For years we heard about the dangers of saturated fat and how eating too much of it increases the risk of heart disease. We responded by carefully reading nutrition labels to see how many grams of saturated fat a food contained and reached for products emblazoned with the low-fat label. As it turns out, saturated fats may not be quite the villain we made them out to be and what we replaced them with may be worse.
Saturated Fats: How Bad Are They?
Saturated fats are fats you find in abundance in high-fat animal products such as fatty meats, cheese, lard, and butter. You can also find them in some plant-based products such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and chocolate. The bad news? A diet high in saturated fats increases LDL-cholesterol levels. LDL-cholesterol is the “bad” form of cholesterol that nestles against the walls of arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.
But not all LDL-cholesterol particles are created equal. There are small, dense LDL particles and large, less dense ones. The small, dense LDL particles are the ones most strongly linked with heart disease risk. A diet high in saturated fats primarily increases levels of the larger, less dense LDL particles, not the more dangerous small, dense ones.
That doesn’t mean you should overindulge in saturated fats. High levels of large LDL particles isn’t a good thing either. The real problem comes when you replace saturated fats with processed carbohydrates. When most Americans go low-fat, they increase the number of processed carbohydrates they eat, which is even more worrisome from a cardiovascular standpoint.
Are Processed Carbs Worse Than Saturated Fat?
A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 failed to find a link between diets high in saturated fat and heart disease. In contrast, another study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that overweight women who ate a diet rich in high-glycemic carbs were almost 80% more likely to develop heart disease than those who consumed the least. Replacing saturated fat with processed carbs doesn’t sound like a smart switch after all, does it?
How Processed Carbs Increase the Risk of Heart Disease
Eating processed, high-glycemic carbs causes elevations in another type of fat called triglycerides. When triglyceride levels go up in the blood, it increases levels of more dangerous small, dense LDL particles. Insulin spikes also trigger fat storage and can lead to insulin resistance, another risk factor for heart disease. Fat is not an inactive tissue. It produces inflammatory chemicals called adipokines that increase the risk of heart disease.
Not All Carbs Are Equal
The good news is this. Not all carbs raise triglyceride levels and cause insulin spikes. Low-glycemic carbs that come from whole foods like vegetables and nuts are a heart-healthy way to get carbs. That’s because they’re rich in fiber, which helps to reduce the insulin response. That makes them healthier for your heart and for your waistline. So if you’re concerned about heart disease, reduce the number of processed carbs in your diet, and get your carbs from fiber-rich foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and nuts. You’ll lower your risk of heart disease as well and trim your waistline as well.
The University of California Health. “Saturated Fat: Not So Bad?”
Scientific American. “Carbs Against Cardio”