Making Sense of Fats

For years you’ve probably heard the same mantra from your doctor: for heart health avoid saturated fats.

On the surface, that’s straightforward advice. What’s not straightforward is what to do with that advice. Which saturated fats? And what should we eat instead? Turns out, it’s much more complicated. 

A study published this week showed that replacing animal-based saturated fats with plant-based fats and high-quality complex carbohydrates has the most impact on reducing the risk of heart disease. In other words, it’s not about low saturated fat. It’s about better fats and smarter carbs. 

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 130,000 adults who provided information on diet, lifestyle, medical history, and newly diagnosed diseases through questionnaires at the start of the study and every two to four years for 24 to 30 years. The questionnaires asked how often and in what quantity specific foods had been consumed in the past year and to specify the types of fats or oil used for frying, baking and at the table. Participants also had lab tests to look for biomarkers of dietary fatty acids.

Researchers found that participants who were instructed to reduce saturated fat generally replaced calories from saturated fatty acids with calories from low-quality carbohydrates — such as white bread or potatoes — rather than calories from plant based fats found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds (like flax, chia and cocoa) or high-quality carbohydrates (like those in whole grains).

And here’s the problem with that: replacing energy intake from animal-based saturated fats with carbohydrates from refined starches or sugars was not associated with ANY reduction in the development of heart disease. In other words, there was no benefit in avoiding butter or steak if you ate bread and potatoes instead. 

However, replacing even 5 percent of energy intake from animal fats with an equivalent intake from either polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or carbohydrates from whole grains was associated with 25 percent, 15 percent, and 9 percent lower risk of future heart disease, respectively.

Other data have shown that even though dark chocolate contains some saturated fat, that saturated fat is plant based stearic acid which actually helps lower, rather than raise, cholesterol. And that individuals who consume dark chocolate regularly can experience as much as a 50% reduction in risk of dying from heart disease.

Moral of the story: not all saturated fat is created equal and it’s not about elimination, but rather about strategic substitution.

This is why you’ve probably seen a measurable improvement in your health by substituting in Step One Foods for a couple of items you were eating before. You’ve not only eliminated something bad, you’ve also added in something truly health promoting. These products are brimming with polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and high quality carbohydrates – not to mention the highest quality dark chocolate available. They were designed specifically to improve your chances in the battle against heart disease. Turns out, they’re pretty powerful weapons.

Saturated Fats Compared With Unsaturated Fats and Sources of Carbohydrates in Relation to Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study. Yanping Li et al. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;66(14):1538-1548.
Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine: Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health. Corti R, et al. Circulation. 2009:119:1433-1441.



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