Exposing the myths—and truths—about saturated fat.

“A low-carb diet is always bad for your heart.”

When most people hear “low-carb diet,” they usually think of an eating plan that virtually eliminates carbohydrates and allows unlimited amounts of high-protein, high-saturated-fat foods, such as bacon. But today’s low-carb diets have evolved from those popular in the 1970s. Plans like South Beach and even Atkins do not promote marbled steaks and other saturated-fat-laden foods; instead, they emphasize eating fewer refined carbohydrates, such as white bread. A low-carb diet that emphasizes lean proteins, such as fish and beans, and vegetables, as well as “good” carbohydrates (e.g., brown rice), can actually look pretty good to a cardiologist. In fact, last summer an Israeli study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that people following a low-carb (Atkins) diet lost more weight and ended up with bigger improvements in blood-cholesterol numbers than those who followed a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet.

In this study, subjects were told to select vegetarian sources of fat and protein, which means it was likely that they were eating more unsaturated fats than saturated ones. In some ways they were following the current guidelines of the American Heart Association, which no longer advocates strictly limiting total fat but rather advises people to replace saturated fats with healthier unsaturated ones (e.g., olive oil for butter).

Bottom Line: A “low-carb” diet based on lean sources of protein, vegetables, unsaturated fats and a judicious amount of whole grains is heart-healthy.

So what now?

I doubt we’ll ever have all the facts about saturated fat. But I’m not going to start eating a half-pound of bacon for breakfast anytime soon. We know that when it comes to heart health, unsaturated fats, such as those in oils and salmon, nuts and avocados, are better choices than the saturated fats in fatty meats and butter. I’ll also continue to choose whole grains over refined carbohydrates as much as I can—and exercise most days of the week. That incorporates most of the heart-healthy thinking I need.

Rachel K. Johnson, EatingWell’s senior nutrition advisor, is a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont.

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