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Dietary Sources of Saturated Fat May Influence Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Benoît Lamarche Benoît Lamarche, PhD, FAHA

Chair in Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health, Professor, Department of Food
Sciences and Nutrition, Laval University

Current dietary recommendations focus on reducing saturated fat intake to lower cardiovascular disease risk. Yet, recent studies suggest that the link between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk may not be so straightforward. Data now indicate that the food source of saturated fat should also be considered.


  • The impact of saturated fat on cardiovascular disease risk may depend on food source.
  • Several components in dairy may explain the inverse relationship between dairy saturated fat and cardiovascular disease risk, including: trans-palmitoleic acid, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and protein.
  • The focus should be on foods rather than single nutrients when looking at health outcomes.

Food sources of saturated fat and cardiovascular disease risk

De Oliveira Otto and colleagues recently investigated how saturated fat intake from different dietary sources influences the risk of cardiovascular disease in a large cohort of 5,209 multiethnic adults 45-84 years old at baseline, followed from 2000 to 2010.1 The study found that a high vs. low intake of saturated fat from dairy sources was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, even after adjustment for demographics, lifestyle, and dietary confounders. Specifically:

  • For each 5 g/day increase in the intake of saturated fat from dairy, the risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 21% (p<0.01).
  • For each 5% increase in energy from dairy saturated fat, the risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 38% (p<0.01).

In contrast, higher intakes of saturated fat from meat were associated with greater cardiovascular disease risk. No association was observed between saturated fat from butter or plant sources (nuts, avocado, etc.) and cardiovascular disease risk. These findings support recent studies showing that consumption of dairy products is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.2,3

Possible underlying mechanisms

Milk products contain several nutrients that may play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease risk. In the Cardiovascular Health Study, higher concentrations of plasma trans-palmitoleic acid—a fatty acid found primarily in regular fat dairy foods—were associated with higher HDL-cholesterol, lower triglycerides, lower C-reactive protein, lower insulin resistance, and lower incident diabetes in adults.4

Calcium, potassium, and phosphorus are also posited to have antihypertensive effects.1,3 Moreover, studies have shown that higher intakes of calcium and phosphorus from milk products, but not from other sources, are associated with lower blood pressure.1 Thus, dairy-food components may act synergistically in optimizing health, emphasizing the importance of considering whole foods rather than single nutrients.

Keywords: saturated fat , cardiovascular disease

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