Not All Saturated Fats Are the Same for Cardiovascular Health

After examining the association between saturated fat sources and cardiovascular health, researchers recommend higher consumption of staple foods of the Mediterranean diet such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Mar. 7, 2019
By Mary West

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A study found the source of sat­u­rated fat can make a big dif­fer­ence in heart health. While fat from meat is linked to a higher car­dio­vas­cu­lar risk, dairy fat is asso­ci­ated with a lower risk.

The effect of fat on the heart depends on the num­ber of car­bon atoms con­tained within the fatty acid chains. While sat­u­rated fatty acids in meats have 16 or more car­bon atoms, sat­u­rated fatty acids in dairy prod­ucts con­tain 14 or fewer car­bon atoms.

Our analy­sis of the diets of large groups of indi­vid­u­als in two coun­tries over time shows that the type of sat­u­rated fats we con­sume could affect our car­dio­vas­cu­lar heath.- Ivonne Sluijs, lead researcher on the study

Peo­ple who con­sume plant-based pro­tein and dairy prod­ucts typ­i­cally have a lower risk of a heart attack.

Our analy­sis of the diets of large groups of indi­vid­u­als in two coun­tries over time shows that the type of sat­u­rated fats we con­sume could affect our car­dio­vas­cu­lar heath,” lead inves­ti­ga­tor Ivonne Sluijs, of the Julius Cen­ter for Health Sci­ences and Pri­mary Care at the Uni­ver­sity Med­ical Cen­ter in Utrecht, Nether­lands, said.

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The study exam­ined data from approx­i­mately 75,000 peo­ple in the U.K., Den­mark, the U.S. and the Nether­lands. Of these, nearly 3,500 indi­vid­u­als had a heart attack between the study’s onset and the fol­low-up 13 years later.


In the U.S., sat­u­rated fat con­sump­tion comes largely from meat; but in Europe, sat­u­rated fat intake comes mostly from dairy prod­ucts.

Although fat con­sump­tion from meat sources was linked to a higher heart risk, fat from dairy foods was either inversely related to heart risk or had a neu­tral effect. The find­ings lend cre­dence to the the­ory that the type of sat­u­rated fat con­sumed deter­mines the effect on the heart.

We found that eat­ing rel­a­tively lit­tle of the longer chained sat­u­rated fatty acids and con­sum­ing plant-based pro­teins instead was asso­ci­ated with a low­ered risk,” Sluijs said. Sub­sti­tu­tion of those sat­u­rated fats with other energy sources such as car­bo­hy­drates did not affect the risk to develop myocar­dial infarc­tion.”

In the 1960s, sat­u­rated fat was tied to high lev­els of bad cho­les­terol, or LDL, which is a risk fac­tor for heart dis­ease. At this time, experts rec­om­mended restrict­ing sat­u­rated fat from all sources. How­ever, because of incon­sis­tent results from stud­ies, the asso­ci­a­tion between sat­u­rated fat and heart dis­ease has been debated for years.

Recent research sug­gests the lack of con­sis­tency in results stems from the pos­si­bil­ity that var­ied types of sat­u­rated fat have dif­fer­ent effects on cho­les­terol and coro­nary heart dis­ease. Despite the find­ings in the cur­rent study that sup­port the pos­tu­la­tion, Sluijs and her research team advise cau­tion before chang­ing dietary guide­lines.

In an accom­pa­ny­ing edi­to­r­ial, Jun Li and Qi Sun, of the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Pub­lic Health, Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts, advo­cated con­sump­tion of a diet that involves a high intake of fruits and veg­eta­bles, as well as the replace­ment of refined grains with whole grains.

They also advised low­er­ing salt intake and lim­it­ing con­sump­tion of sugar, red meat and processed meat. Eat­ing the Mediter­ranean diet, which fea­tures fruits, veg­eta­bles and whole grains, is a good way to fol­low these advi­sories. The study was pub­lished in the Inter­na­tional Jour­nal of Car­di­ol­ogy.

Kathy Gru­ver, a nat­ural health author, speaker and prac­ti­tioner, told Olive Oil Times that fol­low­ing the Mediter­ranean diet heeds both the advice of the study and the rec­om­men­da­tions from Har­vard.

The Mediter­ranean Diet, which con­sists of good fats in the form of fatty fish, nuts and olive oil, cer­tainly ful­fills the need of get­ting healthy fats in the diet,” she said. So if you are being con­scious of the fats that you are con­sum­ing, chang­ing out lots of meat for olive oil and fish is ben­e­fi­cial. Also, lim­it­ing sugar is vastly impor­tant and sugar will actu­ally mess with cho­les­terol more than fat will.”

Our health is a com­bi­na­tion of healthy diet, ratio­nal exer­cise and lucky genet­ics. Let’s con­trol what we can, which is the diet and exer­cise,” she added. Con­sume as many good fats as you can. Avoid foods that are inflam­ma­tory or toxic and engage in reg­u­lar work­outs. These prac­tices can help stave off the effects from genet­ics that may be com­pletely out of our con­trol.”

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