#118 Is Saturated Fat Safe for the Heart?

August 15th, 2015 by

Is Saturated Fat Safe for the Heart?

“I never eat red meat or butter,” Cindy said proudly at a recent dinner event as she put whole wheat bread and pasta on her plate.

Based on the ongoing guidance from our government and the American Heart Association, Cindy thought she was eating a heart healthy dinner as she was limiting saturated fat.  Do the scientific data support restricting saturated fat intake?

In this article, I will share the most recent medical studies answering this question, is saturated fat safe for the heart.  If you would rather skip directly to the video interview I did on this blog at KUTV, our local CBS affiliate in Utah, here is the link.

Saturated Fat Is Not Dangerous

This past week the prestigious British Medical Journal published yet another article, building upon recent research over the last decade, that saturated fat may not be dangerous for our heart health.  This study was based on an analysis of 73 recently published medical studies including a total of 339,090 people.

The main findings of this study are as follows:

1. Saturated fat didn’t increase heart disease or premature deaths

2. Replacing saturated fat with simple carbohydrates increases heart attacks

3. Replacing saturated fat with complex carbohydrates prevents heart disease

4. Replacing saturated fat with healthy fats prevents heart attacks

5. Trans fat causes premature death and heart disease deaths

Big Picture on Saturated Fat

The findings of this study may help to clarify the previous confusion about saturated fat from our government and large organizations like the American Heart Association.  It appears that saturated fat, like that found in animal meat, butter, cheese, etc. are relatively neutral when it comes to heart disease risk and premature death.

If we replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates like those found in 99% of commercially available breads/pasta/cereal, white rice, processed foods, etc., much like we did in the 1980s and 1990s, our overall risk goes up.  In fact, many researchers feel that replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates was the single most important reason for the obesity epidemic we are now experiencing.

If our goal is optimal health then we should focus on replacing excess saturated fat with complex carbohydrates, like legumes, fruits, and vegetables or healthy fats like nuts, avocado, and oily fish.  Indeed, based on the results of this study, the heart disease risk goes down significantly if we eat more complex carbohydrates and healthy fats while minimizing saturated fat.

Trans fat, like what is found in microwave popcorn, commercially prepared bakery items, and processed foods is clearly dangerous to our health.  In fact, studies show that there is no safe level of trans fat that we can eat.

I need to emphasize that even though the food label states “zero trans fat” you can’t believe the label.  To determine if there is trans fat, you must read the ingredients due to legal loopholes in the government reporting guidelines.  If you see “partially hydrogenated” or shortening on the ingredient list, run as these fake foods are likely loaded with trans fat.

Is Plant-Based Saturated Fat Healthier?

Unfortunately, in this study, researchers did not look at whether the source of saturated fat matters when it comes to health.  For example, nuts, avocado, and coconut all have varying degrees of saturated fat.

My personal opinion is that unprocessed, plant-based sources, of saturated fat, like that which is found in nuts, avocado, and coconut, is much heart healthier than animal based saturated fat like animal meat, cheese, and full-fat dairy.  Hopefully, in the next few years we will have conclusive proof on this subject.

Is Natural Trans Fat Dangerous?

Another question that was not answered in this study is whether natural trans fat is as dangerous as the processed food form of trans fat.  For example, animal meat and dairy contain natural trans fat.  Is the natural trans fat in animal meat and dairy dangerous like the trans fat in microwave popcorn, commercially prepared bakery items, or processed foods?

Once again, conclusive proof is still lacking.  Personally, I suspect that the natural trans fat from real food sources, like organic, grass-fed animal meat and dairy, is probably much safer than what is made in an industrial “food” factory.

Take Home Message

Hopefully, this study lays to rest much of the confusion about dietary fat.  Based on this, and other emerging research, here is what I recommend to my patients trying to eat a heart healthy diet.

1. The worst foods for your heart are refined carbohydrates and industrial trans fat.

2. Complex carbohydrates are heart healthy.

3. We need more fat from nuts, avocado, and wild oily fish in our diets.

Do you feel that this study helps to clear up the dietary confusion we have been receiving from our government and large organizations like the American Heart Association?  Please leave your comments below for our community.