Saturated Fats, Sugar & Your Heart: What Does the Science Say?

by | Jul 22, 2014 | Diet & nutrition

No doubt, many were thrilled earlier this year as the media went nuts over new research that seemed to put yet another nail in the coffin of the low-fat dogma.

We all know that creed. It’s been pounded into our brains for years that eating saturated fat – the predominant kind in meat, butter and cheese – will give you heart disease.

Except there’s precious little evidence that it does – a fact which critics of all stripes have been pointing out for years.

The latest research, published this past March in the Annals of Internal Medicine, took a good look at the evidence to date on “associations between fatty acids and coronary disease.” More than 70 previous studies were reviewed. All together, they involved over half a million participants in 18 countries.

The investigators found that total saturated fatty acid, whether measured in the diet or in the bloodstream as a biomarker, was not associated with coronary disease risk in the observational studies. Similarly, when analyzing the studies that involved assessments of the consumption of total monounsaturated fatty acids, long-chain omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, there were no significant associations between consumption and cardiovascular risk.

While some scientists have criticized the paper and pointed out a number of errors, its authors have since published corrections yet insist that they “do not affect the main conclusions reported in the original article.”

What Does Play a Role in Heart Disease Then?

Sadly and ironically, the major dietary culprit in heart disease is something that folks began eating a lot more of as the low-fat dogma came to rule: sugar – both in the form of added sugars now found in the vast majority of processed foods and simple carbohydrates and starches, which are digested as sugar. Today, the average eats anywhere from 100 to 150 pounds (or more) of added sugar alone every year.

This consumption skyrocketed as fat came to be demonized.

sugar crystals in heart shape

Yet back in the 1960s and 70s, researchers such as John Yudkin were already showing a strong correlation between sugar intake and heart disease. In 2002, the American Heart Association published a statement on the connection after reviewing the literature to date. Some studies, they found, showed just a weak correlation, but later and better studies confirmed its existence.

A recent report from the Nurses’ Health Study showed that women who consumed diets with a high glycemic load… had an increased CHD risk, with those in the highest quintile having a >2-fold risk during 10 years of follow-up. Simple carbohydrate alone was also predictive but did not reach statistical significance.

More recently, research published in JAMA Internal Medicine provided some sobering data about sugar’s impact on the heart:

Over the course of the 15-year study, participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—and that was true regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (a measure of weight).

* * *

Could it be possible that sugar isn’t the true bad guy boosting heart disease risk, but that it’s the lack of heart-healthy foods like fruits and veggies? Apparently not. In this study, the researchers measured the participants’ Healthy Eating Index. This shows how well their diets match up to federal dietary guidelines. “Regardless of their Healthy Eating Index scores, people who ate more sugar still had higher cardiovascular mortality,” says Dr. Teresa Fung, adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. [emphasis added]

Of course, as Dr. Robert Lustig highlighted in his Nature commentary “The Toxic Truth About Sugar,” it’s not just heart health that’s at stake. It’s the whole range of modern, chronic diseases and health conditions, from obesity to diabetes to cancer.

And as the AHA put it in their 2002 statement, “No data suggest that sugar intake per se is advantageous…. Sugar has no nutritional value other than to provide calories.”

But cutting sugar is just one part of the solution for heart health. A nutrient-dense diet rich in fresh produce and based on whole-foods is another. Add in exercise, quality sleep, stress reduction, self-care and the rest…these are part, too – not just of heart health but positively radiant health.

Image by Kaveh Shahabi, via Flickr

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