Contrary to the common belief, a health expert say that trans-fats found in fast foods, bakery products and margarines pose more risks to the heart than saturated foods.tarale/Flickr

A diet high in saturated fat, like butter, cheese, fatty meat, cakes and cream, has long been known to pose high risks to the heart's health. Contrary to the common belief, a health expert say that trans-fats found in fast foods, bakery products and margarines pose more risks to the heart than saturated foods.

In an article published in the British Medical Journal, cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra questioned the popular notion and blamed it for exaggerating the effect of saturated food on the heart. Foods low in fat are normally high in sugar and high sugar foods pose greater risk to heart than the fats, he said.

"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," Dr Malhotra, interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University Hospital, in London, wrote. "Yet scientific evidence shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks."

Concerns about consuming fatty foods started in 1970 when researchers linked saturated fats with coronary heart disease. "But correlation is not causation," Dr. Malhotra added.

He cited some recent studies, which showed that saturated foods can be doing more good than harm to the heart.  Dairy products are rich in vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D deficiency has been known to increase the risk of heart disease, while the power of the minerals in lowering blood pressure is well established.

A study published in the Lancet in 1956 examined the role of different types of food on shedding excess weight. A comparison of foods rich in fat, protein and carbohydrates showed that following a diet high in fat benefitted people to get into shape. Research has shown that taking a low fat diet increased insulin resistance and lowered energy expenditure.  He said that instead of reducing the fat intake across the United States, there was a dramatic increase in the rates of obesity. 

The unnecessary concerns about the role of total cholesterol on coronary artery disease, cited by studies have led to an over prescription of statin. However, he said that many other methods, like following a Mediterranean diet, can be used to lower cardiovascular mortality than statins.

"With 60 million statin prescriptions a year, it is difficult to demonstrate any additional effect of statins on reduced cardiovascular mortality over the effects of the decline in smoking prevalence and primary angioplasty," he said. The trend is concerning as stain use has been associated with many side-effects like sleep disturbances, memory problems, erectile dysfunction and myalgia or muscle pain in users.

The article has already invited criticisms and support from health experts. "Studies on the link between diet and disease frequently produce conflicting results because, unlike drug trials, it's difficult to undertake a properly controlled, randomised study. However, people with highest cholesterol levels are at highest risk of a heart attack and it's clear that lowering cholesterol, by whatever means, lowers risk," Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, told NDTV. "Cholesterol levels can be influenced by many factors including diet, exercise and drugs, in particular statins. There is clear evidence that patients who have had a heart attack, or who are at high risk of having one, can benefit from taking a statin. But this needs to be combined with other essential measures, such as eating a balanced diet, not smoking and taking regular exercise."

Robert Lustig, paediatric endocrinologist at the University of San Francisco and author of Fat Chance, supporting Dr. Malhotra, told NDTV: "Food should confer wellness, not illness. Real food does just that, including saturated fat. But when saturated fat got mixed up with the high sugar added to processed food in the second half of the 20th century, it got a bad name. Which is worse, saturated fat or added sugar? The American Heart Association has weighed in - the sugar many times over. Plus added sugar causes all of the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome."