Are burgers and steaks just heart attacks on a plate? You may think so, but there isn't any agreement that animal fats harm arteries. Welcome to one of the most confusing debates going.Some in the medical and scientific communities swear the research record shows that saturated animal fats are implicated in heart disease and advocate avoiding them.
Others quote studies indicating that these kinds of fatty foods protect against heart disease. They point out that saturated fats don't go rancid the way polyunsaturated fats, found in canola, sunflower and safflower oil, do (rancid oils cause arterial damage). Saturated fats, they argue, were a valued and beneficial part of our ancestors' diets that helped them absorb more fat-soluble vitamins than we do.
These fats, too, they contend, don't increase cancer risk the way high polyunsaturate consumption does, and help keep cholesterol levels normal, important for hormonal health.
While agreement hasn't been reached, all sides concede that processed foods are disaster for the arteries. Margarine, an artificially hydrogenated oil, is one fat definitely proven bad for your circulation.
If you eat lots of boxed, canned and frozen food, refined carbs (white sugar, flour, rice), junk foods and anything containing hydrogenated fats (and their silent companion, trans fats), you're further courting disaster.
The old fresh veggies, fruits and whole grains and, according to some, minimally processed animal products will help preserve your health. The proviso here is that you should choose products from free-range animals raised without antibiotics and hormones.
If the thought of eating critters is unbearable but you want a healthy fat intake, your best choices, says the pro-saturated school of thought, are extra virgin olive oil, organic coconut butter, fresh ground flax seeds, avocados, fresh walnuts and high quality fish oils (if you do fish). Remember never to heat polyunsaturates (flax, walnuts and fish oil).
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"You can find a lot of papers that support this perspective (that animal fats are implicated in heart disease) and a lot that don't. Dietary cholesterol doesn't change internal cholesterol much. Saturated fat affects the rate at which the body clears cholesterol from the blood. With polyunsaturated fats, it's cleared faster. It's a good idea in general not to push cholesterol too low. Other things are equally as important to your health. You've got to exercise. If you don't like fish, the fish oil capsule is a good alternative way of getting some heart protection. Cod liver oil is crap -- don't take it. Polyunsaturates in omega-3 eggs are as effective as using fish oil capsules. Enjoy animal fat in moderation, but avoid the cheaper qualities."
STEPHEN CUNNANE, professor of nutritional science, U of T, specialist in dietary fats and health"In beef fat you have things like lindane, heptachlor (pesticides), DDT and DDT breakdown products. The federal government is finding toxic substances in our food, but it's not very effectively communicating that to the public. The principal benefit of eating organic is that the grower won't use growth-promoting drugs or hormones. If you look at hormone-free meat, it tends not to have any pesticide residues in our data."
SIMON NEUFELD, researcher, Environmental Defence Canada"Cholesterol is necessary for tissue repair. It's the world's best anti-inflammatory. There's more and more literature showing that low cholesterol is dangerous. A lot of people have too little LDL cholesterol in relation to their HDL. LDL delivers cholesterol to the tissues, HDL removes it. Saturated fat raises LDL, and for some people it is literally therapeutic. If people have elevated LDL, I won't be telling them to eat saturated fats. You have to monitor. It's the trans fatty acids (to which hydrogen is added) and rancid oils that are the problem in heart disease. You can't extract a polyunsaturate and not have it be rancid."
LYNNE AUGUST, MD, Newfane, Vermont
"In the diets of people who had no refrigerators, everything had to be dried or eaten fairly fresh. Much of it was eaten raw. The majority of their fat was animal fat. The vegetable fat they did eat was always raw. Regular oils (the ones we eat) go rancid through pressing. With the animal fats, we're pretty much eating a stable fat. They're not harmed nearly as much when you boil or cook them as vegetable fats are during processing. Our history shows that eliminating all animal protein is eliminating a food source that has proven essential for multi-generational health.'
DAVID GETOFF, BSc in nutrition, board certified clinical nutritionist, Jamul, California"Animal fats have been known since the 50s and 60s to be strongly related in many studies to heart disease. There's no question that replacement of saturated by polyunsaturated fats has also been related to reduced heart disease risk. Every dietary plan that I know of that has produced beneficial results has had as one of its strategies reduction of animal fats. That has gone along with increasing fruits and vegetables, possibly with exercise. In vegan diets, cholesterol levels drop dramatically. Low cholesterol may very well be a problem for a very few people. In our society, 3 to 4 per cent of increased mortality could be due to low cholesterol, and probably 40 per cent due to high."
DAVID JENKINS, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and nutritional sciences, Canada research chair in nutrition and metabolism at U of T and St. Michael's Hospital"If you look at various populations, you find that without elevation of LDL there isn't heart disease. But you don't become high-risk until you've got extremely high LDL or multiple risk factors, e.g., high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes. I don't think there's a need to be completely vegetarian and have no animal proteins, but recall that hunter populations were chasing their meat. They were very, very active. We have a different need, a different lifestyle now.'
PHIL CONNELLY, associate professor, department of medicine, U of T