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New research challenges old wisdom on saturated fat

March 18, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
For decades we have been warned of the artery-clogging dangers of saturated fat, found mainly in meat and dairy products. However, a new analysis of more than 70 studies published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine finds that saturated fat doesn’t necessarily lead to worse heart health. Judy Woodruff discusses the research with chef Cathal Armstrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: People have been warned for years about the dangers of eating too many saturated fats and the risks they pose for heart disease.

But a new analysis of more than 70 studies finds that saturated fats do not necessarily lead to greater problems with heart health. The research, published in “The Annals of Internal Medicine,” also found no real benefit from taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements, like fish oil.

Cathal Armstrong is a chef and co-owner of the restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. He’s long been focused on these issues in his work and in cooking, and he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

CATHAL ARMSTRONG, Chef/Restauranteur: Thanks for having me. Alright.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a medical study. And, you know, we might normally talk to a scientist, but we want to talk to somebody who works with food, thinks about food issues every day.

So, first of all, were you surprised that the result was that saturated fats may not necessarily be bad for your heart?

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: No, I wasn’t surprised at all.

I mean, we have known for years that animal fats are actually good for you. And, you know, being involved in the food industry and what we do, it always boggles my mind when you hear these people come up with this idea that this area of food is bad for you or this area of food is bad for you, you shouldn’t be eating carbs, you shouldn’t be eating fats, you shouldn’t be eating this.

And to brush things with broad strokes like that generally is not going to be accurate. Food is a much more complicated, much more complex thing than that. And a perfect example of it is orange juice. For years, everybody was telling you that they should drink orange juice. And then, all of a sudden, it turns out that orange juice is nothing but sugar.

Because the complexity of the orange, we’re missing out on the benefits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, part of what they saw in their research is that they looked at cholesterol, which saturated fat creates, but they found that there are different kinds of cholesterol, and that not all the cholesterol — it’s not just high density and the low density — but there are even more levels of cholesterol than that.


And we — that’s another good example where people have said that cholesterol, high cholesterol is bad for you. Cholesterol is actually a requirement of the body. We know we need cholesterol to absorb food properly. And to say that cholesterol is a bad thing isn’t — misleads people.

And I think, you know, very often, people have a tendency to latch on to that word and then get misguided. The cholesterol that’s in butter is very healthy for you. But we thought for years that cholesterol is bad, so we shouldn’t eat any butter? That’s false.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you, as somebody who works with food every day, think about cholesterol and different kinds of cholesterol in the food you cook?


And there’s a great food, the Jamon Iberico, which comes from Spain, which is this very, very fatty ham that is fed this all-acorn diet, which actually lowers LDL and raises HDL. So it would make sense that the more of this ham that you eat, the better off you are going to be, but that’s not true either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, they did find — Cathal Armstrong, they did find another culprit. And that was sugar. They talked about high-carbohydrate foods. And I know you have had an interest in those.

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: Yes. We have been involved with the school lunch program and the Let’s Move campaign and the Chefs Move to Schools.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House campaign.

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: Through the White House, which I think is a really important campaign and great leadership.

I’m convinced — and watching it from the sidelines, from a non-scientific perspective, I think it’s fairly easy to see that sugar is definitely the cause of all this problem that we’re having with health care in our country.

We look at obesity, we look at diabetes, there are grocery stores that claim to be healthy grocery stores, but I defy anybody to go in there and spend less than 10 minutes finding a loaf of bread that doesn’t have some kind of a sweetener in it.

But bread doesn’t have sugar in it of any kind. The classic recipes for baguette and ciabatta, there’s no sugar in those recipes. So even substituting agave nectar or honey isn’t a real solution there, because that’s just another sweetener, which is adding to the poor health in the — of our people.

The main thing here is not to suggest that sugar is bad. It’s too much sugar. And we have sugar in everything. It’s in beer. It’s in soda. It’s in ketchup. It’s in every food that’s on every shelf in every grocery store.


CATHAL ARMSTRONG: And there is just too much of it in our diet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there’s some pushback to the findings. We saw — I saw a quote today from a scientist who works with the American Heart Association who said it would be unfortunate if these results were interpreted to suggest that people can go back to eating butter and cheese with abandon.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And that sounds like what you’re saying.

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: That’s absolutely right.

And what I always recommend is a balanced diet. I think it’s great that we have come to the realization that saturated fat is not bad for you. But too much saturated fat is certainly going to be bad for you. And we need balance in our diets.

You know, animal protein is the only natural source for vitamin B-16, which your body needs, but not too much of it. And I think the main thing that people should really to return to is what our grandparents ate. And eat food that’s in season in your locale. That’s how you’re going to do best. That’s how people evolved is to eat what was in our local locality when it was in season. So, right now, you should be eating root vegetables.

And, in the summer months, we should eat all the tomatoes we can find in this area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they have done this massive study. They have studied 70 or 80 other studies and they have come back — basically, you’re saying they have come back to ground principle, which is…

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: Come back to what grandma ate.


CATHAL ARMSTRONG: I lost 53 pounds. And people come up to me and say, oh my goodness, how did you do that?  And it’s very simple. Diet and exercise. Eat a balanced diet and get a good hour of exercise a day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that — you took a look at this study today.

Is that the bottom line, what people should do?

CATHAL ARMSTRONG: That is the bottom line of this study.

And they even say it in the study. If you want to live a healthy lifestyle, you need a balanced diet and you need to exercise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cathal Armstrong, we thank you very much.