For decades, saturated fat—also known as "bad" fat—has been labeled one of the leading causes of heart disease. Greasy hamburgers, T-Bone steaks, cheesy pizza and cream sauces have long been avoided because of advice given by nutrition professionals such as myself, health officials, and as laid out by national health authorities and heart associations. But the truth is, there is absolutely no link between saturated fat and heart disease risk. But wait. Don't let this new evidence be your license to gorge on greasy burgers everyday.
A new large study published on Monday in the journal 'Annals Of Internal Medicine' reviewed 49 observational studies and 27 randomized control trials on heart disease risk based on diet data from more than 600,000 people throughout North America, Asia, and Europe.
What they found was that consumption of saturated fat alone does not predict heart disease.
They also found that those who ate more unsaturated or "healthy" fats such as monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil or polyunsaturated fat-rich canola oil or nuts, were not at a lesser risk of developing heart disease. It turns out that heart disease risk is much more complicated than saturated vs. unsaturated fat intake. The researchers did confirm, however, that trans fats, the big "bad guy" often found in processed, packaged foods or in deep fried foods like potato chips or French fries, does increase the risk of heart disease such as heart attack or stroke.
The reason that saturated fat got a bad rap initially was because of it raises LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins), the "bad" type of cholesterol that increases cardiovascular disease risk. But it turns out that saturated fat also raises HDL (high density lipoproteins), the "good" type of cholesterol. The lead researcher, Rajiv Chowdhury, MD, also explains in an interview that the specific subtype of raised LDL cholesterol doesn't seem to be harmful—it is less harmful than the smaller artery-clogging subtype of LDL that seems to spike with a diet high in refined sugars and excess carbohydrates.
Still, the researchers explain that it is old-school thinking to pick on one single nutrient when it comes to chronic disease risk, and I agree. What I find fascinating is that people tend to swing heavily towards one type of food when another is deemed "bad"—when saturated fat was thought to be the big cause of heart disease, people turned to carbohydrates to fill in the gap. When carbs became the villain, people turned to higher protein diets, and now that we know that too much protein isn't so good and that saturated fat isn't considered the culprit, we'll probably see a trend towards higher fat foods.
It's this all or nothing mentality that gets people into trouble.
I have no doubt in my mind that many people will see this study as a green light to indulge more often in greasy hamburgers, cheese-ladened appetizers, and French pastries, but I think that we have to pause, put the burger down and really think about what we're doing.
When I reached out to my Registered Dietitian support community to see what their take on this new study was, one RD pointed out the fact that many foods high in saturated fat are also high in refined carbohydrates, extremely high in calories, often high in sodium and void of much nutrition to begin with, so if people start eating these foods (think restaurant hamburgers, cheese buns, pastries, creamy pasta sauces, cold-cut subway sandwiches) more often, they are likely going to gain weight and may even increase their blood pressure, both of which are risk factors of heart disease. On the other hand, if someone decided to switch from margarine to butter, switch to 2% fat yogurt vs fat-free or make homemade burgers with lean ground beef instead of always using ground turkey, that seems sensible and completely healthy.
The media tends to create a frenzy around studies like this and people tend to translate research findings into their new diet mantra.
As we all know, nutrition research changes almost daily, so my suggestion is to focus on these three things instead:
Singling out one specific nutrient such as fat, carbohydrates, salt, or protein as being evil is the wrong way to go. Swearing off an entire food group often leads to feeling deprived and binging later on and could even lead to nutrient deficiencies. On the flip side, anything in excess is not a good thing either. The old adage "all in moderation" really does ring true when it comes to nutrition and eating. Indulge in chicken wings once in a while, not every second day.
Enjoy a freshly baked pastry once a week instead of every morning. Spread a bit of butter on your corn instead of dousing it so that it's dripping. Have a small glass of wine a night instead of half a bottle.
When I wrote a post on becoming a "Fooditarian" a while ago, I explained how my husband and I had decided to significantly decrease the processed/packaged foods that we bought. Instead of having breakfast cereal, we're now making homemade muesli or slow-cooker steel-cut oats. Instead of buying premade pizza shells, we're making whole grain pizza dough from scratch. We're focusing more on whole fresh foods and cooking from scratch more often. Because our food tastes so much better, and because we really don't feel deprived of anything, it works really well for us. Research consistently points to the fact that consumption of highly processed foods leads to negative health outcomes such as obesity, heart disease, Diabetes, and Metabolic Syndrome. Therefore, decreasing the amount of fast food, packaged/processed food-like items as well as sugary beverages and focusing more on real whole food is really a no-brainer.
I always come back to the importance of being a mindful eater. Even if your diet is perfectly balanced with only whole foods and no junk food, it is still possible to increase your weight and your risk of chronic disease if you're not eating mindfully (overeating). Pay attention to your personal hunger cues when eating. Eat before you become famished and stop before you're over full. Let your body be your guide when it comes to eating, not how much food is on your plate or how much your friend across the table has polished off. Eat slowly and taste your food.
Even if you do become a Fooditarian, there are still some packaged foods that you will buy. Don't waste your time analyzing food labels though. Here's the only thing you need to know about nutrition labels. And you might also be interested in learning about how being "skinny fat" has many health risks.