In 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology put together a panel to review the state of the scientific evidence and make recommendations to Americans about how best to avoid heart disease, the number one killer. Over thirty members with a broad array of credentials from multiple universities and institutions reviewed the scientific literature and graded the quality of evidence in the guideline.
These grades of evidence vary from Class 1a (strongest evidence: should be done) to Class 3c (minimal evidence or harmful).
Class 1a recommendations are the standard of care and should be followed by all patients according to the guideline. When it came to cardiovascular disease prevention, the committee strongly endorsed the following as class 1a evidence:
Eating lots of whole plant foods, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and avoiding refined sugars and red meat (but including poultry, fish and low fat dairy).
Avoiding saturated fat as more than six percent of your daily calories.
Avoiding trans fats.
It’s not just them. The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund published a paper in 2007 outlining the lifestyle that was best able to prevent cancer, the number two killer. Here’s what they recommended:
There are many more scientific consensus statements that I could trot out, but you have other things to do, so I won’t run down the list. If you want more, let me know.
But I want to now outline just what you would have to eat to stick with those recommendations. Because I think that people who see those recommendations and notice that they don’t forbid all animal food consumption might get the idea that what they are doing now is just fine and is in line with the guidelines.
But is it?
Let’s analyze it. Let’s assume that the average person needs 2500 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight (obviously this varies widely, but this is an average). Six percent of 2500 is 150 calories. Since fat is 9 calories per gram, this means you can have 16-17 grams of saturated fat a day.
So we are going to analyze the saturated fat intake of a person who is trying to eat foods they believe to be healthy.
For breakfast, that person has a whole grain bagel with butter on it because Time magazine said that butter was back. One tablespoon of butter on that bagel has 7.2 grams of saturated fat. How much saturated fat left in the day? 10 grams if we are generous. The rest of breakfast is an apple and a banana. So we have a 600-calorie breakfast, and are still under the goal.
For lunch, it’s a salad. Off we go to Panera bread for one of their “healthy” salads. A Greek Salad from Panera has 400 calories, but it’s still got 8 grams of saturated fat (probably mostly from the feta cheese). So after two relatively low-calorie meals, we are probably a bit hungry but we’ve already had 15 grams of saturated fat.
For dinner, it’s fish! Salmon with some green beans sautéed in olive oil and some rice pilaf. Half a salmon fillet has 6 grams of saturated fat. (Game show sound: Wanh, wanh waaaaaa). Now we’re over the limit. The tablespoon of olive oil also has 2 grams of saturated fat. Only the rice doesn’t significantly add to the total saturated fat content.
But it’s late, and we’re still a bit hungry. So let’s have a snack. We know Nabisco is out (energy density too high, processed), so let’s try something vegan! We’ll have some Daiya foods vegan cheesecake and enjoy it without guilt.
A single serving of plant-based Daiya vegan cheesecake has 16 grams of saturated fat. That doubles your total daily allowable intake.
Most people would consider this eating pattern very healthy, but it isn’t.
Now let’s see what would happen if we do decide to follow a plant-based diet. “I will be plant-based 95% of the time, but for one meal a week I will cheat and enjoy myself” we think.
We eat a completely plant-based diet the first six days. So on Sunday for dinner, it’s Outback Steakhouse. And after being so good all week, let’s get an appetizer and an entrée. It’s a Bloomin’ Onion, 56 grams of saturated fat and over 1900 calories. But we split it … so it’s really only 28 grams and 950 calories. And then the entrée will be our reward for the good behavior over the week. It’s going to be a slow-roasted prime rib with a side of mashed potatoes. That brings us to 61 grams of saturated fat for the entrée and a total of 89 grams of saturated fat for the week. This is the only saturated fat we could have the entire week. This means we’ve had no chocolate, no desserts, no egg noodles, no mayonnaise, no packaged or processed food, and no animal products or oils of any kind.
In addition, doing this sort of thing also sets us up for failure, because the food is extremely tasty and it drives you to eat it again and again.
From my point of view, the easiest way to actually meet the guidelines is to avoid the foods that have any significant amount of saturated fat in them. We struggle with decisions but we don’t struggle with rules. If every meal is a fight, we’ll end up losing. So a general rule to avoid all foods with significant amounts of saturated fat is easier to follow.
We’re here to help. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to make it easier.