A new review from the American Heart Association reiterates the importance of replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones to reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk.
Saturated fats are known to raise cholesterol levels and increase cardiovascular risk. Meat, full-fat and reduced fat dairy products, and fried foods, as well as bakery products, all have a high content of saturated fats.
Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones can lower the risk of CVD, and that following a diet rich in vegetables, fish, and whole grains is key for keeping the heart healthy.
However, other studies have questioned the strategy of replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones. The argument goes that limiting saturated fats may increase a person’s intake of carbohydrates, sugar, and calories.
“We want to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet to prevent diseases of the heart and blood vessels,” he says. “Saturated fat increases LDL [low-density lipoprotein] – bad cholesterol – which is a major cause of artery-clogging plaque and cardiovascular disease.”
The AHA recommends replacing saturated fats with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
Both of these diets consist mainly of fruits and vegetables, unsaturated vegetable oils, nuts, low-fat dairy and whole grains, as well as fish and poultry. The Mediterranean and DASH diets also limit red meat, sugar, and salt intake.
The AHA meta-review of existing randomized controlled trials found that restricting dietary saturated fat and replacing it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil lowered CVD risk by approximately a third.
Making this dietary change accounted for a 30 percent decrease in CVD risk, which is roughly the equivalent of what Statins – a class of drug generally prescribed to lower cholesterol – can achieve.
Polyunsaturated fats are commonly found in oils made from corn, soybean, and peanut, among others.
Coconut oil, on the other hand, has been shown by several studies to increase “bad” cholesterol levels just as much as products such as beef or butter do.
Additionally, the review found that observational studies indicated that reduced intake of saturated fat, together with a higher consumption of mono- and polyunsaturated fat, correlates with lower odds of developing CVD.
“A healthy diet doesn’t just limit certain unfavorable nutrients, such as saturated fats, that can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other blood vessel diseases,” Sacks continues. “It should also focus on healthy foods rich in nutrients that can help reduce disease risk, like poly- and mono-unsaturated vegetable oils, nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and others.”