Some Sources of Saturated Fats May Actually Lower Heart Disease Risk, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggested that saturated fat doesn't necessarily increase the risk of heart disease, but it depends on the food source.
  • Certain foods rich in saturated fat, like yogurt and fish, were actually linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
  • This study added to the growing conversation about valuing the overall food matrix over individual nutrients.

Having a diet that's too rich in saturated fats can drive up harmful cholesterol in the body and increase the risk of heart disease.

But a new study from the University of Cambridge found "no strong associations" between total fat intake and heart disease risk. The researchers suggested that the food source, rather than the fat, plays a bigger role in heart health.

According to the study, people who ate more saturated fats from red meat and butter were more likely to develop heart disease. But saturated fats from fish and fermented dairy were linked to a lower risk of heart disease.

"It's an interesting finding and warrants further investigation," Melissa Prest, DCN, RDN, LDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell. "As discussed in the study, the specific nutrient composition of red meat may be a contributing factor to why there is a higher association with heart disease."

Certain foods containing saturated fat aren't unhealthy by default, especially if they have other nutrients, such as probiotics and Vitamin K2 in yogurt and cheese.

Preset said that she often recommends including probiotic-rich foods like plain-fat yogurt into one's diet because studies have suggested that probiotics may reduce total cholesterol levels.

Current USDA dietary guidelines advise to limit or replace sources of saturated fats. But they don't specify that some sources of saturated fats can be heart-healthy.

Nita Forouhi, MD, PhD, a professor of population health and nutrition at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine and a co-author of the study, told Verywell that the research was not intended to be used by the general public as a reason to change their current eating habits.

Instead, the researchers hoped this study would lead to discussions over the importance of entire food sources, not just specific nutrients.

"The human diet is highly complex and that saturated fat, the nutrient, should be considered alongside the different food sources that contain it, because whole foods are much more than the sum of their nutrient parts," Forouhi said.

Food Matrix and Health

Dietary guidelines traditionally focused on specific ingredients. Sugar, salt, and saturated fat, for example, are some nutrients that have been targeted. But recommendations are starting to acknowledge the importance of dietary patterns over specific items.

This new study added to the expanding research on how the "food matrix" might play an important role in understanding how diet impacts health.

"There is wider evidence that foods have different properties because of the rich mix of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which together make up what is called the food matrix," Forouhi said.

This means that some foods that are rich in saturated fat, like butter and red meat, have different health effects than other foods that are also high in saturated fat, such as yogurt.

Research on the food matrix is evolving and scientists are still learning how this may alter future recommendations.

Looking at how nutrients interact and how digestion can affect the food matrix may be key to understanding why certain saturated fat sources offer health benefits. When scientists study a single nutrient in a lab, it may look different from when that nutrient is interacting with other vitamins and minerals in the food matrix.

"We eat meals that include a variety of nutrients that work together for health benefits, so it is difficult to isolate specific nutrients for their individual benefit," Prest added. "The focus is on how we can make our plate more nutrient-dense and less processed for optimal health. This is why it is important to look at the overall diet pattern vs consuming more or less of any one specific food item."

Limitations of Observational Dietary Studies

Since the study was observational, researchers couldn't draw conclusions about the cause and effect between diet and health. However, conducting a randomized controlled dietary study is unrealistic since participants would have to stick to one type of diet over time.

"The study of cardiovascular nutrition is limited by the difficulty of performing adequate research," Jared M. O'Leary, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Verywell.

Like many other dietary studies, the new research relied on self-reported food intake. Participants might misremember or misrepresent what they ate so the result is not as reliable as prescribing a specific diet.

This study also only examined data from middle-aged people in nine European countries, which may not represent the global health pattern.

The Future of Heart Health Recommendations

As new evidence emerges about the food matrix, dietary guidelines may adapt to focus on the impact of different food sources on heart health.

"The future of cardiovascular nutrition is to tailor the dietary recommendations to individuals based on their specific risk profile and even genetic makeup," O'Leary said.

Currently, the American Heart Association suggests limiting saturated fat intake to 5-6% of one's daily calories. The guideline also recommends replacing saturated fats with "healthier" alternatives like opting for poultry without skin, or using liquid vegetable oils instead of tropical oils.

Besides fat intake and dietary habits, a myriad of lifestyle factors contributes to heart health.

"It's important to first get the big things right," O'Leary said. "By this I mean avoid smoking, avoid sugars and heavily processed carbohydrates, particularly if they're in a liquid form. If you choose to consume alcohol, do it in moderation. Exercise every day. And if you have medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, be sure these are being treated adequately by your doctor." 

What This Means For You

Current dietary guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat intake to promote heart health. Saturated fat is mainly found in animal fats, tropical oils, and dairy. However, new research shows that diet and health are highly individualized, and you could work with your doctor or dietitian to determine the best dietary pattern for you.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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