Nutritional dogma has taught us “saturated fat is bad.” We’ve limited or completely avoided high-fat foods like meats, butter, and other full-fat dairy products to maintain our heart health. Now, researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway suggest (yet again) that a diet high in saturated fat may boost “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
“The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases,” said Ottar Nygård, study author, professor, and cardiologist, in a statement.
Previous research has extensively explored the controversial debate surrounding saturated fats, in particular butter. In June, a Tufts University study found little to no association with chronic disease, or as an all-cause mortality. Butter consumption was found to be small or insignificant with total mortality, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. The researchers cautioned butter shouldn’t be either demonized or considered “back” as a way to good health.
Last month, Harvard University researchers found a five percent higher intake of fats in foods like butter or red meat was linked with a 25 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease. This suggests we should replace saturated fatty acids with healthier unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and seafood as well as high-quality carbohydrates.
In the new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found dietary fat, particularly saturated fat, had a profound effect on cardiometabolic risk factors, including ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids (triglycerides), insulin, and blood sugar.
The researchers randomly selected a total of 38 men with abdominal obesity to follow a dietary pattern high in either carbohydrates or fat, of which half was saturated. Both groups had similar intakes of energy, proteins, polyunsaturated fatty acids, with the food types being the same, but varying in quantity, and the intake of added sugar was minimized. Researchers also observed the effects of total and saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet rich in fresh, low processed and nutritious foods, including high amounts of vegetables and rice instead of flour-based products. Fat sources included mainly butter, cream, and cold-pressed oils.
The findings revealed participants on the very high-fat diet showed significant improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors, like ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids (triglycerides), insulin and blood sugar. The total energy intake was within the normal range for both groups. Even those who had increased energy intake showed substantial reductions in fat stores and disease risk.
Several studies have supported the belief saturated fat promotes cardiovascular diseases by raising the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. However, the authors found no significant increase in LDL cholesterol. Rather, the “good” cholesterol increased only on the very high-fat diet.
“Our findings indicate that the overriding principle of a healthy diet is not the quantity of fat or carbohydrates, but the quality of the foods we eat,” said Johnny Laupsa-Borge, author of the study and Ph.D candidate, in a statement.
Moreover, this suggests most healthy people can probably stomach a high intake of saturated fat well, as long as the fat quality is good, and total energy intake is not too high. In fact “it may even be healthy,” said Nygård.
It’s important to remember not all fat is bad fat. We need a good deal of healthy fats, like coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and saturated fat from animal sources, like eggs, grass-fed and organically-raised chickens and beef, buffalo, and wild-caught fish. Following a low-fat diet could have adverse effects.
Continuously consuming low-fat foods can lead us to seek more flavorful foods sprinkled in sugar. A 2014 study in JAMA found an increase in cardiovascular risks linked to a higher sugar intake. Researchers found those with the highest sugar intake had a 400 percent higher risk of heart attack than those with the lowest intake of sugar.
The truth is “[T]he alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated,” according to Simon Nitter Dankel, co-lead study author and assistant professor at the university.
Bottom line: Moderation and quality are key.
Source: Veum VL, Laupsa-Borge J, Eng O et al. Visceral adiposity and metabolic syndrome after very high-fat and low-fat isocaloric diets: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition . 2016.