Saturated fat's not always the enemy, but it's not your bestie either

Cutting saturated fat out of your diet won't reduce your risk of heart disease, according to an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, but an Ottawa dietitian says that doesn't mean it's time to fill your grocery cart with butter.

Editorial calls belief that saturated fat clogs arteries 'just plain wrong'

Cutting foods with saturated fat, such as butter, doesn't reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. (mcfields/iStock)

Cutting saturated fat out of your diet won't reduce your risk of heart disease, according to an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, but an Ottawa dietitian says that doesn't mean it's time to fill your grocery cart with butter.

A group of cardiologists say the belief that saturated fat in foods such as butter, cheese and meat clogs arteries is "just plain wrong," and instead recommend shifting toward a Mediterranean-style diet — with exercise — for a healthier lifestyle. 

"One thing that's very clear when you look at the totality of the evidence: saturated fat does not clog the heart arteries. And sadly, for many years — for decades, in fact — this has been the primary focus of treatment of heart disease and public health advice," British cardiologist Aseem Malhotra told CBC News. 

But Kathleen Turner, a registered dietitian with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, recommends a more balanced approach to managing the intake of fat. 

"Despite this new medical journal [findings] … I think we need to be careful not to take it to the other extreme and say, 'Great, now we can have bacon every day and cheese every day and hamburgers every day,' Turner told CBC Radio's All in a Day

"There's probably an in-between spot to land there."

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The recurring trend of eliminating a specific element such as sugar, saturated fat or gluten from one's diet is the wrong approach, she said. 

"Yes, you could probably have more saturated fat, but it's more about the foods that you find that saturated fat in. Instead of thinking about just saturated fat, you have to think big picture," Turner said.

"Red meat, for example, has a lot of saturated fat in it. But we know whether it's saturated fat or not, eating a lot of red meat increases your risk of heart disease and cancer."

Turner said people who regularly eat foods that are high in saturated fat should consider choosing a low-fat variety, such as one or two per cent milk. Foods such as milk and butter that have a high saturated fat content are OK if they're consumed less frequently. she said. 

Unsaturated fat healthiest

The healthiest kind of fat to look for on the nutrition label is unsaturated fat, which is usually plant-based, such as canola oil. At the other end of the spectrum are trans fats, which should be avoided entirely. 

Turner said the most important thing to keep in mind when managing your nutrition is that fat is just one piece of the health picture.

"There's no one perfect diet and there's some things that work for other people and some things that don't work. The big pieces when it comes to heart-healthy eating and eating well in general is, number one: cook at home more often, to eat at the table when you can, to eat lots of vegetables and fruit," she said. We would suggest whole grains if you're including them, less red meat, more chicken, more fish," she said.

"You can make that work and call it whatever you want."