Closeup of barista making coffee and pouring milk

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.

Feel free to share your own comments below.

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  1. Anna

    Cling to old habits, if you must, but I would rather believe the facts from now than the “facts” from the 1950s. Our knowledge has been updated and stubbornly hanging on to outdate beliefs will do nothing for one’s health. Calories are just one part of the story. Fat makes you feel fuller and less likely to overindulge in treats. What’s more, fat is not inherently unhealthy, unlike those treats, so if you get your fill and your enjoyment from eating fats, you may find that you lose weight too.

  2. Carol

    I actually have started using more full-fat products and butter and my cholesterol has improved. I do use low-fat (1%) milk and sometimes reduced-fat sour cream, but have mostly reverted to the original versions of the dairy products I use, and I eat an egg almost every day.

  3. SH

    It has high fructose corn syrup in it – that can’t possibly be good for you.

  4. Don

    It is interesting to note the increase in various ailments now being aggressively treated (diabetes, osteoporosis, lipid issues) seem to have started a dramatic climb about the same time various low fat, high carb diet recommendations appeared.
    My wife is a retired Home Economics teacher, and taught many nutrition classes over her career. Her take on all of this has always been control the portions. Enjoy ice cream (or cream in the coffee) now and then. Just don’t order the 16 oz. prime rib every time you go out to dinner.

  5. pkp

    Fat free half and half is full of corn syrup.

  6. Carol

    NPF, have you looked at the ingredients in fat-free half and half? They normally include corn syrup, artificial color and sugar, in addition to milk. Regular half and half would probably be healthier. For creamy soups, I mix low-fat or skim milk with an equal amount of low-fat sour cream to use as a substitute for cream or half-and-half. (Fat-free sour cream is made from skim milk, cornstarch, artificial flavors and thickeners, so I don’t use that.)
    If you look at the ingredients in fat-free products, almost all of them have things that are less healthful than their full-fat counterparts.

  7. hjl

    r- the evidence is now in that for most people cutting fat leads to weight gain- the fat among other good things slows digestion so you don’t start stuffing yourself soon after eating- 100 calories of carbs w/o fat likely will spike your blood sugar and promote more eating.
    NPF- 1/2 and 1/2 is not fat free- read the nutrition label, but your conclusion is correct- it is better than the powdered stuff
    DCL- If anything, this article is suggesting more fat is better. And although sugar is a carbohydrate not all carbohydrates are sugar. You are correct that the only health absolute is that exercise is good for you.
    There is really nothing new in this new study which just aggregates intelligently 72 prior studies.

  8. LP

    This change in certainly disruptive as it is difficult to critique a study based on 600,000 persons. This makes me think that in the not too distant future, we will find that GMOs are just as “natural” as our old, slow method of making hybrids for improved nutrition, productivity or shelf life, only faster.

  9. mary

    Be alert for corn syrup added to some fat free half and half brands.

  10. myebm

    How can half (cream) and half (milk) be fat free???? It is contradictory and what you call plastic cream powder
    liquified. What is so wrong with a teaspoon or two of real organic half and half to enjoy a cup of java?

  11. fbl

    Been there done that and my poor hubby suffered through it all! Finally I said this is crazy, if low fat worked why did my hubby’s cholesterol go up and up?
    I told our family Dr. that we awere going back to the old way of eatinig and getting rid of all the oils, well except extra virgin olive oil. I kept eating my butter through all of this of course but gave my poor hubby margarine. Our Dr. agreed with me.
    We now use real butter, organic coconut and palm oiils, drippings from organic bacon and avocado or nut oils to make our mayonnaise.
    What happened? My hubby’s cholesterol came down over 100 points and finially settled in the very good range of about 220-225. Mine unfortunately is still only 110. Yes, even after almost 15 years of going natural.
    Why unfortunately? I’m the one who has had a heart attack, stroke and cancer! My vessels are squeaky clean though…

  12. DCL

    If people, are going back to their grandparent’s diet, they had better do as much physical work and walking as their grandparents. I agree, it is good to cut way down on the fats and carbohydrates(sugars). Also, must remember, much of our present food has additives & antibiotics. Most of our food animals are not running the range. These may be factors. Choosing ones parents, may be the most important factor With the droughts these days, much of this may become obsolete.

  13. RA

    How can half and half be “fat free?”
    From a culinary site: Definition: Half and half is a dairy product consisting of equal parts light cream and milk.
    With a fat content of between 10.5 percent and 12 percent, half and half falls between light cream, which contains anywhere from 16 percent to 29 percent butterfat, and whole milk, which has about 3.5 percent butterfat.

  14. Mary

    Vegetable oil such as corn, soy & canola are highly processed and mostly, if not all, Omega 6 oils.
    I do my best to avoid all of them.

  15. Kim Parham

    NFP, have you read the ingredients list on your fat free half and half? If you do, I bet you switch to organic skim milk.

  16. Kim Parham

    Aren’t we still just talking about REAL food Vs FAKE food? This study, along with the Mediterranean Diet, the French diet anomaly, etc. all conclude the same way: real food is better than processed food. Sounds so simple, but our culture is so immersed in processed food, we don’t even know what’s real. Non dairy creamer? That stuff is a trans fat nightmare. How can it ever have been touted as “better” than real cream? Margarine? Same thing.
    My motto is, “It’s not what you eat that’s bad, it’s what’s IN what you eat.”
    Thank you for keeping it real and educating us on the facet, not the minutia.

  17. Judy

    Read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes written in 2007. He makes the case for how and why we stared to vilify fat in the diet. It is an astoundingly good read.

  18. NPF

    I use fat free half and half in my coffee and it is wonderful! So much better tasting than skim milk or the plastic cream (my term for powdered “creamers”). I am surprised more people don’t use this product for everything from coffee to creamed soups. It is definitely acceptable to those of us who like rich tasting but fat free options.

  19. WEC

    My philosophy has always been, ” Moderation in all things concerning food.” I stick with this. My question is, “Has any research been done on GMO foods?” All arguments I have seem for GMO foods are emotional; I have seen no scientific based studies.

  20. r

    No one’s mentioned that a tablespoon of fat is 100 calories. I’d rather save those calories for a treat.

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