Understanding the Debate on Fats

gourmet cheeseburger with mug of beer in background

Last week, I was very interested to read about the new study that suggests that saturated fat may not be as strongly linked to heart disease as we have long thought and as past studies have shown. One of the fascinating, but often frustrating, things about medical science is that many of our studies yield conflicting results. In the face of this kind of uncertainty in the medical community, what should people like you and me do when it comes to protecting our health?

In the new study, researchers examined over 70 different studies that together included data from over half a million people. They looked at what people ate, but also at markers of fat intake in the blood stream, and found that intake of foods rich in saturated fats (think hamburgers and baked goods) was not significantly associated with a higher risk of coronary events like heart attacks. They also examined the effects of polyunsaturated fats – the healthy fats found in foods like salmon and nuts – on heart disease risk and concluded that there was not enough evidence to support dietary guidelines that people should eat more of these kinds of foods to reduce heart attack risk. They did, however, definitively link dangerous trans fats to cardiovascular problems, confirming mountains of other studies that have all come to that same conclusion.

These results are understandably controversial, since they go against what so many medical professionals and scientists have thought, and what so many other studies have shown. The authors’ unexpected conclusions are certainly interesting from a scientific standpoint, and hopefully future research will continue to shed light on the science behind fats and heart health. But does their study mean that you should toss aside your healthy fats and start wolfing down hamburgers and ice cream? Absolutely not – and here’s why.

When we’re trying to live healthy lives, it’s tempting to become fixated on certain nutrients and start seeing the world in terms of vitamins and minerals, fats and sugars. I think understanding each of these components and what effects they have on your body is important, which is one reason I often like to talk about each of them on my show. But at the end of the day, you’re not just eating a fat, or a sugar, or a vitamin – you’re eating whole, complex foods and meals that work together to nourish your body. Even given their results, the study’s authors were careful to caution that people shouldn’t drive straight to a fast-food restaurant to load up on fat. After all, many people who try to cut out unhealthy fats simply replace them with empty carbs and other nutrition-poor foods that can contribute to weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

There are multiple ways in which diets full of fatty, fried, sugary foods hurt your body, and countless reasons why fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and whole grains that are rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients make your body leaner and stronger. We know, from experience and common sense, as well as from medical studies, that balanced diets like the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet increase health and longevity. I feel confident that no study will ever disprove that eating an overall balanced, healthy diet and staying physically active is the best way to protect your health.