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“Healthy” Fats—What Does That Even Mean Anymore?

Week in Wellness
“Healthy” Fats—What Does That Even Mean Anymore? : Main Image
There was no difference in heart disease rates between people eating the most saturated fat, compared with people eating the least
A new analysis of existing research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has been hot news, as it calls into question the long-accepted link between heart disease and eating saturated fat. In decades past, we were told to eat less meat, butter, cheese, and other high-fat dairy to reduce heart disease risk, until this advice gave way to the concept of focusing on fats with health-promoting properties. Does taking this and other new research into account change how we define “healthy fats?”

Despite the hype, the simple answer is, "Not really." Taking all the study’s findings into account hardly adds up to an open invitation to step up saturated fats:

  • People eating the most trans fats had more heart disease than those eating the least, confirming something we already know: trans fats, found primarily in processed foods, are bad for the heart.
  • There was no difference in heart disease rates between people eating the most saturated fat, compared with people eating the least. This was true for omega-6 fats as well; they neither protected nor harmed the heart.
  • People eating the most omega-3 fats—think fish, nuts, and seeds—had significantly less heart disease than those eating the least.

In other words, the findings do not indicate that saturated fats are a good part of heart health or healthy weight—they were neutral. Despite being largely ignored, by far the most important takeaway is avoiding trans fats and emphasizing the omega-3 fats. 

The bottom line on healthy fats

The importance of omega-3s was further highlighted by another meta-analysis on fats and health—also published last week, though to much less fanfare. This analysis, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at 70 randomized controlled trials and the findings strongly demonstrated that omega-3 fats from fortified foods and supplements significantly reduce high blood pressure risk, a major contributor to heart disease.

So, what are the “best” fats to support a healthy heart and weight?

  • Omega-3s, found in fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, and in nuts and seeds, particularly walnuts and flax seeds.
  • Monounsaturated and unsaturated, found in olive and sesame oils, and in nuts and seeds.
  • Saturated, which don’t need to be sought out in the diet, but are okay when consumed as part of small quantities of animal products, such as high-fat dairy and meat.

Also, when looking to make fat a healthy part of your diet—especially if weight-management is your goal—don't overlook the importance of how you prepare it. Study findings also published in the British Medical Journal demonstrate that fried, fatty foods may be particularly harmful for those at highest genetic risk for obesity. Considering genes and fried food together in 37,000 people, researchers found each of these factors may intensify the harm of the other. (In other words, the heaviest in the group had both the genes, and the high-fat diet contributing to their weight woes.)

Back to basics

So, the fats you choose matter, and—whether or not you have the gene that makes you more at risk for obesity—avoiding fried food makes sense. However, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, the take home message on fats and health is to move away from a single-nutrient focus. Instead, build your diet around a variety of unprocessed, whole foods, including nuts, legumes (beans and peas), vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fish, vegetable and olive oils, and small portions of animal products, as desired.

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition. Suzanne has delivered over 200 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. She received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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