New study challenges widespread belief on fats

Red meat, butter and cheese may not be as bad for the heart as first thought, a new report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has claimed.

Report author Aseem Malhotra said the mantra surrounding saturated fats is a different story from the one widely believed, which has dominated dietary advice and guidance for almost four decades.  

“Scientific evidence shows that, paradoxically, this advice has increased our cardiovascular risks,” he said. “Furthermore, the government’s obsession with levels of total cholesterol, which has led to the over-medication of millions of people with statins, has diverted our attention from the more obvious risk factor of atherogenic dyslipidaemia [an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease].”

He said saturated fats had been “demonised” since Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries study in 1970, which linked the increase of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol concentration.

Cut fat intake

As a result of Keys’ study, consumers were told to cut their fat intake to 30% of their total energy consumption and were told to cut their saturated fat intake to 10%. This is because it was believed that the increased risk of cardiovascular problems came from a higher intake of saturated fats, resulting in higher concentrations of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

“Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective. The source of the saturated fat may be important,” he said.

Malhotra drew on a previous study from the 1950s, which monitored groups consuming 90% fat, 90% protein and 90% carbohydrates. This showed “the greatest weight loss was in the fat-consuming group”. This, he said, demonstrated that what the diet was made up of outweighed the intake of calories.

Calorie is not a calorie

Further to this, he said the theory that a “calorie is not a calorie” was substantiated in a recent study, which showed a low-fat diet resulted in the greatest decrease in energy expenditure.

He added: “Despite the common belief that high cholesterol is a significant risk factor for coronary artery disease, several independent population studies in healthy adults have shown that low total cholesterol is associated with cardiovascular and non-cardiac mortality, indicating that high total cholesterol is not a risk factor in a healthy population.”

Meanwhile, Malhotra advised that people eat a Mediterranean diet, since adopting the diet after a heart attack was almost three times as powerful in reducing death as taking a statin. A recent study, he said, showed that a Mediterranean diet achieved a 30% improvement following cardiovascular events, compared to a low-fat diet.

He concluded: “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that have contributed to obesity.”