Here’s news that will hopefully change how doctors define a heart-healthy diet. You may believe that cutting back on saturated fats is doing something good for your ticker. But after carefully monitoring the diets of 577 healthy adults, and evaluating them for multiple heart disease risk factors, researchers in Malaysia (yes my original home!) concluded something remarkable: restricting carbs had a significantly greater benefit to heart health than restricting fat consumption.
These results fly in the face of traditional advice. You might predict that people following low-fat diets would have better cholesterol profiles than those eating high-fat diets. That did not happen in this study. Those eating a high carb/low fat diet had worse outcomes.
You read that right: The researchers found that fats had little-to-no-impact on cholesterol or other heart disease risk factors including diabetes, insulin resistance and chronic inflammation. Now that in itself isn’t news to those of us who are immersed in this field. What I found astounding was the fact that the type of fat consumed by 83% of the study participants was palm oil, which is 50% saturated fat. The rest consumed meals with more unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower, canola, corn or olive oil. The type of fat didn’t matter. Saturated fat and palm oil have been demonised ever since Ancel Keys’ diet-lipid-heart disease hypothesis in 1955. I’m glad to see redemption.
The newly published study also took other factors into account, including lifestyle, genetics, age and socioeconomics. These study participants lived in urban areas and held white collar jobs. And they were a healthy bunch. They didn’t smoke or drink. They didn’t have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease or cancer. None had ever had a stroke. Even their thyroids were working properly! Interestingly, whist many studies study the effects of isolated macronutrients (either carbs, fats or proteins) on heart disease, this study looked combinations of high and low fats and carbs, mimicking a true diet.
What does this mean for you and me? As my grandmother always said, it’s never a good idea to completely ignore an entire food group. Proteins, carbs and fats all deserve a place in a heart-healthy diet. But you should do two thing different because of this study: Pay closer attention to the type of carbs you’re eating and have a place for saturated fats on your plate.
Steer clear of complex carbs such as sugar. Not only does sugar spike your glucose but eating too much of it which may lead to inflammation and insulin resistance. Both of these conditions can ultimately lead to heart disease. Instead, treat yourself to complex carbohydrates like those found in beans, vegetables and whole grains.
As for saturated fats - butter, coconut oil and palm oil in moderation are your friends. I guess science finally caught up with my grandmother’s ancient intuitive wisdom.