For decades there’s been a war on saturated fat — and for good reason. While your body does need healthy fats for energy production and other functions, too much saturated fat can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke. But preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2021 found that eating a certain type of fat might actually lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
The fat in question is the kind you can find in plant sources and fish — vegetable fat and polyunsaturated fat.
The findings are based on a 27-year study of more than 117,000 health care professionals. The participants, who were about 50 years old on average, were asked to fill out food frequency questionnaires every four years to help calculate the amount, source, and types of fat they had in their diets over the past year.
The researchers then did calculations to help determine the participants’ long-term dietary intake and divided people into five groups based on how much fat they ate. But in addition to how much fat was being consumed, the study also focused on the different sources of fat in people’s diets, such as vegetable, dairy and non-dairy animal sources, and their potential impact on stroke risk.
During the study period, more than 6,000 participants had strokes. Of those people, those who ate the highest amount of non-dairy animal fat were 16 percent more likely to have a stroke than those who ate the least amount of non-dairy animal fat. Non-dairy animal fat is fat that comes from a source that is not dairy nor vegetable, such as meat and eggs.
But conversely, the study found that people who ate the most vegetable fat and the most polyunsaturated fat were actually 12 percent less likely to have a stroke than people who ate the least amounts of those fats.
Additionally, people who ate at least one serving of “total red meat” (which the researchers defined as beef, pork, or lamb as a main dish, in sandwiches, or mixed dishes) every day had an eight percent higher risk of stroke, and those who had a daily serving of processed red meat (such as bacon, sausage, bologna and hot dogs) had a 12 percent higher risk.
“Our findings indicate the type of fat and different food sources of fat are more important than the total amount of dietary fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease including stroke,” says Fenglei Wang, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the department of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
There is some good news for all the dairy lovers out there, though. Overall, the researchers found that fat in dairy foods such as cheese, butter, milk, cream, and yes, even ice cream, was not linked with a higher risk of stroke. Although, these foods should still be eaten in moderation for other health implications.
Why Vegetable Fats Decrease Stroke Risk
So what’s different from the fat in plants versus meat that makes it beneficial? Vegetables have more monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which have been found to help lower your levels of LDL cholesterol, raise the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol in your body, and maintain the overall health of your cells. Polyunsaturated fats are also essential for your body’s functions, including building cell membranes and blood clotting. As a result, it can decrease your stroke risk.
But your body can’t make polyunsaturated fats, so you have to get them from food.
Foods containing monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats include (but are not limited to):
- Olive oil, sesame oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil
- Peanut butter
- Nuts, including peanuts, cashews, pine nuts and walnuts
- Healthy spreads labeled “high oleic”
- Seeds, including sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
It is important to point out that the study was purely observational, meaning while there was a link between eating higher levels of animal fats and the risk of stroke, it doesn’t prove that eating these foods actually causes the risk to go up. However, based on these findings, researchers recommend that people reduce their intake of red and processed meat, trim fat from meat when they do consume it, and cook with non-tropical vegetable oils rather than lard or beef fat to reduce stroke risk.
A great way to do this is by following the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has been around since the 1950s when it was noted that heart disease was not as common in Mediterranean countries as it was in the United States. Since then, it has been considered one of the healthiest diets in the world, cutting processed foods and red meats and focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, healthy whole grains and, of course, extra-virgin olive oil.
An easy way to enjoy more vegetable fats in your diet is to sub out non-vegetable fats with vegetable fats in your cooking and baking. There’s no adjustment to measurements you have to make either. Another easy way is to make your own salad dressing, which can also top steamed vegetables. Whisk together equal parts olive oil and vinegar (white, red wine, rice wine or balsamic) in a jar. Add a good dollop of Dijon mustard to add a creamy element and drop or two of honey for a subtle sweetness and you’re ready to go, just be sure to stir the dressing again before using. If stored in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator, the dressing should keep for several months.
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