In the fight for better health, saturated fat has long been identified as a major villain, but a new study suggests that the much maligned fat isn't as unhealthy as previously thought. In fact, it could actually be good for you.
Conducted by the KG Jebsen Center for Diabetes Research at the University of Bergen, the study, which was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sought to examine the effect of total fat and saturated fat intake in an otherwise healthy, nutritious diet. In a randomized controlled trial, 38 male subjects with abdominal obesity were asked to follow two different diets—one rich in carbohydrates, and one rich in fats. For those who stuck to a high-fat eating plan, about half the fat proportion was made up of saturated fat in the form of cream, butter, and cold-pressed oils. The rest of the diet was made up of high amounts of vegetables, rice, and fresh, minimally processed foods.
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Over the course of the test period, researchers kept track of the fat mass in the abdomen, heart, and liver, as well as a number of key cardiovascular risk factors in each of the subjects. The results showed that a diet richer in fat didn't increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by raising the "bad" LDL cholesterol in the blood; rather, those who consumed a fattier diet actually experienced increased levels of "good" HDL cholesterol overall.
In a press release, Ottar Nygård, a professor and cardiologist who contributed to the study, notes that participants on the "very-high-fat" diet also showed "substantial improvements in several important cardiometabolic risk factors, such as ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids, insulin, and blood sugar." Overall, Nygård says, "The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular disease."
Nygård suggests that those who stick to relatively healthy, balanced diets shouldn't be concerned about eating some saturated fat, as "most healthy people probably tolerate a high intake of saturated fat well, as long as the fat quality is good and total energy intake is not too high. It may even be healthy."
According to assistant professor Simon Nitter Dankel, co-leader of the study, the data suggests that a healthy diet most likely doesn't come down to carbs versus fat, but rather the quality and freshness of the food being consumed. "The alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated," Dankel says. "It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based foods, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar."
Advice that we know we should start following but after the holidays, of course.