Rigorous look at causes
Debate about food and health is never-ending, as different diets, theories and speculation abound. The only way to test hypotheses is to study them rigorously.
The study of fats and health – in particular saturated fats – is currently much in the news as what-we-thought-we-knew is being challenged by recent research. A new collaborative study, known as the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition – Cardiovascular Disease (EPIC-CVD), aims to bring clarity to this debate.
Why do this study now? Because important questions need to be cleared up.
While nutrition is considered a cornerstone of reducing cardiovascular risk, the quantity and quality of various whole food and nutrient groups are still being debated. This is of particular relevance to fatty acids, with previously-held theories now being challenged.
The supposedly unfavourable role of total dietary saturated fatty acids, and the claimed beneficial role of omega-3 fatty acids on coronary heart disease (CHD) and cerebrovascular outcomes, have both been questioned by recent research. However, interpretation from dietary studies has been complicated by a number of problems:
In this respect, biomarkers (for example, circulating plasma fatty acids) may provide a more accurate assessment of consumption, instead of questionnaires.
Although several studies have examined the associations between circulating blood fatty acids and CHD risk – including one that my colleagues and I conducted and which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014 – they were importantly limited by some critical factors:
What does this mean in practice? It means we need to do further study – with more real people, in real-life situations – that is properly monitored. This is how we can help to resolve the existing scientific uncertainties around saturated fats.
This should be undertaken as a comprehensive assessment of the relationship between total and individual fatty acids with subsequent incident CHD risk in a large, free-living general population.