Reality check: Does saturated fat actually clog arteries?

While the study calls the belief that saturated fat clogs arteries "nonsense," experts advise Canadians to clean up their diets and focus on eating whole, natural foods for optimal health. Getty Images

A controversial editorial is making some bold claims about saturated fat.

Recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Aseem Malhotra, Rita Redberg and Pascal Meier, cardiologists from institutions in the U.K., California and Switzerland, claim saturated fats do not clog arteries.

“Despite popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong,” the authors stated.

Examining a meta-analysis of observational studies, they concluded that saturated fat was not associated with coronary heart disease, mortality, ischaemic stroke or Type 2 diabetes in healthy adults.

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“This idea that dietary saturated fats build up in the coronary arteries is complete unscientific nonsense,” Malhotra, cardiologist at Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust in England, told CNN. “Coronary artery disease is a chronic inflammatory condition.”

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Canadians’ eating habits have changed

Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, says the average Canadian’s eating habits have changed — and not for the better.

Canadians spend more money on processed foods and less on natural ones. Food marketing has also confused consumers into buying low-fat products, he says, which can be filled with hidden fats, sugar and sodium.

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“Although the health effects of saturated fats are complex and new evidence is emerging, we do know that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol in the blood, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” Arango tells Global News.

“At the same time, studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with plant oils and unsaturated fats have improved cholesterol levels and reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

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What is saturated fat?

Saturated fats are fat molecules found in animal products, dairy products, and some plant-based and vegetable oils, Arango says.

Research suggests it is not just the fat itself, but the type of food the fat is found in that can be harmful, he says. Highly processed foods, for example, are a major source of saturated fat and are also often loaded with calories, sodium, sugar and trans fats.

READ MORE: Your brain on cookies and cake: Canadian docs study how saturated fat tampers with dopamine

“It is the saturated fat found in fried and highly processed foods that is of concern,” he says.

But when it comes to putting a limit on consumption of these foods, he says the foundation doesn’t have a hard number.

“The evidence for saturated fat consumption and effects on health is not sufficiently clear to allow us to identify a limit. As well, there are different dietary saturated fatty acids and there is emerging evidence to suggest that the health effects of saturated fats could vary depending on the food sources in which they are found.”

‘Good’ vs. ‘bad’ food

Montreal-based registered dietitian Lisa Rutledge says not all saturated fats have the same effect on our health.

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“The saturated fats in dairy, for example, may not have the same effect as saturated fats from meat products,” she tells Global News. “This new information proves once again that the oversimplified myth that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and/or nutrients is wrong. It’s much more complicated.”

The Canada Food Guide recommends no more than two to three tablespoons (30 to 45 mL) of unsaturated fat per day, and says that saturated fat should be limited to no more than 10 per cent of your daily caloric intake. While the guidelines list lean meats and poultry, as well as low-fat dairy as smarter saturated fat alternatives, Rutledge says there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to food.

“There is no one food you should be avoiding to ensure a healthy body. You could read food labels to verify the quantity of saturated fats in the products. However, keep in mind that the recommendation is an average daily suggestion,” she says.

Bottom line: eat healthy

Arango says at the end of the day, Canadians should be focusing on eating a balanced diet rather than zeroing in on one nutrient.

“All other things being equal, if Canadians eat a healthy, balanced diet and appropriate portions, and they avoid highly processed foods, then they should not fret about intake of specific nutrients such as saturated fat.”

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We should also make a concerted effort to “un-junk” our diets, says Vancouver-based registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen.

“Cook from scratch with fresh ingredients and eat homemade food,” she advises. “A little butter or meat isn’t going to hurt you if you are eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

READ MORE: Nutrition: New thinking about saturated fats

Also, embrace healthy fats like olive oil and nut butters, and dress sandwiches with hummus or mashed avocado. Nielsen also says to eat more plant proteins like lentils and tempeh, fish and poultry, and limit red meat to a once-a-week treat.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation also takes a whole diet approach, advising Canadians to focus on natural or whole foods, and avoid anything that’s highly processed.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t just cut the fat, cut the crap. Avoid all highly processed foods.
  • Think about your entire diet, not just individual foods or specific nutrients.
  • Size and quality matter — aim for a variety of natural and minimally processed foods in appropriate portions.
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