February is Heart Health Month and for many years saturated fat found in foods such as butter, cheese, marbled meat, poultry skin and tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil have been touted as bad fats we should eat less of. The recommendation to eat less of these things is being questioned.
Read on to learn more about the current evidence on saturated fat and heart health.
Are high-fat foods such as butter and cheese bad for your heart?
The answer to this question is both yes and no.
The key to understanding why starts with which type of evidence based research you are examining:
- On the one hand, if you look at some observational studies you will find evidence to suggest that saturated fats are not associated with cardiovascular disease. Observational studies involve observing a group with no ability to control for how subjects are assigned to research groups or which treatment each group receives. It is because of this observational studies are considered low-quality evidence.
- On the other hand if you look at some randomized control trials you will find evidence to suggest reducing saturated fat in your diet, lowers cardiovascular disease. Randomized control trials are the “gold standard” for high quality research since the study design involves randomly assigning people to an experimental group or a control group where nothing changes.
Furthermore, the type of food being replaced for saturated fat also provides mixed results:
- Replacing saturated fat with trans fat (such as partially hydrogenated oil used in deep frying or baked goods, hydrogenated margarine or shortening) has a negative effect on heart health.
- Replacing saturated fat with omega-6 fats (such as corn and safflower oil) has a negative effect on heart health.
- Replacing dietary fat in general with sugar and refined (white) processed starchy carbohydrates has a negative effect on heart health.
- Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat (such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado) has a positive effect on heart health.
- Replacing saturated fat with omega-3 fats (such as fish) has a positive effect on heart health.
Third, we eat food not single nutrients:
- Nutrition is complicated and can’t be generalized. There is not just one type of saturated fat, there are different saturated fatty acids that make up individual foods. Different types of saturated fats have different effects. For example, there is research to suggest that coconut oil and dairy fat from butter and cheese may contain saturated fatty acids that have a more neutral role on heart health and blood cholesterol levels than other types of saturated fatty acids.
- Also, keep in mind that all foods are a mix of nutrients. For example, food contains a blend of different types of fats, different types of saturated fat, amino acids that are the building blocks of protein and varying types of fibre. When we examine the role of different foods on your health it is difficult to tease out the effect from only one nutrient. Take olive oil for example, it contains predominantly monounsaturated fat, it also contains a small amount of both polyunsaturated fat and a range of saturated fatty acids too. We also don’t just eat olive oil; we will have other foods with it.
The bottom line
You can find a research study that will support just about anything you want to promote or discount. The key is taking a big picture look at scientific evidence and using some common-sense advice from what your grandparents likely have always known:
- Understand the top nutrition priorities for heart health
The single most effective nutrition strategy to lower your blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure is to lose weight if you are overweight. The best weight loss diet is going to be based on your food philosophy and which diet you can actually sustain. Also, focus on reducing trans fat since research clearly supports that trans fat increases cardiovascular disease.
- There are no bad foods, only bad overall diets.
Your health and heart health depend on your whole diet, not just the type of fat you eat or any other single nutrient. Since the verdict is still out with respect to saturated fat, rather than trying to lower saturated fat, start with just simply eating whole foods. Rather than asking if the butter or cheese you are eating is good or bad, the bigger question we should be asking is what foods do you put your butter on or what else are you eating with your cheese? Hint: most people need to eat more veggies and fruit so the focus likely needs to start there
- Focus on cooking, not label reading
Rather than obsessively reading labels and counting grams of fat, focus on cooking more. I would argue the biggest nutrition challenge facing Western culture today is the lack of cooking knowledge and making this a daily priority.
Article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald Newspaper