Fats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Experts used to think that saturated fat in the diet was bad for your heart. Saturated fat—found in foods like beef, for example—was believed to influence blood cholesterol levels unfavorably. Polyunsaturated fats—mostly from plant sources, nuts and fish—was thought to be healthier for you. Trans fats—the synthetic variety created by technicians in the laboratory—were thought to be safe.
Most of this, we now know, is untrue. Saturated fats do not appear to modify heart disease risk. Trans fats are far from safe. Polyunsaturated fats are still recognized as beneficial and generally heart-healthy. The problem of trans fats has largely been eliminated. These dangerous artificial fats caused untold damage the the cardiovascular health of millions of Americans over the years.
But scientists finally sounded the alarm, and the FDA took steps to force manufacturers to at least identify these ingredients in their products, a few years ago. Many food manufacturers have voluntarily removed trans fatty acids from their packaged foods. Even so, they’re still allowed to claim that a product contains “zero” trans fats, even if there is up to one half gram of the toxic stuff present per serving. Which means it’s still good advice to avoid packaged goods, especially baked goods, where small—but still problematic—amounts of trans fats may be lurking. That’s because trans fats have been linked to elevated cardiovascular disease risk.
It now appears that saturated fats, per se, were never the cause of America’s heart disease epidemic. Rather, trans fats may have been the culprit. Furthermore, it’s now becoming clear that, while saturated fats may not be bad for you, a lack of polyunsaturated fats in the diet may indicate a problem. That’s because people who consume more of these heart-healthy fats are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
A recent Finnish study, for example, concluded that a greater intake of polyunsaturated fats from plant foods and fish is associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing coronary heart disease. In fact, cutting back of saturated fat does little for heart disease risk. Cutting saturated fat, and adding carbohydrates, though, increases heart disease risk. Cutting saturated fats, while boosting polyunsaturated fat intake, reduces risk.
J. K. Virtanen, J. Mursu, T.-P. Tuomainen, S. Voutilainen. Dietary Fatty Acids and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Men: The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2014; DOI: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.114.304082