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Making sense of recent research findings on saturated fats

coronary-heart-diseaseWe are in the midst of a dramatic evolution in our understanding of dietary fats and their impact on health and disease. Mounting evidence shows that our opinions on saturated fat have been shaped by years of misinformation with little scientific support. These challenges are emerging from a number of eminent research teams specializing in diet and nutrition with emphasis on fat consumption trends and impacts. We now understand that saturated fat from healthy sources — such as Malaysian palm oil or even grass-fed meat and the like — are not only harmless, they’re actually good for us.

Have we been eating wrong for the last 30 years goaded by incomplete dietary recommendations?

During the first half of the 20th century when saturated fat in the diet was plentiful and “low-fat” hadn’t yet been invented, heart disease was far less common than it is today, as was obesity and diabetes.

In the 1960s, researcher Ancel Keys was heralded for establishing an epidemiological connection between dietary fats, serum cholesterol, and atherosclerotic and vascular disease. That led to recommendations to reduce our intake of saturated fats such as butter, meat, etc. People were tossing out their butter and buying margarine spreads. We thought we were making a better health choice. In the mid-1980s a major anti-tropical campaign was mounted and palm oil was villified.

Then came the research showing that trans fats – created during the hydrogenation process that turns a liquid vegetable oil into a solid – were actually worse for us than the saturated fat that we were trying to avoid. In response, we started buying low-fat, fat-free products and increasing carbohydrate consumption.

This was all met with great consequence. Numerous studies revealed that our over-consumption of refined and highly processed carbohydrates was actually worse for our hearts than saturated fat. The glycemic impact of these carbohydrates was fueling insulin resistance, inflammation and altered hormone levels that contributed to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Saturated fat is finally vindicated

“Do all saturates belong in the same bucket? It may have seemed reasonable way back in 1968, but it still hasn’t been proven more than 40 years later,” points out USC School of Pharmacy Research Professor Roger Clemens. “To the contrary, studies involving 347,747 subjects over spans as long as 23 years found that saturated fat intake was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or cardiovascular disease.” He adds that, “The assumption that saturated fat at any level of intake is deleterious is not supported by scientific evidence.”

In a meta-analysis entitled, “Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk”, published in the March 18, 2014 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers led by Dr. R. Chowdhury  concluded that current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and low consumption of total saturated fats.

This review, which involved more than 70 studies looking at dietary fat intake and circulating fatty acid levels, did not find an association between total saturated fatty acids and coronary risk. Nor did the researchers find any significant associations between cardiovascular disease risk and dietary intake of long-chain omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs.

In the latest developments,  February 2015, results of a study published in the journal, Open Heart, further confirmed that dietary fat guidelines are grossly misguided. Researchers in the U.K. and U.S. conducted a meta-analysis of six dietary trials involving 2,467 participants. They found no correlation between higher serum cholesterol levels and incidences in cardiovascular disease or all-cause mortality. The researchers concluded that, “Dietary recommendations were introduced for 220 million U.S. and 56 million U.K. citizens by 1983, in the absence of supporting evidence from randomized controlled trials.”  Such disclosure is somewhat frightening especially if you consider the consequenses of such recommendations which have already reared its ugly head in the current generation when metabloic syndrome, obesity and diabetes are so pronounced in the population.

What’s really behind heart disease?

There is now much more evidence that we should concentrate on reducing the things that really promote heart disease, diabetes and obesity: inflammation, oxidative damage, stress in our lives and carbohydrates and sugar in our diet.

Our diets should include healthy fats such as palm oil

In response to concerns about trans fats, the food industry has begun replacing trans fats with tropical oils, primarily palm oil which is naturally free of trans fatty acids. This is really good news. Very recent epidemiologic and intervention studies suggest palm oil and its constituents may confer numerous health benefits including  neutral effects on serum cholesterol, a reduction in cellular aging and through its vitamin E tocotrienols cause a reduction in the development of white matter lesions in the brain (neuroprotective activity), as well as support for liver health.

What you need to remember:

  • Eating healthful oils can have numerous health benefits. Much of the world’s population could get its pro-vitamin A activity from consumption of red palm oil. Malaysian palm oil is also the richest source of vitamin E tocotrienols, which support brain and heart health. Palm oil’s fatty acids and antioxidants help to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol, may help to lower stroke risk and minimize stroke damage, and have anti-cancer properties.
  • Choose “regular” foods over low-fat varieties. You need healthy fats in your diet to help fill you up, and help your body absorb fat-soluble nutrients including vitamins E and K. Fat-free foods often get their flavor from added salt and sugar.
  • Dietary fat helps you lose weight. Healthy fats will improve your satiety. And if you’re counting calories, remember that fat-free is not calorie-free. And calorie for calorie, whole foods are generally more nutrient-dense than processed varieties.

Palm oil is also the world’s first and indeed only certified sustainable vegetable oil. Approximately 35 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced in Malaysia, where it is produced in compliance with Good Agricultural Practices. Malaysian oil palm plantations are a net carbon sink. The industry also is actively involved with biodiversity and wildlife conservation, including the establishment of the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund.

by Dr Kalyana Sundram

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