According to research carried out by the American Heart Association, replacing refined carbohydrates and saturated fats with vegetable oils could save 1 million lives per year.

[Heart-shaped earth]Share on Pinterest
New research plots the state of the world diet and its ramifications for global heart health.

The association between eating a diet high in saturated fats and heart disease is well documented.

The relationships between different types of fats and their consequences on health are a little more complex.

New research and analysis, carried out on a global scale, shows how changes in diet are necessary throughout the world if lives are to be saved.

In all, the team investigated diet and food availability information from 186 countries. They also reanalyzed and collated previous longitudinal studies looking at how specific fats impact heart disease.

For the first time, the global burden of heart disease has been measured in relation to the consumption of too many saturated fats compared with too little polyunsaturated fats.

Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, senior study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian explains the findings:

Worldwide, policymakers are focused on reducing saturated fats. Yet, 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 fats.”

Not all fats are necessarily evil; none should be eaten to excess, but the physiological profiles of saturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats are different and need to be treated in different ways.

It is important to remember that fats are essential for the body to function. Fats are not only used as an energy source for cellular and physical activity, they also influence the inflammatory response, mood and are vital for intercellular communication.

Polyunsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant-based foods and oils. Consuming these oils can actually improve cholesterol levels in the blood, decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. There is also evidence that polyunsaturated fats can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Polyunsaturated fats can be found in a myriad of foods, including soybean, sunflower oil, tofu, nuts, seeds and fatty fish (for instance, omega-6 oils).

[American Heart Association infographic about fats]
Image credit: American Heart Association

As one might imagine, a research project with such immense scope churned out a vast amount of information. Below are some of the most notable findings:

  • 10.3% of the total heart disease deaths (711,800 people) worldwide are attributed to eating too little polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated fats
  • 3.6% of the total heart disease deaths (250,900 people) were attributed to excess consumption of saturated fats. The marked difference between these two figures is believed to be thanks to the protective properties of polyunsaturated fats
  • 7.7% of the total heart disease deaths (537,200 people) were attributed to excess consumption of trans fats. These fats are found in baked and fried food as well as the cooking fat used in some countries
  • The highest rates of heart disease deaths due to low consumption of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats were found in countries of the former Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine.

As part of the analysis, the team compared data from 1990 and 2010 to chart any significant differences in mortality rates:

  • Deaths due to insufficient omega-6 oils dropped by 9%
  • Deaths due to high saturated fat consumption declined by 21%
  • Deaths due to high consumption of trans fats rose 4%.

In relation to the global trends in heart disease caused by diet, Dr. Mozaffarian said:

People think of trans fats as being only a rich country problem due to packaged and fast-food products. But, in middle- and low-income nations such as India and in the Middle East, there is wide use of inexpensive, partially hydrogenated cooking fats in the home and by street vendors.

Because of strong policies, trans fat-related deaths are going down in Western nations (although still remaining important in the United States and Canada), but in many low- and middle-income countries, trans fat-related deaths appear to be going up, making this a global problem.”

The authors hope that their findings will help nations develop and refine their dietary guidelines. The report may only be a small step toward global health, but it underlines the importance of looking at the available data before deciding on overarching policy.

Medical News Today recently covered research showing that saturated fats are too often replaced with unhealthy alternatives.