass. Dept. of Public Health as a promoter of the fats, sodium, smoking, and exercise theories.
“In preparation for the job, we had to read many scientific articles that supported the ‘facts’ that we were promoting.
“I am suspicious that the food industry may be behind the current push! Maybe not. Time will tell. I do not doubt that eating a well balanced diet is a good principle to follow. As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out!” E.C.
“All this new information is confusing. However, my grandmother always said that the best advice for diets, and everything else for that matter, is moderation in all things. I believe this, but I too have been taken in by so much information during the last 50 years. Real food, non-processed food, is much better and I try to use these foods in cooking. Your e-mail is very helpful and I thank you for it.” Mary
If you are interested in scientifically proven diets for good health and a discussion of our favorite “real” foods, we recommend our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. You will also find an amazing array of home remedies for common ailments. We like to think that common sense and grandmothers’ wisdom is worth quite a lot. Here is a link should you be interesting in obtaining a copy.
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