Replacing saturated fat with healthier fat in the diet lowers cardiovascular disease risk as much as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, according to an American Heart Association advisory issued Thursday.

“This important paper reaffirms the scientific evidence that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, a leading cause of atherosclerosis,” said Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., R.D. a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, who was not an advisory author. “Furthermore, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

Atherosclerosis is the hardening and clogging of arteries that can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.

Cardiovascular disease was lowered by about 30 percent, similar to the effect of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs when vegetable oil replaced saturated fat in the diet, according to the advisory. The switch to healthier oils also was associated with lower rates of death from all causes.

The finding doesn’t mean that people prescribed statins to lower heart disease risk should give up medication. Nor should they eat too much saturated fat, said Frank Sacks, M.D. lead author of the advisory and professor of cardiovascular disease prevention in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“That statin is only going to go part of the way,” he said.

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