Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats as part of a healthy diet helps reduce risk for heart disease, based on a recent advisory from the American Heart Association.
Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this advisory helped clarify what we know about dietary fats and their relation to heart health. The take-home message, according to authors, is that we replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats to reduce risk for heart disease.
Saturated fat is the “bad” kind of fat that raises cholesterol levels in the blood, increasing risk for heart disease and stroke. These types of fats are often found in high-fat types of meat and dairy products, such as fatty beef, butter and cheese.
Since 1961, the American Heart Association has recommended reducing saturated fat to reduce cardiovascular risk. But the question remained: What do we replace these saturated fats with? We know that unsaturated fats—especially polyunsaturated fats—can reduce cholesterol levels and reduce risk for heart disease and stroke. These heart-healthy fats are often found in nuts, fish and plant-based products like olive and vegetable oil.
Based on a thorough review of clinical trials, experts found that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oil reduced risk for heart disease by 30%, similar to the effects of cholesterol-lowering statins. Long-term studies also showed that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats reduced risk for heart disease and death.
However, the same cannot be said when replacing saturated fats with other nutrients like sugars and carbohydrates. Studies show that cutting back on saturated fats and replacing them with carbohydrates had no impact on risk for heart disease or death. That’s likely because in place of foods high in saturated fats, participants started eating more simple types of carbohydrates, which are high in sugars and do not promote heart health.
As a result, experts from the American Heart Association strongly recommend replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats—preferably polyunsaturated fats—to promote heart health. They also recommend consuming these healthy fats as part of an overall healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet, both of which help reduce risk for heart disease. Because while reducing saturated fats is an important step for improving heart health, it’s just as important that we replace saturated fats with wholesome nutrients, rather than empty calories that have few health benefits.