A new study that defies conventional wisdom about the health effects of fat intake may soon have dieters asking, “Can you pass the butter, please?”
Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway found that male study participants who adhered to a “very high-fat” diet saw similar improvements in weight loss, heart health and other wellness benefits as fellow dieters who followed a more traditional, low-fat regimen.
“The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases,” said study author Ottar Nygard, a professor and cardiologist with the University of Bergen.
The results, which upturn traditional dieting guidance that largely centers around the avoidance of high-fat foods, showed additional health benefits, says the study that appeared in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
“Participants on the very-high-fat diet also had substantial improvements in several important cardiometabolic risk factors, such as ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids (triglycerides), insulin and blood sugar,” added Nygard.
For years, health agencies have cracked down on saturated fats, suggesting a strict limit of their consumption overall. The new study finds a more nuanced situation.
“These results indicate that most healthy people probably tolerate a high intake of saturated fat well, as long as the fat quality is good and total energy intake is not too high. It may even be healthy,” said Nygard.
Low Processed Foods May Be Key
The researchers divided 46 overweight men between the ages of 30 and 50 into two groups. Over a 12-week span, one group ate a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, while the other group consumed fewer fats and more carbohydrates. The researchers controlled total caloric intake to guarantee both groups consumed the same amount of energy during the trial.
The researchers surmise that the ultimate health effects depend on the type of fat a person consumes. “Our findings indicate that the overriding principle of a healthy diet is not the quantity of fat or carbohydrates, but the quality of the foods we eat,” said co-author Johnny Laupsa-Borge.
His colleague Vivian Veum explained further. “We here looked at effects of total and saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet rich in fresh, lowly processed and nutritious foods, including high amounts of vegetables and rice instead of flour-based products,” said Veum, a co-author. “The fat sources were also lowly processed, mainly butter, cream and cold-pressed oils.”
Other recent studies have shown that a diet full of “good fats” can be healthy for you. A recent analysis of studies about the Mediterranean diet, which is replete with good fats from olive oil, nuts and other sources, shows that eating a lot of healthy fat can reduce cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and diabetes.
The researchers from the University of Bergen suggest additional studies are needed. “Future studies should examine which people or patients may need to limit their intake of saturated fat,” said Simon Nitter Dankel, lead author of the study.
“But the alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated. It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based products, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar,” he added.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.