Every so often, a new study comes along that suggests you take a new approach to healthy eating. They may sound interesting at first, but it’s always a good idea to take a closer look and consider whether the results make sense for you.
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For instance, a recent study of what 135,000 people from around the world ate found a link between high fat intake and a reduced risk of mortality. Given these findings, the researchers recommended “reconsidering” dietary guidelines.
That’s right — a reduced risk — even though the eating habits included saturated fats, which we’ve been told through the years to limit because of their link to raising levels of “bad” artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.
The study, called the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, followed the dietary habits of the participants, whose ages ranged from 35 to 70, for seven years. It included 18 countries, but not the United States.
But don’t jump to this conclusion just yet, says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD.
“I think the results of the study are very interesting, but I would still exercise a great deal of caution in interpreting the data,” he says.
Caveats about the study
For people in the United States, the PURE study may not have much relevance, Dr. Ahmed says.
In addition to the finding related to high fat, the study also found a link between a high carbohydrate diet and an increased risk of mortality.
“In the United States, consumption of carbohydrates is significantly lower than other parts of the world, and fat content is significantly higher. Since U.S. participants were not included in the study at all, I am not sure that these data are translatable to the American public,” Dr. Ahmed says.
He also says that the way researchers conducted the study — allowing participants to report on questionnaires how often they ate various types of food — poses several methodological problems.
The American Heart Association (AHA) also has recommended caution in interpreting the PURE results. In June, the AHA issued an advisory recommending that adults minimize saturated fats in their diets and replace them with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
Facts about fat
When it comes to healthy eating, determining the role of fat in our diet is sometimes confusing. Too much bad fat leads to weight gain and high cholesterol, while certain fats can help protect the heart and reduce inflammation, Dr. Ahmed says.
Trans fats are the worst and you should avoid them, Dr. Ahmed says. You’ll usually see trans fats listed in processed foods. They appear as “trans fat” or “partially hydrogenated oil” in ingredient listings.
Next on the unhealthy list are saturated fats, the highlight of the PURE results. Current U.S. guidelines recommend that adults get less than 10 percent of their total calories from saturated fats each day.
Foods high in saturated fats include:
- Beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry skin
- Hot dogs, bologna and salami
- Ice cream, whole and 2 percent milk, cheese and other high-fat dairy products
- Butter, bacon fat and tropical oils (palm, coconut)
Healthful fats belong in a balanced diet
Fat does have a place in a healthy diet. Research shows that certain kinds of fats called polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats seem to lower cholesterol.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, nuts, nut butters and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are found in walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon.
So what kind of a diet captures what we know about health and unhealthy fats? Research shows that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet for most people, Dr. Ahmed says. The Mediterranean diet, which is recommended by the U.S. dietary guidelines, is rich in olive oil and nuts. It has relatively small amounts of meat, an increased amount of fish, and lots of fruits and vegetables.