For many, the mere mention of “saturated fats” is enough to trigger any number of warning bells with “heart disease” likely topping the list of concerns.
But while traditional dietary beliefs warn of the harmful effects of food high in saturated fats, experts say the situation may not be as simple as that.
Fried food, butter, dairy products, tropical oils, fatty cuts of meat and poultry are the usual suspects and strict no-nos for those concerned about their health.
But as with many things in life, fats can be healthy as well as unhealthy.
Trans fats, for instance, are to be avoided at all costs. According to the American Heart Association, “Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.”
Saturated fats, on the other hand, have no direct link to heart disease. A meta-analysis by Harvard University which reviewed 21 studies on saturated fats and heart disease concluded that there is no convincing evidence of any role by saturated fats in the matter.
Dr Rosnah Ramly, a public health physician and sector head at the health ministry, helps break down the technical aspect of the issue.
“The idea that saturated fats are linked to heart disease is based on the premise that saturated fats increase total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol – bad cholesterol – which are risk factors for heart disease,” she told MalaysiaNow.
However, she added that several studies investigating the direct effect of saturated fat intake and heart disease have yielded conflicting results.
“This suggests that the relationship between saturated fats, blood cholesterol, and heart disease is not as straightforward as it appears,” she said.
“We cannot assume that a nutrient is bad just because of its effect on one parameter.”
From the frying pan into the fire
There is also the problem of what has arisen from the so-called “healthy shift” away from saturated fats.
“This suggests that the relationship between saturated fats, blood cholesterol, and heart disease is not as straightforward as it appears.”
In an effort to reduce the fat content in food and meet health requirements, companies began processing their food products heavily in factories. But along with the fat went much of the flavour, forcing companies to add sugar and other additives in order to rectify the situation.
This means that a lot of packaged food comes with added sugar, making it high in calories and lacking in essential nutrients.
In a nutshell, the obsession with keeping a low-fat diet causes many to ingest more sugar and refined carbohydrates than ever before. This in turn has led to an increase in Type 2 diabetes or T2D over the years.
A study published in the Annals of Global Health in 2015 titled “Diabetes Care in Malaysia: Problems, New Models, and Solutions” revealed that T2D had hit 20.8% in adults above the age of 30, affecting 2.8 million people in the country.
But this does not mean that people should then U-turn back to saturated fats which, while perhaps unrelated to heart disease, are not particularly healthy and should be generally excluded from diets.
Cardiologist Dr Wong Teck Wee advocates switching entirely to whole foods and healthier fats.
Wong, who is president of the Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society, told MalaysiaNow that oils are not typically considered good for heart health while saturated fats should be taken sparingly as well.
The key, according to him, is balance.
“If you enjoy food that is high in saturated fats, consider taking in more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which can be found in flax seeds and chia seeds, among others.”
To reverse blockages in blood vessels, meanwhile, he recommends a whole-food, plant-based diet that is high in fibre and complex carbohydrates.
For Rosnah, it is also important to raise public awareness on the issue.
“We need to start educating the public on the food-based recommendation instead of the conventional single-nutrient approach as the public consumes foods and not nutrients,” she said.
“This will help them understand which foods and how much should be consumed.”