Heart Month… and the saturated fat debate

You may or may not be aware that we’re in the middle of Heart Month. I’m not sure if it’s got anything to do with Valentine’s and the preponderance of heart shaped tat filling shop windows, but February is the chosen month for raising awareness of this most vital of organs. A quick google search suggests USA and Canada do it in February too. Who knows – maybe we copied them.

You don’t need me to tell you how important the heart is. Equally, I can’t imagine you need me to tell you that heart disease is, alongside cancer, the biggest cause of death and therefore the most significant of public health issues. So, it’s absolutely essential that we look after the ticker. The British Heart Foundation is really the place to go for further information, and they’ve produced some resources and 10 minute challenges etc devoted to this month of awareness, so do take a look.

Which brings me on nicely to the other thing I wanted to mention this week. The saturated fat debate refuses to die down, so I thought I really should say something about it in the blog. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the articles arising again in the past couple of weeks. As a dietitian, I’m obviously drawn to them anyway, but people also tend to send them my way to see what I make of it all.

Back in October 2013, a cardiologist by the name of Dr Aseem Malhotra questioned the validity of traditional advice to limit saturated fat intake, stating that evidence linking it with heart disease was mixed (despite then stating that a Mediterranean diet, low in saturated fat, is roughly three times as effective as taking a statin).

This received plenty of media attention then (leading to a flurry of idiotic ‘I told you so – we can eat whatever we like’ type articles), and the issue has cropped up again more recently, with contributors to the Open Heart Journal suggesting that advice to reduce saturated fat in the UK and US was based on flimsy evidence from the 1970s and 1980s, and that governments should have waited for better quality studies before reaching such important conclusions.

I must say, I have always been in the camp that reducing saturated fat intake is an important part of controlling or lowering blood cholesterol, but I am not stubborn enough to refuse to change my mind if strong enough studies come along to disprove this. Sadly, there are always likely to be limitations to collecting dietary data like this – and I plan to discuss why that is in next week’s blog.

But as I say, I am always interested in how these stories are picked up and reported by the media, and with this story, there has been the usual range of the good, the bad and the ugly.

First up, credit to this surprisingly balanced, if a little bland, piece by the BBC – read the article here.

Next was this article from Medpage, which was, again, initially balanced and informative, while also hinting at the issues surrounding clinical dietary studies. However, the article loses a bit of credibility from me by veering towards a hate campaign for carbohydrates at the end.

The worst that I have read (one of those aforementioned ‘I told you so’ pieces) was in the Evening Standard. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find the link, but it got me hot under the collar when it placed the blame of obesity and heart disease solely on carbohydrates. Presumably this was just a hunch of his – he certainly didn’t seem to be a scientist or nutrition professional.

Which brings me on to a nice summary by Catherine Collins from the British Dietetic Association. She presents the facts well, without being biased towards her profession. The thing which I thought most worthy of mention is her point that, if we’ve learned anything from this, surely we should move on from vilifying single nutrients, and instead look at foods and diets as a whole (the Mediterranean approach, for example).

I could not agree more with this. It is laughable that people jump on the bandwagon to say all that saturated fat stuff was nonsense, but then instantly launch an attack on the new trendy enemy – carbohydrates. It’s pathetic, lazy and hypocritical.

So, this post has been a little longer than usual, but I think it’s a topic well worth looking at.

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