A massive new study from Harvard has added another large piece of evidence to the question of what type of fats humans should be eating. And, once again, the answer is to eat unsaturated fats and to avoid both saturated fats from meat and dairy and transfatty acids. . . .

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Heath, this “study is the most detailed and powerful examination to date on how dietary fats impact health.” The study included 83,349 women and 42,884 men who were free from cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes at the beginning of the study. It followed the women for 32 years and the men for 26 years. The researchers wanted to determine what effect different types of fats would have on overall mortality and on death from specific causes.

When they looked at specific types of fat, they found that the risk of overall mortality—that is, the risk of dying from any cause over the course of the study—went up by 8% in the people who had the most saturated fat (like meat, butter and lard) in their diet. On the other hand, people who got the most polyunsaturated fat in their diets (that is, the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids) had their risk go down by 19%. The risk went down by 11% for people who got the most monounsaturated fat (like the fats found in olive oil). The risk of overall mortality went up by 13% for those who got the most trans fats (or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils).

The results were the same for specific causes of death. Risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and respiratory disease were all lower for people who ate unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats.

How effective is switching fats? The researchers found that just replacing 5% of energy from saturated fats with the equivalent amount of energy from polyunsaturated fats was associated with a whopping 27% reduction in risk of overall mortality. Replacing the same amount of saturated fat with monounsaturated fat reduced the risk of overall mortality by 13%.

The researchers conclude that their findings support the recommendation to replace saturated fats from animal sources and transfatty acids with unsaturated fats. The senior author of the study, Frank Hu, says that their study “shows the importance of eliminating trans fat and replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, including both omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Co-researcher Dong Wang says that this can be accomplished, for example, by cutting back on red meat and replacing it with fish, nuts and seeds and replacing butter with vegetable oils like olive oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

JAMA Intern Med 2016;doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.2417

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