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It Turns Out Saturated Fat May Not Be the Devil

It Turns Out Saturated Fat May Not Be the Devil

Fats in foods have, for many years, been a source of scrutiny and debate – from research on trans fats to saturated fats to the advent of “low-fat” and “no-fat” labeling. We all probably have our own take on the information we received from doctors, the media and food companies. Fats are good; fats are bad – eat this kind, but not the other. It seems medical wisdom, much like with discussions about other food components, often fluctuates.

So, when it comes to saturated fat, what the heck is really good for our bodies?

Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at Croydon University in London, said this week that saturated fat, and the stigma behind it, may not be the main culprit in many of our cardiovascular troubles.

“The mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades,” Malhotra said in his research report published in the British Medical Journal. “[Saturated fat] has been demonized ever since … 1970.”

He claims that while trans fats are indeed “universally accepted” as increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, saturated fat “is another story.”

“Scientific evidence [about removing saturated fats from one’s diet] shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks,” Malhotra said.

Malhorta continued saying, “Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective.”

Now, many of us following a plant-based diet tout the benefits of a low intake of “good fats” from foods with small-to-medium dosages of saturated fat, such as avocados, coconut oil, sunflower seeds, cashews and almonds, among others.  All of these foods contain saturated fats, but many of us eat them day in and out, knowing that combined with the vitamin intake we receive and the moderately low amount of fat consumed if eaten in restraint, these foods provide some of the basic staples in a plant-based or vegan diet. They provide the sustenance and a strong dose of other nutrients needed to sustain the typical lower-calorie intake found inherently in the vegan diet full of veggies and beans, among other staples.

According to Ginny Messina, the “Vegan R.D., “Some research shows that including higher fat foods — like nuts or avocado — in meals helps to make reduced-calorie diets more satisfying.”

And Malhotra agrees that “the source of the saturated fat may be important.” But what comes next is the kicker. Instead of recommending plant-based foods, Malhotra reverts to recommending dairy and discussing meat.

“Dairy foods are exemplary providers of vitamins A and D. As well as a link between vitamin D deficiency and a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular mortality, calcium and phosphorus found commonly in dairy foods may have antihypertensive effects that may contribute to inverse associations with cardiovascular risk,” he said. “Red meat is another major source of saturated fat.”

In an interview with The Independent, Malhotra explains: “From the analysis of the independent evidence that I have done, saturated fat from non-processed food is not harmful and probably beneficial. Butter, cheese, [yogurt] and eggs are generally healthy and not detrimental.”

Now, considering all of the foods that could have been discussed – hello, avocados! – why the butter and cheese endorsement?

While Malhotra does ultimately discuss how a “Mediterranean diet” could be a helpful adoption for those concerned with heart-health (in a tiny snippet at the end), the statements made via the media following the publication of the report have largely focused their headlines on the butter and cheese proclamations (see here, here and here for some examples).

Malhotra claims that saturated fat’s demonization goes against decades of medical advice – in other words, it’s ground-breaking. It’s an opportunity to get the word out there about foods that not only have a little bit of the controversial stuff (saturated fat) but fuel one’s body with countless vitamins and plant-based goodness.

Doctors – especially cardiologists – take note: the world needs more plants! Let’s use more examples that lead people in the direction of a diet that will not only improve cardiovascular health, but potentially ail many other problems (read: cancer!).

Image Source: Ed Castello/Flickr

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