Saturated fats may not be so bad for our health after all

A study led by scientists at McMaster University has found that saturated fats may not be as bad for our health as previously thought.

The study failed to find any evidence to suggest that eating foods containing saturated fats such as red meat, eggs and butter actually increases our risk of dying from heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes. It did, however, establish a link between trans unsaturated fats (trans fats) and an increased risk of coronary heart disease and death.

Butter heart

Trans-fats are produced industrially from hydrogenated oils for use in margarine, snack foods and packaged baked foods such as cakes and crisps. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are found in animal products such as meat, salmon, eggs, butter and cow’s milk, as well as in some plant products such as palm oils and chocolate.

Currently, guidelines advise that consumption of saturated fats is restricted to less than 10% of daily energy intake and trans fats to less than 1%, in order to reduce our risk of heart disease and stroke. However, findings from the current study appear to confirm the growing suspicion that recommendations to cut down on foods rich in saturated fats may be misguided.

As reported in the BMJ, lead author Russell de Souza and colleagues analyzed findings from 50 observational studies that examined the link between consumption of saturated fats and/or trans fats and health outcomes in adults.

The team found no clear link between a higher consumption of saturated fats and coronary heart disease (CHD), ischemic stoke, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes or death due to any cause. However, the consumption of trans fats was associated with a 21% increase in risk of CHD, a 28% increase in death due to CHD and a 34% increase in death due to any cause.

The researchers point out that no definitive conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from their findings because they were based on observational studies and de Souza warned against taking the results as a green light to start eating more foods rich in saturated fats. However, the results do confirm the findings of five other systematic reviews of the link between saturated and trans fats and CHD, writes the team.

"For years everyone has been advised to cut out fats. Trans fats have no health benefits and pose a significant risk for heart disease, but the case for saturated fat is less clear," says de Souza.

"That said, we aren't advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don't see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health."

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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