by Sarah Knapton
Saturated fat does not increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes or early death, a study has shown
Saturated fat found in butter, meat or cream is unlikely to kill you, but margarine just might, new research suggests.
Although traditionally dieticians have advised people to cut down on animal fats, the biggest ever study has shown that it does not increase the risk of stroke, heart disease or diabetes.
However trans-fats, found in processed foods like margarine raises the risk of death by 34 per cent.
“For years everyone has been advised to cut out fats,” said study lead author Doctor Russell de Souza, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, at McMaster University in Canada.
“Trans fats have no health benefits and pose a significant risk for heart disease, but the case for saturated fat is less clear.
“That said, we aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health.”
Saturated fats come mainly from animal products, such as butter, cows’ milk, meat, salmon and egg yolks, and some plant products such as chocolate and palm oils.
In contrast Trans unsaturated fats or trans fats – are mainly produced industrially from plant oils for use in margarine, snack foods and packaged baked goods.
Guidelines currently recommend that saturated fats are limited to less than 10 per cent, and trans fats to less than one per cent of energy, to reduce risk of heart disease and stroke.
However the new research which looked at 50 studies involving more than one million people found there was no evidence that saturated fat was bad for health.
It backs up recent research from the University of Cambridge that found saturated fat in dairy foods might protect against diabetes.
Last year leading heart scientist Dr James DiNicolantonio of Ithica College, New York, called for health guidelines on saturated fats to be changed in an article in the British Medical Journal.
The “vilification” of saturated fats dates back to the 1950s when research suggested a link between high dietary saturated fat intake and deaths from heart disease.
But the study author drew his conclusions on data from six countries, choosing to ignore the data from a further 16, which did not fit with his hypothesis, and which subsequent analysis of all 22 countries’ data.
Nevertheless the research stuck and since the 1970s most public health organisations have advised people to cut down on fat.
However the new research found no clear association between higher intake of saturated fats and death for any reason, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, ischemic stroke or type 2 diabetes.
In contrast, consumption of industrial trans fats was associated with a 34 per cent increase in death, a 28 per cent increased risk of death from coronary heart disease, and a 21 per cent increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Despite the research British health experts cautioned against changing to a diet which was high in saturated fat.
Prof Tom Sanders, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, King’s College London, said: “It would be foolish to interpret these findings to suggest that it is OK to eat lots of fatty meat, lashings of cream and oodles of butter.
“Death rates from CVD have fallen in the UK by about 55 per cent since 1997 despite the rise in obesity for reasons that remain uncertain but this may in part be due to changes in the food supply particularly fewer trans and more omega-3 fatty acids.”
Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietitian, British Heart Foundation, added: “While saturated fats were not robustly associated with total or deaths from CHD, this does not mean we should all go back to eating butter – the studies that this review is based on can’t show cause and effect.
“Rather, it highlights how difficult it is to understand the true relationship between diet and our health.
“Diets high in saturated fat are linked to raised cholesterol levels, a risk factor for CHD. But when one nutrient is reduced it will be replaced by another and, depending on what this is, it can have positive or negative health consequences.”
The research was published in the British Medical Journal.