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Mar 27, 2014

Study Sparks Debate Over Saturated Fats

Researchers involved in new study question the association between fat consumption and heart health.

For decades, Americans have been cutting back on their fat intake to improve heart health. So when a recent study suggested that saturated fat may have no impact on risk for heart disease, consumers were taken aback. Were experts wrong when they advised consumers to limit saturated fat intake to prevent heart disease? Or were study findings wrong?

To answer this question, it’s important to consider the study which first sparked this debate. Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, this paper reviewed 72 separate studies that included more than 600,000 participants in 18 countries. After combining the pool of data and analyzing results, researchers failed to find any difference in heart disease rates among those who had the least amount of saturated fat compared to those who consumed the most. Researchers also failed to find any heart benefits associated with “healthy” fats like monounsaturated fatty acids. Based on these findings, authors concluded that there’s not enough evidence to say that a diet low in saturated fats and high in “healthy” fats helps protect against heart disease.

Still, the most recent guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association recommend limiting saturated fat to protect heart health. These recommendations were based on very strong evidence—including clinical trials, which are the gold standard of research studies—showing that saturated fat increases risk for heart disease.

Fortunately, further research is underway to better understand the relationship between fat intake and cardiovascular health. In the meantime, experts emphasize the importance of moderation. This controversial study does not give consumers the green light to eat all the butter, red meat and cheese that they please. There is still plenty of evidence suggesting that limiting saturated fat intake is part of a heart-healthy diet and as with most things, moderation is key. There are many components to a diet other than fat, such as salt, sugar, fruit, vegetables, and it’s important to consider each in making healthy decisions, in addition to staying active and maintaining a healthy weight.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Are all types of fat bad for the heart?
  • No, there are many different types of fat—some of which are harmful and some of which are beneficial. The two main types of harmful fats are saturated fat and trans fat, both of which can increase cholesterol levels. Healthier types of fat include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which may help promote cardiovascular health. Although you don’t need to eliminate fat from your diet, it’s important to consume fat in moderation and choose healthier fats when possible to promote a healthier heart.
  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

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