Eliminating saturated fats from your diet can be a heart-healthy choice, but what you replace them with may also be important.
Saturated fats, which are typically found in meat, dairy and palm oil, are fats that remain solid at room temperature. According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.
But a new study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that eliminating saturated fats might not be enough to prevent heart disease — if they're not replaced with the right foods.
"We found that when study participants consumed less saturated fats, they were replacing them with low-quality carbohydrates such as refined grains that are not beneficial to preventing heart disease," said lead study author Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at T. H. Chan, in a press release.
For this study, Dr. Hu and team used data from the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study to look at 84,628 women and 42,908 men without heart problems or type 2 diabetes. These patients provided data on diet, lifestyle and medical history every two to four years for two to three decades.
Among these patients, there were 7,667 cases of heart disease.
Those who eliminated saturated fats from their diets often replaced them with low-quality carbohydrates like white bread, pastries and potatoes. According to these researchers, these carbs can raise blood sugar and lead to type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, among other conditions.
However, those who replaced as little as 5 percent of saturated fats with unsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates decreased their heart disease risk from 25 to 9 percent.
Sources of unsaturated fats include oils that are liquid at room temperature, nuts, olives and avocados. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, whole grain bread and legumes.
This study was published Sept. 28 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The National Institutes of Health funded this research.
Dr. Hu previously worked with the Hass Avocado Board and received a grant from Metagenics and the California Walnut Commission.