Limiting foods rich in dietary saturated fatty acids has no benefit for heart health or overall risk of death, according to a study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology.
Saturated fat does increase LDL cholesterol, but generally the large, “fluffy” LDL particles that are not considered harmful, rather than the small, dense LDL particles that raise your risk of heart disease.
Focusing on eating whole foods rather than eliminating or limiting fat is a preferable health strategy, according to the researchers.
Eating a diet that includes whole foods rich in saturated fats won’t raise your risk for cardiovascular disease or lead to an early death, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The research review was published in advance of the release of the new USDA Dietary Guidelines later this year, with the intent of making the case to remove the long-standing ceiling on saturated fat intake.
In 2016, after decades of urging Americans to watch their overall fat intake, the USDA officially removed the upper limit from total daily fat. They kept the cap on saturated fats, however, which recommends keeping saturated fats to no more than 10 percent of daily calories, a guideline that has been in place since 1980.
Now after poring through decades of data on saturated fats and health, a group of scientists says it’s time to lift that limit as well.
Summing up meta-analyses and other studies that include hundreds of thousands of people, the study concludes that reducing foods rich in saturated fatty acids doesn’t reduce risk of cardiovascular disease or death from any cause. On the contrary, some research suggested that there was a lower risk of stroke with a higher consumption of saturated fat.
It’s true that eating saturated fatty acids like stearic, palmitic, myristic, and lauric acids—which are found in full-fat dairy, meat, eggs, and other fat-rich foods—increases levels of undesirable low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol, but in most people, it doesn’t increase this kind of “bad” cholesterol.
Specifically, saturated fat doesn’t generally increase levels of small, dense LDL cholesterol, which raises your risk for heart disease, but rather increases levels of larger, more bouyant LDL particles, which are not related to increased risk.
By wholesale limiting “saturated fats,” you could miss out on foods that provide high-quality nutrition, and possibly substitute it with a far less healthy option, like processed or starchy carbs, which actually do raise your risk for heart disease, according to the researchers. So it’s better to focus on the overall quality of foods in your diet rather than any specific macronutrient.
“Among foods that are usually called ‘saturated fats,’ some are healthy and some are not, so that the amount of saturated fatty acids (SFA) in a food is not a good predictor as to whether it is healthy,” study researcher Tom Brenna, Ph.D., professor of Human Nutrition and Pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin, told Bicycling.
“That is, considering only the saturated fat content would lead to avoidance of very healthy foods—whole dairy, fermented foods [yogurt, cheeses], and others. As a general rule, whole traditional foods are generally healthier than highly processed foods,” Brenna said.
Dairy, for instance, is a major source of saturated fatty acids, but food-based meta analyses have found that eating more cheese and yogurt is linked to lower cardiovascular disease risk, researchers said.
Likewise, eggs are rich in saturated fatty acids, but they’re also nutrient dense and provide antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin that are hard to get in other foods. Studies have gone back and forth over the years regarding the relationship between egg consumption and heart disease, but a number of meta-analyses have found that higher egg consumption is not associated with risk of CHD and may be associated with lower risk of stroke, say the researchers.
Dark chocolate contains stearic acid, a fatty acid that neither raises nor lowers CVD risk. But if you skip the cocoa-based confection because of its saturated fat content, you also miss out on flavonols, which reduce inflammation, are good for your vascular health, and can even raise your VO2 max (how efficiently you use oxygen).
Finally, although processed meat, like sausage and hot dogs, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, unprocessed meat has not, which indicates that the saturated fat in meat itself is not the culprit behind the elevated risk, the researchers said.
The bottom line: Eating real food is better for your heart and your overall health than stressing over any particular macronutrient.
It’s worth noting that six of the 11 researchers on the paper have received funding from dairy, beef, and other food associations and foundations. Many of the 130 papers cited have no competing interests or claim no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, and results interpretation.
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