Should Saturated Fat Guidelines be Updated?
A huge pet peeve of mine is that the guidelines for fat intake promoted by North American organizations such as Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, among others, seem increasingly out of touch with reality as well as with recent research.
This is why when I decline to teach Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating, the reason I give is that guidelines take years to update, and research is changing all the time. We’re finding things out now about nutrition that we had no idea about in 2007, when the last update to the Food Guide was done. So why would I be teaching clients and students using antiquated resources? It’s absurd.
But I digress. Fats are one of the most hotly contested subjects in recent times, because of the stakes involved. I mean, if we tell people that eating saturated fats is now fine for them, as it may appear from some of the research, are we essentially gambling with peoples’ lives? If we keep the guidelines and our recommendations the same as they have been for years, which is to say we discourage all sources of saturated fats in favor of mono and polyunsaturated fats, are we ignoring relevant and credible research that could benefit our clients’ health? The situation has reached fever pitch, with even dietitians not knowing what side of the line to jump to.
Let’s start with the current guidelines for fats:
The US and Canada have guidelines that recommend limiting sources of saturated fats to 7% or less of total calories. This means that healthcare professionals such as doctors and dietitians have forever been recommending limitations on meats, in particular red meats, butter, higher-fat dairy products, and even items such as coconut.
To replace the saturated fats, guidelines recommend the use of monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils. They typically recommend margarine instead of butter, low fat or nonfat dairy, and lean meats such as skinless chicken breast. They recommend lots of grains as well.
The current guidelines that I just spoke about are based on research done in the 1950s and 1960s, believe it or not.
Because it has been over 50 years since that research was done, let’s look at what we know now that corroborates, and contradicts, our current guidelines.
We still know that monounsaturated fats are the gold standard of fats, as recent research confirms. We are learning now that oils with a signficant amount of polyunsaturated fats, like corn and soybean oil, may be inflammatory. These oils make up a significant portion of our fat intake in North America, presumably because they’re subsidized crops, but also because they’ve always been recommended to us by the guidelines.
Let’s clarify one thing, because many times I have seen saturated fats lumped together with trans fats. Saturated fats and trans fats are not the same. We know that trans fats are bad for health and disease risk and no one is disputing that.
Even canola oil isn’t safe, at least not in Canada, where the Canadian government has ruled that canola oil can contain up to 2% trans fats. Coupled with the fact that canola oil is extracted from rapeseeds using solvents like hexane, heavily processed and deodorized, I personally don’t feel comfortable recommending it to clients, much less buying it for my family.
Saturated fats have been thought to increase heart disease through an increase in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, but Recent research has determined that overall LDL isn’t a as good an indicator of heart disease risk as we previously thought. Rather it’s the LDL particle size and number of particles that are better predictors. This means that a person could have a high LDL reading, but if the majority of the particles are large particle LDL, (pattern A) then their risk of heart disease is neutral. Coupled with elevated triglycerides and low HDL, small particle LDL is particularly deadly. This information was not available until the past few years, and knowing this, we are always shooting for is higher HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol.
Saturated fat actually increases it HDL. It also increases LDL, but only moderately. We also know, most importantly, that there is no evidence to identify saturated fat intake as a risk of heart attack or death.
Of course there is no single cause of heart disease, but we are learning that trans fats, sugar in large amounts (akin to what the average North American is consuming on a daily basis), and large amounts of refined carbohydrate, are definitely part of the picture. These nutrients, if you want to call them that, are known to oxidize LDL in the body and create inflammation. This inflammation in turn can increase risk of all sorts of diseases. As I mentioned before, omega 6 fatty acids in large quantities, such as those found in the Standard American Diet, as also culprits in promoting inflammation.
We know that when we began to take saturated fats and other fats out of our diets, we began to eat more carbohydrate, and we got fatter and sicker than ever before. So the guidelines actually didn’t make us more well, they guided us into health problems.
Here comes my main point:
Whether saturated fats cause heart disease is almost irrelevant, because you shouldn’t be taking in fat solely in saturated form or otherwise in great quantities. If your diet contains a good balance of all fats – saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated, in addition to mostly whole foods, you should have nothing to worry about.
What we are failing to realize here is that the totality of the diet, meaning the sum of all the foods we consume, is being buried under a mountain of ingredient-specific accusatory material when we know as fact, that obesity and the overall quality of the diet we consume is a huge predictor of future health. I think it’s inappropriate to continue to accuse saturated fats of being so dangerous when we should be looking at so many other predictors of cardiovascular disease.
Fats are fats, is what I tell my clients when they invariably ask me questions like ‘butter or margarine? Can I eat red meat? Should I take the skin off my chicken?’
No one is saying that you can eat as much fat as you want, because fat is the most energy-dense food in the world, and even though all calories are not created equal, if you eat too much fat, this may result in dietary imbalance and resulting issues such as obesity and inflammation.
So after all of that, yes, I think the saturated fat guidelines need to be reviewed. The US is reviewing their guidelines in 2015, but as of now, Canada’s dietary guidelines will stand.
Whether to change the guidelines altogether to be more eating-culture based like Brazil (my preference by a long shot), or to focus more on limiting carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrate, remains to be determined.
My recommendations, which haven’t changed much in the last 15 years, remain:
- Eat lots of plants, especially the brightly colored ones
- Eat a good mix of all fats
- Enjoy your food
- Don’t eat with feelings of guilt or restriction
- Eat mostly unprocessed food
- Make what you eat
- Learn how to cook
- Use butter on your toast
- Sugar and refined carbohydrate are only treats, not everyday things
- Appreciate the beauty of food
- Know where your food comes from
Eat in good health!