This new report says only that saturated fat might not be as damaging as we thought. Healthy eating is still the best way to protect your heart
Last week we were all given free rein to eat as much saturated fat as we like. The results of a study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, suggested that there’s little evidence to support current national guidelines on the types of fat we eat to reduce our risk of heart disease. At least that’s how some interpreted the findings of the study, which we at the British Heart Foundation helped to fund. I was described by Joanna Blythman in Sunday’s Observer as “floundering” for standing by our existing advice.
But before you decide to have cream cakes for every meal or think about doubling the butter on your toast, we need to set the record straight.
Let’s start with the guidelines. These are national, set by the Department of Health, and based on a consensus of available evidence, so they do change over time. Research into diet is rarely black and white and so isn’t going to change guidelines overnight or on the basis of one study. In this case, though comprehensive and well conducted, the Cambridge results aren’t enough to make an immediate change. We need more research in this area, and also need to examine the findings alongside the full body of evidence rather than other individual papers.
There is uncertainty in this area but we aren’t shying away from this – we funded this research and we want to see more studies to get the answers right rather than jumping to conclusions that might prove to be incorrect.
A good example of where guidelines have moved in response to a changing picture from the evidence is advice on eating eggs, which Joanna Blythman mentions in her article. It was indeed once advised that we limit the amount of eggs we eat – it was thought at the time that they raised our cholesterol, increasing our risk of cardiovascular disease. But that advice changed in the last decade when evidence showed eggs aren’t the problem. We were looking at the wrong part of people’s diets – it wasn’t the eggs themselves but the way they were cooked – in saturated bacon fat for example – and what they were eaten with.
There is a wealth of evidence showing that eating too much saturated fat raises our cholesterol levels, which we know increases our risk of having a heart attack or stroke. This new research doesn’t change that but clearly shows that there is more for us to find out and understand. It may be that with more studies into the impacts of the different fatty acids within saturated and unsaturated fats, we might find that some are in fact heart-healthy or less damaging than once thought. But what this study doesn’t say is that saturated fat is good for your heart health; it only tells us that it might not be as damaging as we thought.
The key thing I want to get across – which is not “floundering” – is that this close focus on any single nutrient, whether it is saturated fat, sugar, salt or something else entirely, is not very helpful. We don’t eat single nutrients – we eat food, meals and whole diets that contain a range of nutrients that can all impact on our heart disease risk. And in terms of diets that promote heart health, this is what we should be focusing on and promoting.
The Mediterranean-style diet has been associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. This represents a whole-diet approach, with fats mainly from unsaturated sources as well as more fruit, vegetables and fish and fewer sugary and fatty treats. This diet is naturally lower in saturated fat, but the benefits seem to come not from one specific element, but from the sum of its parts.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that we continue to campaign to press the government and the food industry to do more to help people make healthy choices when they eat and drink. We want manufactured foods to be clearly labelled, and have had success, so far, with campaigning for front-of-pack traffic-light labelling. This would help tackle the issue of high sugar and salt contents, as well as fats. Only last week we were front and centre of a coalition calling for restrictions on junk food marketing to children.
Our advice is carefully considered and regularly reviewed; it is based on the evidence of robust research, funded by us and others. Based on these new findings we’re not advising the nation to have a free rein when it comes to the amount of saturated fat being eaten. The sad truth is that levels of obesity are increasing and coronary heart disease is still the UK’s single biggest killer. One way we’re fighting back is by giving people the information and advice they need to eat a healthy balanced diet so they can help look after their hearts.
Find out more about healthy eating on our website bhf.org.uk.