Unsaturated Fats: The Mediterranean Savior?

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Unsaturated fats are often pushed as a replacement for the allegedly dangerous saturated fats that people consume.  There are two primary types of unsaturated fat, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats; they are named based on whether they have one or more double bonds.  A fat with only a single double bond is considered monounsaturated and a fat with multiple double bonds is considered polyunsaturated.  Here we are going to primarily focus on polyunsaturated fats, which are often pitched as a healthful alternative to saturated fats.  However, some scientists believe that consumption of polyunsaturated fats can actually increase the risk of cardiovascular heart disease, and the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than one tenth of your calories coming from this source (Mozaffarian, Micha and Wallace 2).

Unsaturated fats are common to foods such as olive oil and are often pointed to as one possible explanation as to the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in preventing cardiovascular disease.  The well known effect of this diet, even  holds for people who are at low risk of cardiovascular events.  This strengthens the case for proponents of this diet and for its healthfulness.  (Bo, Et. Al)

So now knowing that saturated fats are not as dangerous as commonly shown, we must now consider whether or not their replacement with unsaturated fats is advisable.  Especially if our goal is a reduction in cardiac events.  The conclusion of Mozzaffarian’s study strikes right at this question and concludes that the small possible benefit of the change in fat consumption shows that there are other more important factors that we need to prioritize (Mozaffarian, Micha and Wallace 8).  This analysis concludes that unsaturated fats are a better alternative to saturated fats, but also suggests that this transition cannot be the primary focus if our goal is to help eliminate cardiovascular heart disease.  This seems to counter the current dietary recommendations which recommend eating foods high in this fat, and using it to replace saturated fat (Mayo Clinic Staff).  By focusing on this negligible benefit that can be gained by changing the fat consumed, we suffer an opportunity cost; and are not able to lead people towards changes that will much more significantly impact their health. However do not be afraid to consume unsaturated fats, they can be a healthy component of a diet.

References:

Bo, S., Ponzo, V., Goitre, I., Fadda, M., Pezzana, A., Beccuti, G., & … Broglio, F. (2016). Predictive role of the Mediterranean diet on mortality in individuals at low cardiovascular risk: a 12-year follow-up population-based cohort study. Journal Of Translational Medicine, 141-10. doi:10.1186/s12967-016-0851-7

Mayo Clinic Staff. Dietary Fats: Know Which Types to Choose. 7 August 2014. Mayo Clinic. Web. Second April 2015.

Mozaffarian, Dariush, Renata Micha and Sarah Wallace. “Effects on Coronary Heart Disease of Increasing Polyunsaturated Fat in Place of Saturated Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” PLoS Medicine 7.3 (2010): 1-10. Web. 9 4 2015.

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