Saturated Fats – Friend or Foe?

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  Last updated May 18, 2017 at 9:16 am


Are saturated fats the real bogey men of our arteries?

An article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine says that we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to saturated fats and how they clog up our arteries. They claim that we need to spend less time worrying about lowering blood fats and cutting out dietary saturated fat and focus instead on eating “real food,” taking a brisk daily walk, and minimising stress to stave off heart disease.

The international team of researchers point to reviews that show no association between the consumption of saturated fat and any increase in risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. They go further to suggest that a common procedure for improving circulation, the insertion into a narrowed artery stainless steel mesh called a stent, fails to reduce the risk of heart attack or death.

When it comes to cholesterol the team argue that a high total cholesterol to high density lipoprotein (HDL) ratio is the best predictor of cardiovascular disease risk, rather than the currently favoured low density lipoprotein (LDL). They claim that this ratio can be rapidly reduced with dietary changes such as replacing refined carbohydrates with healthy high fat foods (such as nuts and olive oil) typically found in the Mediterranean Diet.

It’s long been known that a Mediterranean style diet rich in the anti-inflammatory compounds found in nuts, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and oily fish helps to lower risk factors associate with coronary heart disease.

The researchers also claim that a key aspect of coronary heart disease prevention is exercise with as little as 30 minutes of moderate activity a day three or more times a week reducing risk factors for sedentary adults. They also point out the importance of avoiding chronic stress as a prevention strategy for lowering risks of coronary heart disease.

Claims arising from this research have already proved controversial with a mixture of responses from other researchers both in support of and in contravention of the research conclusions.

In support of this research experts such as Dr Yutang Wang, Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied and Biomedical Sciences at Federation University Australia, have pointed out that “saturated fat have been an important nutrition source for humans for thousands of years” and our body’s healthy functions depend in part on saturated fat.

He says it is a common misconception that saturated fat increases cardiovascular disease and note that there is no clinical evidence to back up this proposition. In fact, he claims that depriving saturated fat from our diet has been shown to increase mortality risk.

Other experts are much more critical such as Prof Greg Dusting, Professorial Fellow and the University of Melbourne and the Executive Director Research at the Centre for Eye Research Australia, who believes that lowering LDL (or LDL/HDL ratio) reduces deaths from coronary heart disease is already well-supported. However, even these dissenting voices agree that the common conception that elevated LDL is caused by over-consumption of saturated fats is probably overstated.

It has also been pointed out that frequent consumption of deep fried food using fat (both saturated and unsaturated) has been linked to poor health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, heart failure, diabetes, and hypertension.

Meanwhile, some other researchers question the claim that walking just 22 minutes a day is a better way to prevent coronary disease than eliminating saturated fats from the diet because the evidence for this claim is particularly thin.

It’s also worthy to note the conflict of interest that the main author of the paper is a co-producer of the documentary The Big Fat Fix.

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About the Author

Paul Willis
Paul is a respected leader in the science community with an impressive career in science. He has a background in vertebrate palaeontology, studying the fossils of crocodiles and other reptiles. He also has a long history as a science communicator, with a career spanning as Director of The Royal Institution of Australia, presenter and host for Australia’s Science Channel, working for the ABC on TV programs such as Catalyst and Quantum as well as radio and online. He’s written books and articles on dinosaurs, fossils and rocks and is finding new ways to engage the people of Australia with the science that underpins their world. Follow him on Twitter @fossilcrox.

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