The risk from saturated fat in foods such as butter and fatty meat is overstated, according to the British cardiologist.
However, the Irish Heart Foundation has stressed that two thirds of all adults here eat more fat than their body needs for health, thereby increasing their risk of high cholesterol.
Fatty foods that have not been processed — such as butter, cheese, eggs and yoghurt — can even be good for the heart, and repeated advice that we should cut our fat intake may have actually increased risks of heart disease, said Dr Aseem Malhotra.
It is time to “bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease”, he writes in the British Medical Journal. Dr Malhotra, a cardiology registrar at Croydon University Hospital in London, says the “mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades”.
He advises: “if you have a choice between butter and margarine, have the butter every time”.
The HSE recommends that the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day and women no more than 20g. However, Dr Malhotra said that cutting sugar out of our diets should be a far greater priority.
“From the analysis of the independent evidence that I have done, saturated fat from non-processed food is not harmful and probably beneficial. Butter, cheese, yoghurt and eggs are generally healthy and not detrimental. The food industry has profited from the low-fat mantra for decades because foods that are marketed as low-fat are often loaded with sugar. We are now learning that added sugar in food is driving the obesity epidemic and the rise in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
He condemned the routine prescriptions of statins for high cholesterol and said that adopting a Mediterranean diet, largely based on vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, olive oil and fish, after a heart attack is almost three times as powerful in reducing mortality.
“Doctors need to embrace prevention as well as treatment. The greatest improvements in morbidity and mortality have been due not to personal responsibility but rather to public health,” he said.
“It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity.”
Commenting on Dr Malhotra’s article, Timothy Noakes, a professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said: “Focusing on an elevated blood cholesterol concentration as the exclusive cause of coronary heart disease is unquestionably the worst medical error of our time.”
The Irish Heart Foundation’s latest campaign, Fats of Life, is part of an national alert to Irish adults to cut their consumption of saturated and trans fat and reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.