Have Saturated Fats Been Unjustly Vilified?

Posted March 5th, 2014 at 11:32 pm (UTC+0)
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A big juicy hamburger with bacon, egg and all the trimings (Marshall Astor via Flickr/Creative Commons)

A big juicy hamburger with bacon, egg and all the trimmings (Marshall Astor via Flickr/Creative Commons)

You’d really love to eat a nice juicy hamburger, wouldn’t you?

But maybe you resist the temptation because you’re watching your weight and your doctor wants you to cut down on saturated fats in order to prevent heart disease.

We’re not recommending that you go ahead and splurge on that burger, but a US cardiovascular research scientist says saturated fats have been unfairly vilified and points to carbs as the real health culprit.

Dr. James DiNicolantonio says refined carbohydrates—and not saturated fats—are to blame for the current surge in obesity and diabetes that leads to heart disease.

Writing in the British Medical Journal’s Open Heart cardiology journal, DiNicolantonio says the long-held advice to switch from saturated fats to foods with carbohydrates or omega 6-rich polyunsaturated fats is based on flawed and incomplete data that dates back to 1952.

Starchy foods like breads, pasta and rice are rich in refined carbohydrates (Wikimedia Commons)

Starchy foods like breads, pasta and rice are rich in refined carbohydrates. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1952 study linked a high-fat diet to deaths from heart disease. DiNicolantonio says the author of that study reached his conclusions based on data from only six out of 22 countries researched and chose to ignore the data from the other 16 nations, because it didn’t match up with the researcher’s hypothesis.

Later analysis of the research data that included all 22 nations actually disproved the study’s conclusions, he says.

The removal of saturated fats from our daily diets got a big boost after US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was 64 then, had a heart attack in 1955.

That incident help foster the belief that since saturated fats increase a person’s total cholesterol, then they must also increase the risk of heart disease. Therefore cutting back on saturated fat intake would naturally curb obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

While he does agree that a low fat-diet may help lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, DiNicolantonio points out that there are two types of this bad cholesterol to consider.

He suggests that switching to foods rich with refined carbs could increase one type of cholesterol called “pattern B (small density) LDL,” which can be more dangerous to heart health than “pattern A (large buoyant) LDL.” This, he says, would create a more harmful overall lipid profile, which is the level of compounds in the blood that includes waxes, oils, sterols, triglycerides, phosphatides, and phospholipids.

DiNicolantonio says there are other studies that have shown following a diet low in carbohydrates is better for weight loss and leads to a more improved lipid profile than following a low-fat diet. He also points out that large observational studies have not found any irrefutable proof that a low-fat diet cuts the risk of cardiovascular disease.

(Open Clipart)

(Open Clipart)

Several of the dietary guidelines developed since 1952 also recommend not only a cut in saturated fats, but also an increase in the intake of polyunsaturated fat.

DiNicolantio says an analysis of published trial data has shown that simply replacing saturated fats and trans-fatty acids with foods containing omega 6 fatty acids, without a matching rise in omega 3 fatty acids, seems to increase the risk of death from coronary heart and cardiovascular diseases.

“We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonizing saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong,” said DiNicolantonio.

He considers a diet low in refined carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods to be the best for maintaining good heart health.

He also recommends that anyone who’s had a heart attack not replace saturated fatty foods with those that contain refined carbs or omega 6 fatty acids, especially those that are found in processed vegetable oils that are comprised of large amounts of corn or safflower oil.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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