How Healthy Fat Could Save Your Life

Heart disease deaths worldwide linked to lacking polyunsaturated fat intake

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) After decades of fat-phobic diets, many people still believe that fat intake is what ultimately leads to obesity and related diseases. In reality, the right fats may actually save lives.

At least that's what researchers from Tufts University are saying. In a new study, these researchers suggest that eating healthier (polyunsaturated) fats could save up to a million people worldwide from dying of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats are naturally found in soybeans, tofu, nuts, corn and sunflower oil, and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and trout.

"Worldwide, policymakers are focused on reducing saturated fats," said lead study author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, in a press release. "We found there would be a much bigger impact on heart disease deaths if the priority was to increase the consumption of polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, as well as to reduce trans fat."

Dr. Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, said this study is the first to compare the effects of too much saturated fat and too little polyunsaturated fat on the global heart disease burden.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), polyunsaturated fats lower cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn lowers the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats, on the other hand, raise cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are found in meat, cheese, dairy products, palm and coconut oil.

To estimate the annual number of heart disease deaths worldwide, Dr. Mozaffarian and team looked at diet and food availability data from 186 countries.

Based on 2010 data, these researchers estimated that 711,800 heart disease deaths were caused by eating too little polyunsaturated fat as a replacement for saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. This number accounted for 10.3 percent of heart disease deaths worldwide. By comparison, an estimated 250,900 heart disease deaths were caused by eating too much saturated fat. This accounted for 3.6 percent of global deaths.

Refined carbohydrates are typically found in sugary foods and drinks, and are generally low in nutrition.

An estimated 537,200 heart disease deaths were caused by eating too much trans fat, accounting for 7.7 percent of heart disease deaths worldwide. Trans fats are found in processed, baked and fried foods.

Between 1990 and 2010, deaths due to both a lack of polyunsaturated fat and excess saturated fat dropped 9 and 21 percent, respectively. Deaths due to excess trans fat rose 4 percent during that time, however.

The study authors noted that, while trans fat consumption is on the decline in many Western countries, it still remains a health threat in low- and middle-income countries.

Ukraine had the highest amount of deaths tied to a lack of polyunsaturated fat, while tropical countries like Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and Malaysia had the highest amount of deaths linked to excess saturated fat.

"These findings should be of great interest to both the public and policy makers around the world, helping countries to set their nutrition priorities to combat the global epidemic of heart disease," Dr. Mozaffarian said.

This study was published Jan. 20 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 18, 2016
Last Updated:
January 21, 2016