Saturated fat has been viewed as a major cause of heart disease. And while this is still true, it appears that our focus on demonizing saturated fats may have been at least partially misdirected.

Instead of targeting the reduction of saturated fat in our diets, we would do better to emphasize the value of increasing the intake of healthier fats, new evidence shows. These fats could have a bigger impact on heart disease worldwide than the reduction of saturated fats. The truth is that the health benefits of cutting back on saturated fats pale in comparison to the benefits achieved by eating more healthy fats.

“There would be a much bigger impact on heart disease deaths if the priority was to increase the consumption of polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated fats…”

Researchers with Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy looked at the incidence of heart disease around the world. Eating healthier fats could save millions of lives, but the types of dietary changes for better heart health vary among countries.

They compared cases that were attributed to inadequate intake of polyunsaturated fats with those linked to higher intake of saturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are oils found in plant foods. Corn, soybean, and sunflower oil are good sources, as are tofu, seeds and nuts, and fatty fish. They help lower the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, and this reduces a person's risk of heart disease and stroke. PUFAs are also a good source of essential fatty acids that are required by the body.

Saturated fats are primarily found in animal foods such as meat, cheese, and full-fat dairy products, and also in tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Trans fats, recently banned by the FDA, are saturated, as well.

Researchers looked at diet and food availability information from 186 countries and the results of previous long-term studies on the effect of certain fats on the risk of heart disease to estimate the number of yearly deaths related to varying arrays of fat intake.

Over 700,000 deaths or 10 percent of total deaths caused by heart disease were due to insufficient consumption of heart-healthy PUFAs with their omega-6 fatty acids, the researchers estimated. Excess consumption of saturated fat was associated with just under 260,000 deaths from heart disease or 3.6 percent of deaths worldwide.

This difference is in large part due to the fact that when people increase their intake of PUFAs, they also tend to eat fewer carbohydrates, the researchers believe, making the benefits of PUFAs even greater.

“Worldwide, policymakers are focused on reducing saturated fats. Yet, we found there would be a much bigger impact on heart disease deaths if the priority was to increase the consumption of polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated fats and refined carbohydrates , as well as to reduce trans fats,” senior study author, Dariush Mozaffarian, said in a statement.

Nations in the former Soviet Union had the highest rates of deaths from heart disease due to insufficient intake of omega-6 PUFAs, the study reported. But tropical countries also had a high number of heart disease deaths due to saturated fats. There may be a difference, however. “We should be a cautious in interpreting the results for saturated fat from tropical nations that consume lots of palm oil,” Mozaffarian says. The saturated fats in palm oil are assumed to have the same heart-disease risk as animal fats, but so far, long-term studies have not yet been done.

Trans fats remain the most dangerous fats when it comes to death from heart disease. Nearly eight percent of deaths from heart disease worldwide were the result of excess intake of these artificial fats that are found in processed, fried, or baked foods and also used in cooking fats in some parts of the world. Worse, deaths related to trans fat appear to be increasing in many middle- and low-income countries like India, even as they are going down in Western nations where they have been banned.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.