Study Says Heart-Healthy Diet Isn’t Only About the Fat

Researchers say carbs, sugar need closer look

steak and fries

A new analysis says there’s no clear evidence that cutting down on saturated fats reduces your risk of heart disease. But don’t get caught up in the media hype surrounding that announcement, experts say.

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Instead, keep on a healthy course by following your doctor’s advice to stop smoking, stay physically active and eat a diet that includes lean protein and healthy fats but limits red meat.

No clear evidence surrounding saturated fat

Research sponsored by the British Heart Foundation, among other organizations, and led by scientists at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain, looked at existing evidence about links between fatty acids (such as those found in red meat) and coronary heart disease.

The researchers re-analyzed results from 72 studies already completed about the link between saturated fats and heart disease. Analyses that appear in the Annals of Internal Medicine, conclude that:

  • There is no clear evidence supporting heart healthy recommendations that urge reduced consumption of saturated fats.
  • Only weak evidence exists that supports heart-healthy recommendations to increase foods high in polyunsaturated fats (such as omega-3 and omega-6).

The British team says the role of sugars, carbohydrates and other factors in coronary artery disease risk need more scrutiny.

Heart disease remains No. 1 threat

Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. It kills nearly 380,000 people a year. Over the past 10 years death rates fell dramatically, by about 39 percent. But the risk factors remain alarmingly high.

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Prevention is an essential element in the fight against deaths from heart disease. Quality, randomized trials have helped in reducing death rates dramatically, shaping guidelines to help physicians and patients tailor treatment plans and enact healthy changes to lifestyle and diet.

Best advice for healthy diet

Opinions and favorite theories about heart disease prevention abound and researchers often look back at existing data, hoping to refine or redefine ways to beat coronary artery disease.

But, that doesn’t mean these current researchers have found solid answers to support a change in diet advice.

Stanley Hazen, MD, Head of the Section for Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, reviewed the British study and says rather than “new research,” the study amounts to “mathematical massaging of multiple databases” that should not prompt changes to established guidelines.

Dr. Hazen says, “The Mediterranean diet showed through randomized intervention trial to reduce cardiovascular disease events an additional 30 percent on top of other therapies like medications and exercise. That is still my recommendation.”

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Experts still discourage saturated fats, such as those found in red meat.

Steady course, with few adjustments

Cleveland Clinic dietitian Julia Zumpano recommends that patients “Still focus on a Mediterranean diet and replace saturated fats with healthy fats, specifically replacing red meat, butter and cheese with fish, olive oil and nuts.” She continued, “Completely avoid trans fats which are found in any food containing partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list.  Reading the nutrition facts label is not enough to avoid trans-fat, so check the ingredient list too.”

2013 AHA/ACC Lifestyle Management Guidelines recommend eating a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of refined grains, and low or non-fat dairy products instead of full-fat options. Healthy protein sources include lean meat such as fish. The guidelines advise limiting or eliminating red meat, added sugars and trans fats from the diet.

Ms. Zumpano added, “I would agree … that I tend to discourage and limit sources of simple carbohydrates (white versions of bread, rice, pasta, crackers, cereal, snack foods, dessert and sweets) and encourage carbohydrates to come from complex sources such as legumes (lentils, peas and beans), grains (oats, quinoa, and barley), fruit, and fat free/low fat yogurt) more liberal with plant based fats (nuts/seeds, olive/canola oil, olives and avocado) but continue to encourage protein from fish, legumes, nuts, eggs, low fat dairy and  lean meats.” Lifestyle changes greatly increase the power of a healthy diet to help control weight and blood pressure. Current recommendations also urge patients to stop smoking and get moderate exercise on at least three or four days each week.

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