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High cholesterol: Does reducing the amount of fat in your diet help?

Last Update: September 7, 2017; Next update: 2020.

Reducing the amount of saturated fats in your diet could somewhat lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal food products.

What is a healthy diet? Even experts have very different opinions on this matter. And there is very little high-quality research on the effects of diets. Only a few have been studied properly. This means that much of the current nutritional advice is not based on sound scientific research.

Opinions about dietary fats differ too: Some experts advise people to reduce the total amount of fat in their diet, whereas others believe it is more important to avoid specific types of fats. Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration, an international research network, looked into the effects of dietary fats on cardiovascular diseases.

Two types of fats

There are two main different types of fats in our diets, called saturated and unsaturated fats. Larger amounts of saturated fats are considered to be bad for your heart and blood vessels. These fats increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood.

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal food products, especially in

  • meat (mainly fatty meats like pork),
  • butter and lard,
  • cheese (particularly hard cheeses) and
  • cream and related food products, such as sour cream.

Unsaturated fats are mainly found in fatty fish and vegetable fats and plant-based foods, including

  • salmon, tuna and mackerel,
  • vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil or olive oil,
  • nuts and seeds, and
  • avocados.

Research on dietary fats

The researchers analyzed the results of 48 randomized controlled trials involving more than 65,000 participants. They compared two different approaches to eating fats. In some studies, the participants were asked to reduce the overall amount of fat in their diet, and in other studies they were asked to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats as much as possible.

One of the main differences between the studies was that they used different interventions to help the participants change their diets. In some studies, people had nutrition and cooking classes, were given shopping tips or took part in practical exercises. But in many studies the participants were also provided with certain foods – for example, they bought their foods in special shops or were given free products such as margarine spreads or oils. These differences make it quite difficult to compare the results of the individual studies.

What they found

Overall, the studies suggest that reducing the amount of saturated fats in your diet lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. Here it probably doesn’t make a difference whether you reduce the overall amount of fat in your diet or try to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Expressed in numbers, when the researchers analyzed the results of all of the studies together, this is what they found:

In other words, interventions that help people to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their diet prevented cardiovascular disease in 5 out of 1,000 people.

But this difference was only seen in studies that lasted longer than two years. So people probably have to change their diet permanently if they want to make a positive difference to their health.

The overall results of the analysis can only provide a rough indication of the effect of changing your diet, though, because the results of the individual studies varied greatly. Many different factors can influence how successful dietary changes will be. For example, men might benefit more from changing their diet because they have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease to begin with.

Sources

  • Hooper L, Martin N, Abdelhamid A, Davey Smith G. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015; (6): CD011737. [PubMed: 26068959]
  • Hooper L, Summerbell CD, Thompson R, Sills D, Roberts FG, Moore HJ et al. Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012; (5): CD002137. [PubMed: 22592684]
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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