Are you a fan of guilty pleasures like red meat, chicken, cheese, and dairy products? Many of us crave these high-fat foods, but still try to limit our consumption due to the assumption that foods high in saturated fat are bad for our health. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines even tell Americans to eat small amounts of foods that are high in saturated fats because these foods raise the risk of heart disease. However, a group of researchers are questioning this assumption about the link between foods high in saturated fat, and heart disease.
A new meta-analysis has been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which proves that there’s actually insufficient evidence to support the idea that foods high in saturated fats may cause heart disease.
So, how did this notion start about the evils of saturated fat? Well, back in the 60’s there were some studies that began to show that saturated fat caused an increase in LDL cholesterol, which is the type of cholesterol that clogs arteries. Therefore, the research community assumed that saturated fat would cause heart disease.
However, now that researchers have conducted new studies, they’ve found that this link doesn’t have a lot of scientific backing. In this most recent study, researchers tracked the amount of saturated fat that participants consumed over years, and then followed up to see if that higher intake of saturated fat caused heart attacks, or strokes. And, it turns out that there isn’t a correlation.
NPR (National Public Radio) said the following regarding the study, “When researchers have tracked people’s saturated fat intake over time and then followed up to see whether higher intake increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, they haven’t found a clear, consistent link.”
And, this isn’t the only study that has come to this conclusion. A prior study that included more than 300,000 participants also found that there weren’t any associations between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk.
The fuss is really all about cholesterol. Cholesterol can’t dissolve in your bloodstream, which is why it often contributes to plaque buildup in arteries, and thus heart attacks and strokes. However, there are two very different types of cholesterol, which are often referred to as “good” and “bad” cholesterol. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein is the bad kind, while high-density lipoprotein, or HDL is the good one. These two types of lipids make up your total cholesterol count, which can be determined through a blood test at your doctor’s office.
In the past a high cholesterol count was thought to be a sure sign of a risk of heart disease. However, now researchers believe that the ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol is a better predictor of potential heart issues.
That’s because when you compare HDL to carb intake, and saturated fat, it turns out that HDL might even protect against heart disease, which may balance out the harmful LDL cholesterol.
Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, and co-author of the paper says that saturated fat has a rather neutral effect, “It’s not a beneficial effect but not a harmful effect. And I think that’s what the recent studies show.”
Now, don’t get too excited here. If you’re ready to go eat a couple cheeseburgers right now, then please hold your horses. Saturated fat still contains LDL cholesterol, which isn’t good for you. The point of the study is that saturated fats do not have a direct link to bad cholesterol. For example, some meat and cheese products can actually increase HDL cholesterol, which is the “good” cholesterol.
Fried chicken still isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice. Don’t forget that a KFC meal is still full of sugar and carbohydrates. A fast-food cheeseburger meal not only has the sugar and carbs, but also processed meats, which have been shown to pose a potential risk for heart disease and cancer.
Mozaffarian says the real question isn’t whether or not saturated fat is good or bad, but rather how healthy you are eating. He recommends eating a healthy diet that is full of a variety of minimally processed foods, as well as whole foods such as nuts and olive oil. He also recommends consuming small portions of animal products.
Not all groups have jumped on the bandwagon of this new study, though. The World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association still promote eating a diet that is low in saturated fats.
However, it is important to remember that too many calories from any single source can lead to weight gain. And, it’s actually that weight gain that will increase the risk of heart disease. Therefore, have your fried chicken and cheeseburgers in moderation, and be sure to eat a diverse range of foods including fruits and vegetables to steer clear of the risks of heart disease.