Are Saturated Fats Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Saturated Fats and Heart Disease

The Saturated Fat Wars Heat Up Again

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Are saturated fats bad for you? 

are saturated fats bad for youI feel your pain. It is so confusing. Just a few months ago we were being told our fears of saturated fats were outdated. Saturated fats were fine. It was carbohydrates we needed to avoid.

Then, just last week the headlines blared: “Hold your horses. Saturated fats are bad for you. You need to avoid them.” No wonder you are confused!

Last week’s headlines were based on a recently published Presidential Advisory by the American Heart Association (F.M. Sacks et al, Circulation. 2017;135.00-00. DO!: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510). A Presidential Advisory is the AHA’s highest-level health advisory. It is meant to guide public health policy by government agencies such as the US Surgeon General’s office, the USDA, and the CDC.

However, the warnings about the dangers of saturated fat are very much like the warnings about the dangers of global warming. They have their believers and their deniers, and both sides passionately defend their positions. I understand the passion of saturated fat deniers. Foods high in saturated fat are an integral part of our heritage and our culture. It is only natural to want to believe those foods are good for us.

Because of this, I knew the AHA advisory would be controversial. After all, if someone is telling us we need to give up the foods we love, they better have darn good evidence to back up their recommendations.

I knew you, my readers, would want a scientifically accurate evaluation of the evidence, so I carefully analyzed the research studies the AHA presented in support of their recommendations. Here is what I found.

How Was The Analysis Done?

saturated fats and heart diseaseThis report was put together by the top heart disease experts, both physicians and research scientists, in the country. They examined over 50 years of research studies. They also examined meta-analyses that combined the results of multiple research studies. In short, they examined the entire body of scientific evidence on diet and heart disease.

The AHA committee used very rigorous criteria in selecting the best studies for their analysis. They only included randomized clinical trials that:

  • Had actual cardiovascular end points – heart attack, stroke, and deaths due to heart disease. Studies looking at things like LDL, HDL, particle size, inflammation etc. only give you part of the picture. They may, or may not, accurately predict risk of dying from heart disease.
  • Lasted two years or more. The fats we eat determine the fat composition of our cell membranes, and that is what ultimately determines our risk of dying from heart disease. This is the one instance it is true to say: “We are what we eat.”  However, changing the fat composition of our cell membranes does not occur overnight. It takes 2 years or more to achieve a 60-70% change in the fat composition of cell membranes.

It also takes time for any intervention to meaningfully impact heart disease risk. For example, with statin drugs it takes 1-2 years before there is a significant reduction in heart disease risk. Thus, for a variety of reasons, studies of less than 2 years duration are doomed to fail.

  • Showed the subjects stuck with the new diet for the duration of the study. Subjects find it difficult to adhere to a diet to which they are not accustomed long term and often revert to their more familiar diet. This requires either very close monitoring of what the subjects are eating or measurement of fat membrane composition to verify diet adherence, or both. Studies that only measured what the subjects were eating at the beginning of the study and then looked at outcomes months or years later may or may not be valid. Without any measurement of diet adherence, it is impossible to know.
  • Carefully controlled or measured what the saturated fats were replaced with. The importance of this criterion will be clear when we look at the results of their study.

They then did a meta-analysis of what they referred to as “core randomized trials” that met all 4 criteria. In short, this was a very rigorous and well-done analysis.

Are Saturated Fats Bad For You?

saturated fats from meatsThe main finding of the report was:

  • Replacing saturated fats from animal products with polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils decreased the risk of heart disease by 29%. This is equivalent to statin therapy, without the side effects.
  • The conclusions of this report applied equally to the saturated fats that come from meats and dairy products.
  • About 50% of the risk reduction could be due to lowering of LDL cholesterol. The rest came from reduced arterial inflammation, increased flexibility of the arteries, increased membrane fluidity and other factors.
  • When the replacement of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats occurred in the context of a heart healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet, heart disease risk was reduced by 47%.

What the saturated fats are replaced with is critically important. The authors of this report calculated what would happen if we were to replace half of our saturated fat calories with equivalent calories from other foods. Replacing half of our saturated fat intake with:

  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), lowers heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), lowers heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), lowers heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • The authors did not address the relative value of omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats in their report. However, I have addressed the heart health benefits of omega-3s in a previous report, Fish Oil Really Snake Oil.

Why Is There So Much Confusion?

saturated fats and LDL cholesterolYou are probably saying: “If saturated fats are so bad for me, why do I keep seeing diet books and news headlines saying I have nothing to fear from saturated fats?” The answer is pretty simple. The studies that have given rise to misleading headlines about the safety of saturated fats ignored one or more of the criteria described above that are needed to assure a valid conclusion. For example:

  • Some recent headlines claiming that saturated fats did not increase the risk of heart disease were based on studies in which saturated fats were replaced by refined carbohydrates and sugars. Other headlines were based on studies that did not measure what the saturated fats were replaced with.
  • The popular high saturated fat-low carb diets are not backed by any studies looking at their effect on heart attacks, stroke, or heart disease deaths. They are only backed by studies looking at their effect on LDL cholesterol and other imperfect markers of heart disease risk.
  • In contrast, the Mediterranean diet, which lowers saturated fat intake and contains healthy carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), significantly decreases the risk of heart disease. Please reference Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health.

 

What Are The Saturated Fat Deniers Saying?

 

saturated fats deniersThe saturated fat deniers have wasted no time trying to discredit the American Heart Association advisory. Maybe they can’t bear the thought of having to give up their favorite fatty foods. Or maybe they just can’t bear to admit they were wrong.

However, their claims just don’t hold water. Let me give you some examples.

  • The AHA (American Heart Association) is a tool of the pharmaceutical industry. If the AHA were a tool of the pharmaceutical industry, I hardly think their report would have stated that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats was as effective as statin drugs at reducing heart attack risk.
  • The AHA is a tool of the food industry. If the AHA were a tool of the food industry, I hardly think they would have recommended replacing fats from meat & dairy with polyunsaturated fats.
  • The AHA advisory was based on associations, which do not show cause and effect. False. The AHA committee based their recommendations on randomized clinical trials, the strongest kind of evidence. They merely said that studies looking at the association between saturated fats and heart disease were consistent with their analysis of randomized clinical trials.
  • The AHA advisory was based on LDL cholesterol, which is an imperfect predictor of cardiovascular risk. False. Again, the AHA committee based their recommendations on randomized clinical trials of cardiovascular outcomes, not on LDL levels. They merely estimated that LDL cholesterol levels contributed to about 50% of the risk they observed.
  • saturated fats mythsThe AHA committee ignored an early study in which replacing butter with polyunsaturated fats increased cardiovascular risk. False. That study actually replaced butter with margarine. It was the first study showing that trans fats are worse for us than saturated fats.
  • The AHA committee ignored recent studies that did not fit their hypothesis. False. They developed a valid set of scientific criteria for evaluating clinical studies. As described above, they simply eliminated those studies whose design does not permit a definitive conclusion.
  • The AHA recommends low fat diets containing refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, which are even worse. False. The AHA has consistently recommended low fat diets with complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables). It is the food industry that corrupted their message. More to the point, this AHA Presidential Advisory specifically recommended lowering saturated fats in the context of a heart healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet.
  • The AHA recommends replacing saturated fats with omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable fats, which can be harmful if consumed in excess. I have some sympathy with this argument. I would have preferred to have seen more emphasis on omega-3 oils in their report. There should also have been some discussion of the importance of antioxidants to protect against free radicals generated by polyunsaturated fat metabolism. However, their final recommendation to replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in the context of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet goes a long way towards satisfying both concerns.

In short, the saturated fat deniers have no persuasive counter-argument. The evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease is simply overwhelming.

What Does This Mean For You?

replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fatsThe time for debate is over. The evidence is overwhelming. It should be obvious to any reasonable person that saturated fats increase our risk of heart disease.

It should also be obvious that any diet that claims saturated fats are heart healthy is a myth. There are no long-term studies to back up that claim.

It is time to consider what it would mean if everyone in this country were to follow the AHA recommendations and replace half of the saturated fat in our diet with polyunsaturated fat. That would decrease our risk of heart disease by 29%.

  • 800,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. 232,000 lives would be saved.
  • Heart disease costs our nation $316 billion each year. $92 billion health care dollars would be saved.
  • Heart disease costs are expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2035. $290 billion health care dollars would be saved.

What if we decreased our risk of heart disease by 47% by coupling decreased intake of saturated fats with a heart healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet?

  • 376,000 lives would be saved.
  • $148 billion health care dollars would be saved.
  • $470 billion health care dollars would be saved by 2035.

Each of us has the ability to save our health and our lives by what we put into our mouths every day.

In addition, our health care system will soon become financially non-viable if we continue to focus on disease treatment rather than prevention. Each of us also has the ability to save our health care system by what we put into our mouths every day.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • The link between saturated fat and heart disease risk is like global warming. It has its believers and its deniers, and both sides passionately defend their viewpoints.
  • The American Heart Association (AHA) recently released a Presidential Advisory on the relationship between saturated fats and heart disease. Because I knew their report would be controversial, I analyzed its scientific accuracy very carefully.
  • The AHA report was prepared by the top heart disease experts in the country. They reviewed over 50 years of clinical studies and used a very rigorous set of criteria to decide which studies to include in their analysis and which to exclude. In my judgement, the criteria they used were valid. Studies that fail to meet one or more of these criteria may not provide valid results. Unfortunately, several of the studies that have generated some of the recent controversy did not meet those criteria.
  • From a meta-analysis of “core studies” meeting these criteria, they concluded:
    • Replacing saturated fats from animal products with polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils decreased the risk of heart disease by 29%. This is equivalent to statin therapy, without the side effects
    • The conclusions of this report applied equally to the saturated fats that come from meats and dairy products.
    • About 50% of the risk reduction could be due to lowering of LDL cholesterol. The rest came from reduced inflammation, increased flexibility of the arteries, and other factors.
    • When the replacement of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats occurred in the context of a heart healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet, heart disease risk was reduced by 47%.
  • The AHA recommends replacing half of the calories from saturated fat with healthier choices. From a detailed analysis of the data, the authors concluded which foods replace the saturated fat is very important. Replacing half of our saturated fat intake with:
    • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), lowers heart disease risk by 25%.
    • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), lowers heart disease risk by 15%.
    • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), lowers heart disease risk by 9%.
    • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
    • Trans fats, significantly increases heart disease risk.
  • The saturated fat deniers have already started trying to discredit the AHA advisory. I have reviewed their claims and found them to be baseless.
  • The evidence is overwhelming. It should be obvious to any reasonable person that saturated fats increase our risk of heart disease. It should also be obvious that any diet that claims saturated fats are heart healthy is a myth. There are no long-term studies to back up that claim.
  • If everyone in this country were to follow the AHA recommendations and replace half of the saturated fat in our diet with polyunsaturated fat:
    • Between 232,000 and 376,000 lives would be saved next year.
    • Between 92 and 148 billion health care dollars would be saved next year.
    • By 2035 between 290 and 470 billion health care dollars would be saved annually.

In short, each of us has the ability to preserve our health and save our lives by what we put into our mouth every day.

So, are saturated fats bad for you?  The answer is a resounding “yes.”

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Jim Campbell

    |

    Wonderfully, puts the controversy to rest.

    Reply

  • JoAnne Naro

    |

    Thank you Dr. Chaney. I always enjoy reading your very informative Health Tips. All the best to you and yours!

    Sincerely,
    JoAnne Naro
    Shaklee Associate

    Reply

Leave a comment

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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