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The People’s Pharmacy: Changing views on saturated fat

How many studies will it take before doctors and nutrition experts change their minds about saturated fat? For the past 50 years, Americans have been told that eating “sat fat” was the quickest way to heart disease. But new evidence suggests that advice was flawed.

A recent study in the BMJ (online, Aug. 12, 2015) is just the latest of many suggesting that saturated fat is not a dietary demon. A statistical analysis of 12 studies including up to 339,000 participants found no connection between saturated fat in people’s diets and their likelihood of dying during the study, developing heart disease, suffering a stroke or being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

Trans fats from hydrogenated vegetable oils, on the other hand, were linked to heart disease and cardiovascular deaths. This is not encouraging news, because for more than half a century we’ve been urged to switch from butter for our bread and cream for our coffee (high in saturated fats) to margarine and nondairy creamers (containing trans fats).

How could the nutrition establishment get it so wrong? Part of the problem is that saturated fat looks nasty at room temperature. If you’ve ever cooked a lamb chop in a skillet and then allowed the fat to congeal, it is easy to imagine that hardened fat collecting on the walls of your arteries.

Despite the graphic image, that’s not what happens. Your body is surprisingly good at processing saturated fat. It does not handle industrial trans fats well, however.

Although there are many studies showing that saturated fat does not appear associated with heart disease or early demise, old ideas die hard. People are still being advised to stay away from sat fat. Just look at the yogurt or milk aisle in the supermarket. Most of the products are nonfat, low-fat or reduced fat.

In an earlier meta-analysis of 72 studies, scientists found no link between saturated fat on the plate and the likelihood of a heart attack (Annals of Internal Medicine, March 18, 2014). In fact, a blood-fat marker for dairy-fat consumption was inversely linked to a possible risk of heart disease. This finding suggests that fats from milk and dairy products might be protective rather than harmful.

When people decide they need to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diets, they usually replace the fat calories with something else. Switching to trans fats is counterproductive. What about adding more calories from carbohydrates?

An experiment compared the effects of a diet containing cheese, a diet with same amount of calories from meat and a low-fat nondairy diet high in carbohydrates (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition online, July 15, 2015).

Anyone who would like guidance on how to lower LDL cholesterol with diet may be interested in our book “Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy.” The book is available at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

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Q. At 46, I’m approaching the time to decide how to treat my menopause. I know that hormone replacement is the usual recommendation, but I have read about the negative consequences of HRT.

I would like to know more about natural treatments for the loss of hormones. In a nutshell, what is your advice for someone who wants to use a holistic medicinal approach to treating menopause?

A. Certain herbal medicines may well be helpful. A German study found a standardized black cohosh extract helpful against hot flashes in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine online, Dec. 23, 2012).

Pycnogenol, a product derived from maritime pine bark, also has been studied and found beneficial for sleep problems as well as hot flashes (Journal of Reproductive Medicine, January-February 2013).

We are sending you our Guide to Menopause, with more information about these and other nondrug approaches to controlling menopausal symptoms. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (66 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. W-50, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 from our website: www.peoplespharmacy.com.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website: peoplespharmacy.com.