The idea that saturated fats clog up arteries and therefore causes heart disease is “plain wrong”, experts have claimed.
Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), three cardiologists said that saturated fats - found in butter, lard, sausages, bacon, cheese and cream - do not clog the arteries.
To truly champion heart health, the nation’s focus should be shifted away from lowering fats and cutting out dietary saturated fat, they said.
Instead, we should emphasise the importance of “game-changing” lifestyle changes such as following a Mediterranean diet, taking a brisk 22-minute daily walk and minimising stress to stave off coronary heart disease.
A spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has shut down these new claims, labelling them as “unhelpful and misleading”.
Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a major cause of death both in the UK and worldwide, according to the NHS. The main symptoms are chest pain, heart attacks and heart failure.
Eating a diet that is high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in the blood and this, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease, the NHS site claims.
But the new study disagrees, saying the idea that dietary saturated fat “clogs a pipe”, which then causes heart disease, is wrong.
Dr Aseem Malhotra, of Lister Hospital, Stevenage; Professor Rita Redberg of UCSF School of Medicine, San Francisco; and Pascal Meier of University Hospital Geneva and University College London argue that existing evidence shows no association between consumption of saturated fat and heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and death.
“Decades of emphasis on the primacy of lowering plasma cholesterol, as if this was an end in itself and driving a market of ‘proven to lower cholesterol’ and ‘low fat’ foods and medications, has been misguided,” they said.
Instead of telling people to cut fats from their diets, the health experts named three factors that could vastly reduce heart disease risk. These are:
:: Taking a brisk walk every day for roughly 22 minutes.
:: Eating ‘real foods’ such as nuts, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and oily fish, and avoiding processed food and refined carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, cakes, white pasta, pizza etc).
:: Minimising stress, as chronic stress puts the body’s inflammatory response on “permanent high alert”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Dr Aseem Malhotra said coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition typically treated with statins, which often have “minimal benefit”.
He also highlighted that the nation needs to move away from its “obsession” with lowering cholesterol and fat, and instead focus on actionable lifestyle changes.
“Things like cheese and butter are absolutely fine to eat, as long as you’re getting plenty of those ‘real’ foods and cutting out the bad foods such as refined carbohydrates,” he explained.
Ultimately, we should address the different factors that contribute towards heart disease such as poor diet, lack of exercise and stress, he concluded.
“Concentrating on these things could combat 80% of heart disease cases.”
Writing in the BJSM, Dr Malhotra, Dr Redberg and Dr Meier, said: “It is time to shift the public health message in the prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease away from measuring serum lipids and reducing dietary saturated fat.
“Coronary artery disease is a chronic inflammatory disease and it can be reduced effectively by walking 22 minutes a day and eating real food.”
In response to these new claims, Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “The Mediterranean diet and daily exercise can help reduce heart disease risk, but I’m afraid the claims about saturated fat made in this opinion piece are unhelpful and misleading.
“Decades of research have proved that a diet rich in saturated fat increases ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood, which puts you at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke.
“When it comes to reducing your risk of heart disease the lower your cholesterol is the better. This can be achieved through a healthy, balanced diet or medication for some.
“A coronary artery blocked with fatty plaque causes heart muscle to die as it becomes starved of oxygen. A stent keeps the artery open so blood can flow through unimpeded. This practice is used by leading cardiologists around the world and has helped save countless lives and improve quality of life.”
HuffPost UK contacted Public Health England’s spokesperson, who declined to comment on the new claims.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is currently reviewing the evidence on saturated fat and will publish its findings before mid-2018.