Nutrition researcher Professor Manohar Garg, from the University of Newcastle in Australia, is among a group of international experts who have questioned World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on reducing saturated fat consumption to curb chronic disease.
In a paper published in the British Medical Journal, they argued that the recommendations could reduce intake of important foods containing essential nutrients.
Professor Garg, Director of Nutraceuticals Research Program at the UON and a member of HMRI’s Cardiovascular Program, claimed the draft guidelines were primarily based on a single systematic review and didn’t consider key research findings on food structure made over the past decade.
“We’ve done a lot of work in Newcastle to show that saturated fats aren’t just saturated fats,” Professor Garg said. “There are different types of saturated fats, with different chemical compositions, that may have minimal impact on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, for example.
“In some cases, saturated fats are strongly bonded with proteins, carbohydrates or minerals and they’re digested slowly and absorbed slowly. They don’t raise cholesterol and therefore aren’t harmful to the body.
“So, having a recommendation based on total saturated fat intake is inappropriate. For instance, if we avoid foods like eggs, dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt, coconut, meat and dark chocolate, then we’re going to miss out on essential nutrients that could potentially lead to malnutrition.”
Lead author Professor Arne Astrup, from the University of Copenhagen, pointed to other studies that show why a broader view of biomarkers of cardiovascular disease were needed to inform guidelines.
“We think that recommendations to reduce intake of total saturated fat without considering specific fatty acids and food sources are not based on evidence and will distract from other, more effective recommendations,” he said.
“It might have the unintended consequence of misleading governments, consumers, and industry towards promoting foods low in saturated fat but rich in refined starch and sugar. We strongly recommend a more food-based translation of how to achieve a healthy diet.”
WHO published the guidelines for consultation in May 2018. They recommend reducing intake of saturated fatty acids (found in foods such as hard cheese, whole milk and butter) and replacing it with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids (found in oily fish, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds) to reduce rates of chronic disease and related deaths.
* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.