Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fatty steakBring out the fatted calf! Headlines are proclaiming that saturated fats don’t increase your risk of heart disease – and that they may actually be good for you.

The study (Annals of Internal Medicine, 160: 398-406, 2014) that attracted all the attention in the press was what we scientists call a meta-analysis. Basically, that is a study that combines the data from many clinical trials to improve the statistical power of the effect being studied.

And it was a very large study. It included 81 clinical trials that looked at the effects of various types of fat on heart disease risk.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

The answer to this question is a simple No. The headlines suggesting that saturated fats might be good for you were clearly misleading. The study concluded that saturated fats might not increase the risk of heart disease, but it never said that saturated fats were good for you.

In short, the study concluded that:

  • Saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and long-chain omega-6 polyunsaturated fats did not affect heart disease risk.
  • Long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats decreased heart disease risk [Note: The original version of the paper said that the decrease was non-significant, which is what the headlines have reported. However, after several experts pointed out an error in their analysis of the omega-3 data, the authors corrected their analysis, and the corrected data show that the decrease in risk is significant.]
  • Trans fats increased heart disease risk

If those conclusions are correct, they would represent a major paradigm shift. We have been told for years that we should limit saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats. Has that advice been wrong?

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Before we bring out the fatted calf and start heaping butter on our12 ounce steaks, perhaps we should look at some of the limitations of this study.

We Eat Foods, Not Fats

When the authors broke the data down into the effects of individual saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on heart disease risk some interesting insights emerge.

For example, with respect to saturated fats:

  • Both palmitic acid and stearic acid – which are abundant in palm oil and animal fats – increased the risk of heart disease.
  • On the other hand, margic acid – which is more abundant in dairy products – decreased the risk of heart disease.

Whipped CreamSo while the net effect of saturated fats on heart disease risk may be zero, these data suggest:

  • It is still a good idea to avoid fatty meats, especially red meats, if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease. When you focus on foods, rather than fats this fundamental advice has not changed in over 40 years! In next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I will share some of the latest research on the dangers of red meat.
  • With fatty dairy foods the situation is a little more uncertain. I’m not ready to tell you to break out the butter and whipped cream just yet, but recent research does suggest that dairy foods have some beneficial effects that may outweigh their saturated fat content.

With respect to omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid – which is found in vegetable oils and nuts and is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in our diets – had no effect on heart disease risk.
  • On the other hand, EPA and DHA – which are found primarily in oily fish and omega-3 supplements – decreased heart disease risk by 20-25%.

Once again, while the net effect of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease risk was very small, that’s primarily because most Americans consume mostly alpha-linolenic acid and very little EPA and DHA. This study shows that fish oil significantly reduces heart disease risk, which is fully consistent with the heart healthy advice of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health over the past decade or more.

What We Replace the Fats With Is Important

A major weakness of the current study is that it did not ask what the individual clinical trials were replacing the fatty acids with. Many of them were simply replacing the saturated fats with carbohydrates. To understand why that is important, you have to go back to the research of Dr. Ancel Keys.

The whole concept of saturated fats increasing the risk of heart disease is based on the groundbreaking research of Dr. Ancel Keys in the 50’s and 60’s. But, it is important to understand what his research showed and didn’t show.

His research showed that when you replaced saturated fats with monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats the risk of heart disease was significantly reduced. He was the very first advocate of what we now call the Mediterranean diet. (He lived to 101 and his wife lived to 97, so he must have been on to something.)

Unfortunately, his diet advice got corrupted. The mantra became low fat diets, where the saturated fat was replaced with carbohydrates – mostly simple sugars and refined flours. Since diets containing a lot of simple sugars and refined flours also increase the risk of heart disease you completely offset the benefits of getting rid of the saturated fats.

Just in case you think that is outdated dietary advice, Dr. Key’s recommendations were confirmed by a major meta-analysis published in 2009 (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89: 1425-1432, 2009). That study showed once again that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates had no effect on heart disease risk, while replacing them with polyunsaturated fats significantly reduced risk.

The Bottom Line:

You can put the fatted calf back out to pasture. The headlines telling you that saturated fats don’t increase the risk of heart disease were overstated and misleading. This study does not represent a paradigm shift. In fact, when you analyze the study in depth it simply reaffirms much of the current dietary advice about fats.

1)     When you simply replace saturated fats with carbohydrates, as did many of the studies in the meta-analysis that generated all of the headlines, there is little or no effect on heart disease risk. However, other studies have shown that when you replace the saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats you significantly reduce heart disease risk.

In short, if you are interested in reducing your risk of heart disease, low fat diets may be of relatively little value while Mediterranean diets may be beneficial. No paradigm shift there. That sounds pretty familiar.

2)     Fatty meats, especially red meats, appear to increase the risk of heart disease. No surprises there.

3)     Alpha-linolenic acid, the short chain omega-3 fatty acid found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, does not decrease heart disease risk. However, EPA and DHA, the long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements significantly decrease heart disease risk. That’s probably because the efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA & DHA in our bodies is only around 10%. No surprises there.

4)     The study did suggest that dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk. While there are a few other studies supporting that idea, I’m not ready to break out the butter and whipped cream yet. More research is needed.

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 (5)

  • Mark

    |

    Thanks for clearing this up, how can I get more information on the Mediterranean diet

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Mark,
      Whenever you want to find information like that quickly my recommendation is to Google it and then select reliable sources of information. For example, when I Googled Mediterranean diet I found links to WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and NIH. I would skip right over the ones by Dr. Oz and Dr. Mercola. Wikipedia is often a good place to start in terms of a nice, readable overview, but I always confirm their information by going to sites like WebMD.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Mike Lucas

    |

    Great info Dr. Chaney! Thank you for the insight to better health and living. Much appreciated.

    Mike Lucas
    Superior, WI

    Reply

  • Doug

    |

    Can you cite the research that backs this up. “However, other studies have shown that when you replace the saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats you significantly reduce heart disease risk.”

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Doug,
      A great place to start would be the meta-analysis that I referenced (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89: 1425-1432, 2009). A well designed meta-analysis generally includes all of the well designed published studies up to the date of publication.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

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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