In the last five years, there's been a huge push to abandon the idea that saturated fats promote heart disease. Books, magazines, podcasts, prominent newspapers, and even medical journals have spread the word that butter and meats rich in saturated fats might not only be harmless for our hearts, but may even promote health.
How did this all start? The majority of this momentum stems from two medical reports, published in 2010 and 2014, which were “meta-analyses." In other words, not new data, but rather a statistical crunching of prior studies in order to squeeze conclusions. Both of these studies have been harshly criticized for their omission and manipulation of data.
And so a lot of people have been wondering: Is butter really back?
The well-respected researchers (by the way, not known to be part of the vegan movement) began following over 125,000 nurses and health professionals in 1980 who were free of disease, and periodically assessed their diet and health. They then followed this large group for up to 30 years, a massive undertaking, and identified over 7,500 cases of new heart disease.
The key finding of the study: if you reduce your intake of saturated fats from butter, dairy and meats and replace the calories with whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids ("healthy fats") and monounsaturated fatty acids (like in olives), you should indeed enjoy a significant drop in heart disease risk.
But replacing saturated fats with refined starches and added sugars will not lower heart disease risk.
In other words, people who give up saturated fats tend to replace them with refined carbs, which aren't any healthier and may even increase your risk of heart disease, as previous studies have shown. That's likely what led to the confusing — and erroneous — conclusion of past reports that reducing saturated fats could increase your risk of disease.
The bottom line: Limiting saturated fats will benefit your heart but — and here's the crucial part — only if you replace them with the right foods.
So what should you eat instead? The study found that a higher intake of whole grains and polyunsaturated fatty acids like vegetables oils, nuts and seeds, was associated with less heart disease, while a higher intake of refined starches and added sugars (think baked goods and pizza dough) was associated with more heart disease.
As Dr. Frank Hu, the senior author of the study, told the Harvard Gazette: “In terms of heart disease risk, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates appear to be similarly unhealthful.”
So what should you eat for breakfast tomorrow morning? Instead of following the health advice of magazine covers and frying eggs and turkey sausage in grass-fed butter, the research shows you should opt for whole-wheat toast with an organic canola-oil-based spread and steel cut oatmeal, or a smoothie with ground flax seed, berries and greens.
Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated that you can halt and reverse established heart disease with a plant-based diet with no added oils or fats.
Now, with the Harvard study, we're again reminded that if you substitute your animal fats with wisely chosen whole foods naturally low in added oils, sugars and salts, you likely won't have to book an appointment with my cardiology practice.
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