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When It Comes To Saturated Fats & Heart Health, It Might Be Time For More Nuance

Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer By Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
Eliza Sullivan is a food writer and SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
Greek yogurt with honey, figs, nuts and muesli

When it comes to fats, we know there's healthy fats and the less healthy fats—most particularly saturated fats. In fact, saturated fats are often listed among foods to avoid to help manage heart disease risk. Given the prevalence of heart disease in the United States (over 600,000 people die each year from it), it makes sense that many people avoid saturated fats as much as possible, often at doctors' recommendations.

But—as it often goes—there might be more nuance to the saturated fat conversation than we've come to know. A new study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association earlier this month, suggests that we pay more attention to the type of food the saturated fat is coming from rather than writing off foods with saturated fats entirely.

How food source may change the impact of dietary saturated fats.

While saturated fats are often found in highly processed foods that lack health benefits—even beyond whether or not the fats themselves are harmful—there are some less processed foods that contain saturated fats, too, like coconut oil and dairy products.

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Using data from the University of Cambridge's EPIC-CVD study, they compared 10,529 people who developed heart disease with 16,730 who did not, specifically looking at dietary habits and taking into account age, sex, physical activity levels, whether they smoked or drank alcohol, and whether they had overweight or obesity. 

From there, they found that the data showed no specific correlation between saturated fats and a risk of developing heart disease overall, but when they zoomed in on specific dietary habits, more patterns appeared. "We found that people who ate more saturated fats from red meat and butter were more likely to develop heart disease," wrote Marinka Steur, Ph.D., and Nita Forouhi, Ph.D., two of the study authors, in a news release. "The opposite was true for those who ate more saturated fats from cheese, yogurt and fish—which were actually linked to a lower risk of heart disease."

According to the researchers, these findings align with previous research—they specifically cite a 2017 study that highlighted the link between food groups and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart failure. In the case of the recent study, the observational nature of the research means that the link between the type of food that contains the saturated fat and heart disease risk can only be called an association—there's no way to prove any cause, given the other factors at play.

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Why food source matters.

Though some foods may have compounds that are considered bad, that doesn't have to mean the entire thing is bad for you. "Foods are more than just the sum of their parts," write Steur and Forouhi. "They contain many different nutrients, vitamins, minerals and properties that may act together to prevent or cause certain diseases."

In the case of the foods mentioned above, they point out that "cheese and yogurt contain saturated fats, they also contain nutrients such as vitamin K2 and probiotics," which can affect heart disease risk in their own ways too.

You can also get more nuanced than just calling the fats saturated fats, which can help to potentially enlighten why some sources of saturated fats are more associated with negative health impacts. In red meat, for example, there is more palmitic acid, a specific type of saturated fat, than there is in dairy products.

The bottom line.

What does all this really mean? Simply, that a healthy diet for those worried about heart disease may not need to be completely free of all saturated fats—though you should always follow your doctor's advice. "This shows us that ultimately, our health is affected by the combination of all the nutrients and bioactive components (including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals) in the foods we eat," the researchers explain, "this is why it's important to consider the foods we eat alongside the nutrients they contain."

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