24th November 2016 – Cutting the amount of saturated fats we eat by just 1% could reduce our risk of heart disease by up 6% to 8%, scientists claim.
A US study in the British Medical Journal says we should cut out beef, hard cheese, butter and chocolate, which are high in saturated fats, and replace them with whole grain carbohydrates or plant proteins that contain unsaturated fats.
Researchers from Harvard University analysed data from a study of 73,147 women in the US between 1984 and 2012 and 42,635 men between 1986 and 2010. All were free of major long-term health conditions when they joined the studies.
The researchers compared the volunteers' diets, which were recorded every 4 years, with cases of coronary heart disease.
The results showed that the most commonly consumed major saturated fatty acids were lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid. These acids are found in meat, butter, cheese, shortening, coconut oil and palm oil. They accounted for around 9% to 10% of total energy in the participants.
Each of these saturated fatty acids was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
They researchers say that a 5% higher intake of saturated fatty acids is associated with a 25% higher risk of heart disease during 24 to 28 years of follow-up.
The authors caution that they carried out an 'observational' study in which they interpreted findings from research carried out by others and that no firm conclusions can be made about cause and effect.
Confirming previous findings
Nevertheless, they say that their results are in line with previous research showing the benefits of replacing saturated fatty acids with more healthy nutrients.
"Dietary recommendations should remain on replacing total saturated fat with unsaturated fats or wholegrain carbohydrate, as an effective approach towards preventing coronary heart disease," they write.
In an accompanying editorial, Canadian experts Russell de Souza and Sonia Anand say it is important to focus on a general healthy diet, rather than on specific nutrients, because "dietary patterns might be more consistent with how people consume nutrients, and these patterns can predict heart disease risk".
They explain that a focus on saturated fatty acids might result in diet that meets one target, for example, low in saturated fat, but fails to meet another, owing to a high intake of refined carbohydrates.
Dietary patterns have been advocated by national guidelines and "these new directions are a welcome improvement over single nutrient targets which, although of interest to nutrition scientists, are often confusing for the public, and undermine the effectiveness of dietary guidance".
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