This March, I wrote an article in Women's Health Letter that surprised a number of my subscribers. It reported on a study in the British Medical Journal that found there was no advantage in eating a diet low in saturated fats. It also showed that avoiding saturated fat is based on flawed and incomplete data that's more than 60 years old.
What's more, there were more studies saying that diets low in saturated fat don't lower heart disease or help anyone live longer than studies that found the fats are dangerous.
The problem isn't saturated fats — it's sugar and processed foods. Coconut oil and butter, both saturated fats, won't lead to a heart attack. But fast foods filled with white flour, white rice, and sugar may.
Back in the 1950s, research suggested that a diet high in saturated fat contributed to heart disease. The subsequent recommendation was to replace saturated fats with carbohydrates or omega-6-rich polyunsaturated fats. But the author of this 1952 study didn't do his homework properly, according to Dr. James DiNicolantonia. The study author used data from only six countries — and ignored data from 16 other countries when the data didn't support his hypothesis. If you analyze the data from all 22 countries, you'll draw a far different conclusion than the one promoted 60 years ago.
Unfortunately, the negative image of saturated fats has dominated for decades, particularly because the media solidified this reputation when President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. His doctors attributed the heart attack, at least in part, to dietary choices. The negative perception of saturated fats has also led to the idea that these fats must increase total cholesterol and, as a result, heart disease. And because they're calorie-dense, people also believe their consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
But saturated fats may not be the villain at all. In fact, more and more research indicates that refined carbohydrates are actually driving the rise in obesity and diabetes. While it's true that consuming a low-fat diet may help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, what you replace the fat with may do more harm than good. There are actually two types of LDL cholesterol: pattern A (large buoyant) and pattern B (small dense). Pattern B is worse for your heart — and consuming more carbohydrates can create it. Plus, carbs can create an unfavorable overall lipid profile.
If you want to lose weight and improve your lipid profile, you'll have much more success with a low-carb diet than a low-fat diet, according to several studies. Many other large studies have found no conclusive proof that you can reduce your risk of heart disease with a low-fat diet. In fact, if you follow the outdated guidelines and replace saturated fats with omega-6 fatty acids without a corresponding increase in omega-3 fatty acids, you'll actually increase your risk of death from heart disease. You'll find omega-6 fatty acids particularly in processed vegetable oils containing large amounts of corn or safflower oil. These are not a good alternative to saturated fat.
In fact, Dr. DiNicolantonio says, "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." Instead, he recommends a diet low in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods.
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I agree — eating real food is far healthier than cutting out one type of fat. To protect your heart health, subscribe to Women's Health Letter and read the article. Then get rid of sugars, not a little saturated fat.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
"The cardiometabolic consequences of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates or omega 6 polyunsaturated fats: Do the dietary guidelines have it wrong?" Doi 10.1136/openhrt-2013-000032.