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Dietary Fats Q&A

Saturated Fats Not So Bad? Not So Fast, Critics of New Analysis Say

What do others say?

Other experts find fault with the study and its conclusions.

"Mainly I think the findings should be disregarded," says Walter Willett, MD, chair of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. While the analysis suggests that ''saturated fat is not quite as bad as its reputation, it depends on what you compare it to," he says.

"If you replace saturated fat with carbohydrates or refined starch or sugar, you are not changing your heart disease risk," he says. ''If you replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, you do get a reduction in heart disease risk."

One analysis is not enough to change dietary advice, says James Blankenship, MD, director of cardiology at Geisinger Medical Center.

In the analysis, the researchers themselves cite a number of caveats and limitations, such as study participants self-reporting their fat intake.

In response to the study, the American Heart Association says its guidelines remain the same. For heart health, it recommends a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and unsaturated fats.

Less than 6% of the diet should include saturated and trans fats, the association says.

Is there some common ground about how to protect heart health?

Yes.

Judging how heart-healthy a food is must take more than fat into account, Mozaffarian says. For instance, a lower-fat meat that is processed is not heart-healthy, he says.

Willett agrees. "It's important to look at single nutrients, but also at whole food groups," he says. Blankenship offers these steps proven to benefit the heart:

  • Get regular exercise -- at least a half-hour a day.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • See your doctor and find out your heart disease risk. Know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

"Don't spend so much time looking at food labels," Blankenship says. Instead, he says, go to the grocery store's produce department and load up.

If cholesterol and saturated fat don't play as large a role as we thought in heart disease, what's behind the heart disease problem?

Multiple factors, Blankenship says. They include obesity, genetics, sedentary lifestyles, diabetes, and high blood pressure. A poor diet drives risk, he says, "but it's not the only thing."

Mozaffarian reports receiving fees from Bunge, Pollock Institute, Quaker Oats, Life Sciences Research Organization, Foodminds, Nutrition Impact, Amarin, Astra Zeneca, Winston and Strawn LLP, and UpToDate, and serving on the scientific advisory board for Unilever North America. 

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation, the Medical Research Council, Cambridge National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre, and Gates Cambridge.

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