The connection between fat consumption and heart disease is one of the most passionately discussed topics in the nutrition world today. We have been recommending low fat, low cholesterol diets to heart disease sufferers for the better part of 50 years and, instead of reducing disease risk, we are finding ourselves in the midst of a cardiac crisis.
Cardiovascular disease is one of the most mismanaged conditions, sucking billions of pounds out of the health system; justified by some but a recent study looked at the relationship between CVD and lifestyle choices and concluded that 90% of cases are purely related to diet and lifestyle factors.
Before turning our attention to the latest research, we need to distinguish a modern American high fat diet from a traditional Inuit high fat diet; the type of fat we are consuming dictates the discussion. There is no doubt that omega-3 fatty acids and unprocessed, raw and cold-pressed polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) are beneficial to health, even in relatively large amounts. The real issue regards the role of saturated fat.
The ‘seven countries study’ from the 1970s declared saturated fat the devil and numerous theories and conspiracies exist regarding who commissioned the research and, more importantly, who sponsored it. A lot of time has passed since then and medicine has made considerable advances but we are still clinging onto outdated research when it comes to CVD. This particular study has now been largely discredited and more recent long term studies show no correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk. A Japanese study that has followed 58, 000 men for 14 years has even observed a protective effect of saturated fat on stroke incidence. So why is it so hard to get the message though to mainstream medicine, media and politics? A whole industry has been built on the back of poor old saturated fat; from spreads to yoghurts and drinks, the low fat market is worth billions. Seeing fat in a negative light is so ingrained in our culture that the mere thought of butter or lard will run shivers down your spine.
Several heart specialists have recently spoken out about the detrimental dietary recommendations that are still being propagated by governmental organisations. The British Medical Journal publish an article in 2014 which quoted Dr Aseem Malhotra, an interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University Hospital: “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity.” Instead, he is pointing the finger at a sugar epidemic that has taken hold of a population whose diets are saturated with carbohydrate and processed foods. Of course, eating unrestricted amounts of saturated fats is not the answer either because the source of the fat is still important. Processed meat – a rich source of saturated fat – is a clear risk factor because of its high nitrate and sodium content but grass-fed red meat is not. In fact, fats occurring in milk and butter have been linked to an increase in high density lipoprotein (the ‘good’ cholesterol) and reduced insulin resistance.
“The traditional food pyramid needs to be turned on its head; starches and grains should make up the smallest part while vegetables and natural fats (of all kinds) should feature much more prominently.”
The ‘seven countries study’ has unwittingly set events in motion that, many claim, led to the obesity crisis that we see today. By removing fats from food, you also remove taste; in its place, large amounts of sugar, fructose syrup and hydrogenated and processed plant oils were introduced which all promote Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Popular recommendations of a high carbohydrate and low fat diet actively promote not just chronic disease, but obesity as well.
Should we be recommending a high fat diet for the prevention and treatment of heart disease? Unfortunately the answer is not so straightforward; adding any kind of fat, be it omega-3 or saturated fat, to a diet that is already high in sugar, carbohydrates and processed foods will not bring the desired results. A much more holistic approach to dietary recommendations is needed, instead of just focusing on one food group. The traditional food pyramid needs to be turned on its head; starches and grains should make up the smallest part while vegetables and natural fats (of all kinds) should feature much more prominently.
A diet high in natural, unprocessed fat such as cold-pressed plant and nut oils, butter, oily fish and some organic meat will not only offer protection against heart disease but has been shown to have other metabolic advantages as well. Almost any chronic disease might be improved by a shift away from carbohydrates in favour of fats and essential fatty acids. In the confusing world of nutrition and health information, one message is clear: bin the margarine along with your low fat yoghurt and diet cereal bar and welcome butter, full fat milk and a hearty beef stew back to the dinner table!