Canadians should pay attention to the overall quality of their diet instead of just focusing on saturated fats or other individual nutrients, the Heart and Stroke Foundation now recommends.
Saturated fat intake increases LDL-cholesterol in the blood and high LDL-cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. New evidence around saturated fat intake and its effects on cardiovascular health continues to emerge. But experts are coming to agreement that Canadians should pay attention to the kinds of foods they are eating and their overall diet rather than focussing only on one nutrient at a time.
“Our message to Canadians about how we should deal with saturated fat is a departure, as it does not speak directly to saturated fat but instead takes a whole diet approach,” says David Sculthorpe, CEO, Heart and Stroke Foundation. “We are urging Canadians to go back to basics by cooking from scratch at home as often as possible, using whole ingredients, paying attention to portion size, and staying away from highly processed foods. By following this advice saturated fat should not be an issue.”
It is a matter of both quality and quantity. Saturated fat is found in animal products such as meat, fish/fish oils, eggs, and dairy products and some plant-based and vegetable oils. Canadians can be comfortable eating these foods in appropriate portions as they are loaded with nutrients. It is the saturated fat found in fried and highly processed foods that is of concern.
Research suggests it is not just the fat itself, but the type of food the fat is found in that can be harmful to health. Highly processed foods are a major source of saturated fat and they are also often loaded with calories, sodium, sugar and trans fats.
The Foundation recommends that Canadians eat a healthy, balanced diet that consists of a variety of natural/whole and minimally processed foods. This means consuming more vegetables and fruit; a variety of protein sources, including lower fat dairy and alternatives, and lean meat, poultry and fish; and whole grains. It also means avoiding highly processed foods.
Over the past several decades Canadians have been spending more of their grocery dollars on processed foods, and less on natural/whole foods. Canadians have also been urged to cut back on fat and have been bombarded with “low fat” marketing messages. However, “low fat” products are not necessarily healthy and are often high in calories, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and sodium.
“Our eating habits have changed — and not for the better. We need to move away from convenience items and marketing messages,” says Sculthorpe. “If we focus on whole, natural, healthy foods we will also reduce the amount of unhealthy fats, sugar and sodium we consume.”
The position statement includes recommendations for Canadians, all levels of government, regional health authorities, workplaces, schools, food industry, researchers, and health professionals and institutions.
The Foundation developed the position statement with input from a panel of national and international experts.
Up to 80 per cent of early heart disease and stroke can be prevented by adopting healthy behaviours including eating a healthy diet. Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in Canada, responsible for 27 per cent of all deaths.