According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, swapping out saturated fats (found in butter, full-fat milk, cheese, and meats) for an equivalent amount from polyunsaturated fats (often found in fatty fish and some vegetable oils), monounsaturated fats (found in avocados, and olive and peanut oils), or carbohydrates from whole grains was associated with a 25 percent, 15 percent, and nine percent lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, respectively.
Notably, there was no change in heart disease risk when people replaced the saturated fats in their diet with refined carbs and sugars. As a result, scientists concluded, refined carbs can be just as bad for your heart as saturated fat.
The new research comes just days after a report found that Americans are eating more full-fat products like whole milk and butter — both of which contain saturated fat.
“Contrary to some published studies and accompanying headlines of the last few years, saturated fat is not benign with respect to heart disease risk, and neither are refined carbs/sugars,” study co-author Adela Hruby, PhD, MPH, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Health.
Last year, a controversial study from Ohio State University published in the journal PLOS Onefound that doubling and tripling the amount of saturated fat in a person’s diet doesn’t increase the amount of saturated fat in the blood. That study’s researchers concluded that saturated fat isn’t as bad for you as previously thought.
But Hruby says the research only appears mixed because scientists have been comparing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates. “Since many, but not all studies have defaulted to this comparison, saturated fat looks like it’s not bad for you,” she explains.
While saturated fat and refined carbs are equally bad for you, they work against you in different ways, study co-author Eric Rimm, ScD, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition and the director of the Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Health.
Saturated fat increases your cholesterol and may even cause inflammation in your body, he says, but refined grains are associated with higher triglycerides (i.e. fat in your blood) and glucose levels, as well as bodily inflammation.
Luckily, registered dietitian-nutritionist Karen Ansel, co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month by Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life tells Yahoo Health that it’s easy enough to replace the saturated fats and refined carbs in your diet with more heart-healthy options. Simply aim to get more of your fat intake from mono and polyunsaturated fats, and focus on eating complex carbohydrates like whole grains.
Ansel stresses that it’s important to make healthy swaps, not to eat these fats in addition to the fat you’re already eating. “Trading olive or canola oil for butter in cooking, or spreading avocado or almond butter on your toast instead of butter would be a great swap,” she says.
And while it’s a good idea to minimize your saturated fat intake, you don’t need to get rid of all saturated fats. Instead, Ansel recommends limiting it to a maximum of 10 percent of your total calories.
It’s also not bad to eat bread or pasta, Rimm says, it’s simply better to choose options that are 100 percent whole grain.
Given the availability of whole grain products and healthy foods rich in mono and polyunsaturated fats, Hruby says that having a more heart healthy diet shouldn’t be painful. And, she notes, “We are not advocating for the removal of any food group from the diet.”