Cheese, please! Study finds saturated fats 'not so bad’

The controversial opinion is dismissed by two health advocacy charities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 2:58pm

Butter, cheese and even red meat are not as bad for the heart as has been maintained, a cardiologist has said in a leading medical journal, adding that it is time to “bust the myth”of saturated fat.

Aseem Malhotra, interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University hospital, London, also argues that statins have been over-prescribed because of the government’s obsession with lowering cholesterol in an attempt to reduce heart disease - and that the side-effects outweigh the benefits for millions of people who take them every day.

Trans-fats, found in many fast foods, bakery goods and margarine are indeed a problem, Malhotra writes in the British Medical Journal. But saturated fats in milk, cheese and meat are another matter.

The insistence that saturated fat must be removed from our diet has paradoxically, he says, increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. “Recent prospective cohort studies have not supported significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk,”he argues. “Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective."

He adds that it may depend on what sort of foods the saturated fat comes from. Dairy products contain vitamin D, a lack of which has been linked to increased heart disease, and calcium and phosphorus, which may have blood pressure lowering effects. Eating processed meat has been linked to higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, but not red meat.

He tells his patients that butter and cheese - though not processed cheese - are better for them than low-fat spreads. Rather than take statins, he said, people with cardiovascular risks should eat a Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fruit, vegetables, fish and nuts.

“In the UK eight million people take statins regularly, up from five million 10 years ago,”he writes. “With 60 million statin prescriptions a year, it is difficult to demonstrate any additional effect of statins on reduced cardiovascular mortality over the effects of the decline in smoking and primary angioplasty [a technique used by doctors to widen the arteries]."

In the original trials carried out by drug firms, only one in 10,000 patients given statins suffered a minor side-effect. But among 150,000 patients in a “real world”study - people who had been routinely given statins by their GP - 20% had side-effects that were so unacceptable to them that they stopped taking the pills.

Neither Public Health England nor the British Heart Foundation agreed with Malhotra’s argument. Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Studies on the link between diet and disease frequently produce conflicting results because, unlike drug trials, it’s difficult to undertake a properly controlled, randomised study. However, people with highest cholesterol levels are at highest risk of a heart attack and it’s clear that lowering cholesterol lowers risk."

But Malhotra got support from those who think sugar is a leading cause of obesity and heart disease. Robert Lustig, paediatric endocrinologist at the University of San Francisco and author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth about Sugar, said: “Which is worse, saturated fat or added sugar? The American Heart Association has weighed in - the sugar many times over."