Is saturated fat good for you? Or, as usual, is the media picking up on one crumb of a fact and promoting inaccuracy and confusion?
A study just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that saturated fats have been wrongly demonized as the cause of heart disease.
This feature doesn’t tell the whole story. All fats are not equal – we’ve known that for years. So, let’s take this news with a grain of salt.
Researchers pooled “meta-analysis” of 72 existing studies that reviewed the effects of the dietary fats – saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. They then evaluated the associated risk for heart disease – arteriosclerosis, angina, heart attack or sudden death.
They concluded that only trans fats – the man-made fats also called “shortening” or “margarine” and known to raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol – were definitively linked to heart disease.
But that’s not a green light to increase the amounts of saturated fat you consume. The study DID NOT conclude that more butter is better – just that some butter isn’t bad.
An editorial in the BMJ Journal, Open Heart detailed how it’s your total diet that increases or lowers your risk for heart disease.
If you’re eating some foods high in saturated fat, are you also eating whole grains, whole fruit, unprocessed foods and un-sugared beverages? Or are you typically eating that burger on a white bun, with French fries and ranch dressing, washed down with a cola? If so, then your diet promotes inflammation and heart disease.
More than 50 years have passed since the initial Dietary Goals for Americans recommended increasing carbohydrates and decreasing saturated fat and cholesterol to lower risk for heart disease.
Since then, we’ve been eating and drinking more unnatural, sugary foods and more processed foods stripped of their fiber. We’re also drinking more juice but we’re eating less fruit. We’re getting less milk and more soda. Instead of healthy fats from nuts and seeds, more of our fat consumption has been from industrialized polyunsaturated oils. These foods have increased our risk for inflammation, and the rate of type 2 diabetes continues to rise.
Whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are all in the “carb category” but so are white flour, sugar, fruit juice and French fries.
Over the past 40 years, obesity rates have soared.
Experts, meanwhile, have identified the so-called “Blue Zones” – those regions where people live extraordinary long and healthy lives. Some of these locales include Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy, and Loma Linda, California. Yes, I said California!
Such disparate regions – so the question begs, “What do these people have in common?”
The simple answer: Strong social networks, daily activity, and a mostly plant-based diet which is consumed in moderation.
We’ve known for a long time that fat is not a four-letter word. It’s the type of fat – and the source of fat – that’s making your diet healthy or harmful.
Commenting in the Huffington Post, Dr. David Katz noted that saturated fat is not just a single food component. There are many saturated fats – and some have known health benefits (such as stearic acid, found in dark chocolate).
The same can be said about polyunsaturated fatty acids. We know that omega-3’s (abundant in fatty fish and some nuts) are heart healthy. An overabundance of omega-6s (from vegetable oils) may even be pro-inflammatory.
Weight loss is still a measurement of calories – the more you take in, the more you gain. Trying to lose weight and still stay healthy? Fat contains 9 calories per gram. Compare that to the 4 calories per gram from protein and carbohydrate.
One of the easiest modifications to make to your usual diet is to see where you might cut some added fats – maybe it’s the butter on your bread or the oil you use to pop your popcorn. A hamburger can fit into your healthy diet, but not if you’re loading it up with fake cheese and gobs of ranch dressing. Those extras add up to extra calories and salt.
But if you enjoy whole or 2% milk compared to skim, or a sirloin steak instead of fish, be confident that in terms of heart health, you’re not hurting yourself and you can modify your other foods to make the calories fit for weight loss.
The method of preparation is crucial. Grill rather than fry. And sauté in broth rather than browning in oil. You’ll cut calories but still get a tasty dish!
Always remember that less is more.
Make your food your friend – and choose it wisely. Slow down on fast food and select the best foods you can afford. Eat more slowly and savor the flavor.
My favorite diet is the diet I live by: the eDiets Glycemic Impact Diet. This plan offers a larger percentage of calories from protein, and at least 30% of calories from fat. Healthy fats are sourced from nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish, and lean meats.
Your takeaway: all whole foods are a good fit for a healthy diet. Just be sure to eat proper portions and to savor your meals slooooooowly!
Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, who as chief nutritionist for eDiets promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.