For decades, doctors have blamed saturated fats for a growing prevalence of heart disease and obesity in the United States. But more cardiologists are saying it is time to stop putting all the blame on french fries.
In an article published in the 'British Medical Journal' in October, Aseem Malhotra of Craydon University Hospital in London argues that saturated fat's role in obesity and heart disease risk has been grossly overstated. He says that ever since the 1970s, when studies linked cholesterol from saturated fat to poor cardiovascular health, we have followed doctors' orders and cut down on high-fat foods. As a result, the average percentage of our total calorie intake from fat has fallen from 40 percent to 30 percent. And yet, today we are chubbier and sicklier than ever.
The reason for this, Malhotra argues, is that we began reaching for low-fat convenience foods that are chock-full of simple carbohydrates and refined sugars to compensate for the missing fat's flavor. He says there's ample evidence to prove that eating too many high-carb, low-fat foods jacks up blood sugar and can cause insulin resistance, which eventually leads to obesity and possibly heart attack or stroke.
Several leading experts agree with Malhotra. "Especially during the low-fat craze of the 1990s, many people chose highly processed low-fat foods with a lot of sugar, rather than eating a low-fat and high-fiber diet based on whole, unrefined foods," says Sonya Angelone, a dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "These foods provided many concentrated calories with few nutrients and led to weight gain for many people."
Another problem is the growing popularity of the idea that all fats (not just saturated fats, which come mainly from animal-based foods, can raise LDL cholesterol levels, and increase the risk of heart disease) should be shunned. Indeed, the healthiest eating system ever studied – the so-called Mediterranean diet – is relatively high in fat compared to the modern diet. But rather than saturated fats, the Mediterranean diet consists mostly of polyunsaturated (fatty fish, legumes, seeds, nuts) and monounsaturated (olive oil and olives) fats. These good-for-you, mainly plant-based fats actually protect the heart.
Even if saturated fat has been unfairly singled out, they shouldn't be let off the hook entirely. According to Dr. Paul D. Thompson, chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut and an American College of Cardiology spokesperson, saturated fat is still a factor in obesity and heart disease. "Too many carbs and too much sugar pose a huge problem, but that doesn't mean saturated fat isn't an issue, too," Thompson says. "There is still plenty of evidence to suggest that saturated fat produces deleterious changes in cholesterol levels. And even though the percentage of calories from saturated fat has gone down, the actual grams of saturated fat we eat hasn't budged."