Not Stumbling into Red Meat, Cheese, and Butter?

April 1, 2014 in Health, Health Claims by Joyce Bunderson

Sometimes we’re plugging along trying to do our best and there’s one of those little invisible trip lines near our feet and our stride lurches and falters, but hopefully we don’t stumble and fall. Because nutrition is in its infancy or pre-teen at the very best, we have to expect the lurches and falters in trying to make sense of research. A recent study is being used by some with great passion for red meat and other fatty foods to ignore real risks.

The research that generated this post is a newly released study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study out of Cambridge has a long title (Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis); but you may have seen shorter headlines and articles claiming that saturated fats are not so bad, since the study was published on March 18, 2014. In short, the study found evidence that eating saturated fat did not increase heart attacks or other cardiac events; nor did they find that eating unsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats were linked with less disease.  They did find a link between trans fats, now broadly known to be harmful, and heart disease.

The following are some issues to consider, helping you avoid a stumble or fall if you’re trying to embrace a nutritious eating style:

  • Certainly there is a huge body of research that leads public health nutrition experts in saying that we should not consume much saturated fat. Of course, much of it is epidemiological research. That is, the researchers look at what people are eating and try to make links with the subjects’ health. For example, during the world wars in Europe, there was a scarcity of butter, cheese and meat. During and right after this scarcity, heart disease dropped. In large cardiovascular clinics, like Dr. Dean Ornish’s in San Francisco, people are restricted from saturated fat and their cardiovascular profile improves. Just last year, a large clinical trial was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that a Mediterranean diet with more nuts and extra virgin olive oil reduced heart attacks and strokes when compared with a lower fat diet with more starches. For sure, this does not prove that the saturated fat is the culprit; it just shows a correlation, a link between the food changes and the increase or decrease in cardiovascular disease. Again, there are some very strong links between eating the foods with lots of saturated fats and heart disease. Maybe there is something else in these foods that is causing the problems. So until more is learned, the safe course of action is probably continuing to avoid eating lots of foods with saturated fats.
  • Another consideration is just the fact that the study is looking at a single macronutrient (fat). Now days, generally nutrition scientists spend more focus on eating real foods. The point is that few people really have any idea how many grams of a specific type of fat they’re taking in, anyway. A food-based analysis may really become very valuable when it is completed and published.
  • Some especially interesting outcome of the Annals of Internal Medicine study is that the researchers found particular fatty acids in milk and dairy products that were associated with lower cardiovascular risk. Two types of omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish were also found to be protective; no surprise here. But taking fish oil supplements were not found to lower the risk. One possible explanation for supplemental fish oil not being found to be protective is that most of the studies where that information was gleaned came from populations that had pre-existing heart disease or were at high risk of developing it. So maybe the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids lie in preventing hearts disease, rather than treating or reversing it.

Dietary fat is just one factor that drives heart disease risk. One of the snags of the Annals of Internal Medicine study is that a number of the participants were self-reporting their fat intake. For me that’s a red flag against the validity of the findings. In addition, how food is processed may eventually be found to be an important part of the equation. Research has not reached the final answers on much of nutrition; but we need to make our best effort to make informed decisions. There is no doubt that our diet is related to our health.  Even if this study turns out to be right, it begs the question; “What is behind the heart disease problem?” My guess is that there may be multiple answers. Some promising and highly likely areas are obesity, sedentary lifestyles, high blood pressure, diabetes, and genetics. While research does not yet really know all that’s going on with the fats, there does seem to be some agreement that sugary foods and an excess of simple carbohydrates (processed white flour products) are important drivers of heart disease risk. For now, I wouldn’t start eating saturated fats with abandon. On the other hand, I’ve not seen any research that says there’s risk with loading up on fresh produce. So until the answers are more definitive, we need to keep on keeping on – hang in there. I’ve not seen any recommendations for increasing butter, hard cheese or meat. Let’s not stumble and fall over this one surprising but narrow piece of research.