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Heart Health

The “Demonization” of Saturated Fats?

After President Eisenhower had a heart attack in his 50s, the erroneous belief that diets low in saturated fat curb heart disease risk was strengthened, according to Dr, James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy based in Ithaca, New York. His editorial appears online in the March 2014 issue of Open Heart, a journal published by the British Medical Association. Dr. DiNicolantonio points out that the “demonization” of saturated fats dates back to 1952 when research suggested a link between high dietary saturated fat intake and deaths from heart disease. However, the study author drew his conclusions on data from only six countries and ignored the data from 16 other countries because the results which didn't fit with his hypothesis,

A release from BMJ (British Medical Journal) reports that Dr. DiNicolantonio believes that dietary guidelines “should be urgently reviewed and the vilification of saturated fats stopped to save lives.” Dr. DiNicolantonio maintains Eisnehower's death prompted the belief that since these fats increase total cholesterol—a flawed theory in itself, he says— they must also increase heart disease risk. As foodstuffs with the highest calorie density, the thinking was that reduced intake would curb obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Yet the evidence, which continues to mount, suggests otherwise, Dr. DiNicolantonio insists. While a low fat diet may lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, there are two types of LDL cholesterol. And switching to carbs may increase pattern B (small dense) LDL, which is more harmful to heart health than pattern A (large buoyant) LDL, as well as creating a more unfavorable overall lipid profile.

Several other studies indicate that a low carb diet is better for weight loss and lipid profile than a low fat diet, while large observational studies have not found any conclusive proof that a low fat diet cuts cardiovascular disease risk. Even so, in the race to cut saturated fat intake, several dietary guidelines recommend upping polyunsaturated fat intake.

However, a recent analysis of published trial data shows that replacing saturated fats and trans fatty acids with omega 6 fatty acids, without a corresponding rise in omega 3 fatty acids, seems to increase the risk of death from coronary heart and cardiovascular diseases.

"We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonizing saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong," urges DiNicolantonio in the podcast.

The best diet to boost and maintain heart health is one low in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods, he recommends.

And anyone who has had a heart attack should not be thinking of replacing saturated fats with refined carbs or omega 6 fatty acids—particularly those found in processed vegetable oils containing large amounts of corn or safflower oil, he says. 

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