Public Release: 

Butter is not back: Limiting saturated fat still best for heart health

Harvard School of Public Health

Boston, MA -- People who replace saturated fat (mainly found in meats and dairy foods) in their diets with refined carbohydrates do not lower their risk of heart disease, according to a new study led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. On the other hand, those who replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils and nuts) or whole grains lower their heart disease risk.

Many people fall back on carbs, especially refined carbs like white bread, when they reduce saturated fat in their diets, said senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology. This may in part explain findings from a controversial 2014 paper that called into question recommendations for limiting saturated fat for heart health, and led to headlines promoting the return of butter.

"Our research does not exonerate saturated fat," said Hu. "In terms of heart disease risk, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates appear to be similarly unhealthful."

The study appears online September 28, 2015 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

This is the first prospective analysis to directly compare saturated fat with other types of fats and different types of carbohydrates in relation to heart disease risk.

Hu and colleagues looked at diet and health information from participants in two long-running trials, the Nurses' Health Study (84,628 women) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (42,908 men), who were free of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer at baseline. Diet was assessed by food frequency questionnaires every four years. During follow-up, the researchers documented 7,667 cases of coronary heart disease (CHD).

They estimated that replacing 5% of energy intake from saturated fats with equivalent energy intake from either polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or carbohydrates from whole grains was associated with 25%, 15%, and 9% lower risk of CHD, respectively. On the other hand, swapping 5% of saturated fat calories for the same amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars was not associated with CHD risk. These analyses took into account cardiovascular risk factors such as age, body mass index, smoking, and physical activity.

"Our findings suggest that the low-fat, high-carb trends of the 1980s and 1990s are not effective in reducing risk of CHD," said Yanping Li, co-first author along with Adela Hruby, both researchers in the Department of Nutrition. "It means that individuals should not replace saturated fat with refined carbs or vice versa. Dietary recommendations to reduce saturated fats should specify their replacement with unsaturated fats or with healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains," said Li.

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Other Harvard Chan School authors of the study included Sylvia Ley, Dong Wang, Stephanie Chiuve, Laura Sampson, Eric Rimm, and Walter Willett.

The study cohorts were supported by grants of UM1 CA186107, R01 HL034594, R01 HL35464, R01 HL60712 and UM1 CA167552 from the National Institutes of Health.

"Saturated fat as compared to unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: A prospective cohort study," Yanping Li, Adela Hruby, Adam M. Bernstein, Sylvia H. Ley, Dong D. Wang, Stephanie E. Chiuve, Laura Sampson, Kathryn M. Rexrode, Eric B. Rimm, Walter C. Willett, Frank B. Hu, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, online September 28, 2015, doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2015.07.055

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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people's lives--not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America's oldest professional training program in public health.

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