Policymakers throughout the world have had their nutrition priorities all wrong, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. In order to combat the global epidemic of heart disease, which leads to three of every 10 deaths, the study's researchers argue it's more important to incorporate healthier fats into a diet than it is to cut back on unhealthy ones. Adjusting dietary guidelines to account for this, they say, could save more than a million people worldwide from dying of heart disease.

The Good And Bad Fat

Fats can be confusing for the average person. Most foods contain several different kinds of fats, some of which are better for your heart than others. Fats derived from plants and animals are called dietary fats. They're the good kind, and include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats provide energy to the body for a wide range of bodily functions like processing vitamins.

Eating these healthy dietary fats, can help lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad cholesterol") levels and decrease risk of developing heart disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in plant-based foods and oils, such as corn, sunflower, and soy oil; along with fatty fishes, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout.

Saturated fats, on the other hand, are considered the bad fat, and come mainly from animal products like red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy. These types of fat raise total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad cholesterol") levels, which inevitably increases risk of heart disease. Saturated fat intake should be limited to fewer than 6 percent of your total daily calories.

Trans fats are another type of potentially harmful fat that, if consumed at high quantities, can increase bad cholesterol levels. They are mostly consumed in the form of oil produced from a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. This technique makes them easier to cook and less likely to spoil when compared to naturally occurring oils. Trans fats are often found in prepackaged foods, restaurant dishes, and fast food products.

While it’s recommended to cut back on fats, the current study's researchers explained this advice may be too broad.

A Global Problem

According to the study’s senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, there is worldwide focus on reducing saturated fats in food. In reality, he says it would be much more beneficial to promote polyunsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated fats, trans fats, and processed carbohydrates. There is also a misconception that trans fats are the root cause of heart disease in only developed countries, such as the United States. But the problem persists throughout poorer countries as well.

The researchers discovered this after analyzing 2010 data from 186 countries that included food availability, dietary patterns, rates of heart disease, and mortality rates. They estimated 711,800 heart disease deaths were due to eating too few healthy fats compared to 250,900 heart disease deaths resulting from excessive consumption of saturated fats. When they compared data from 1990 to those from 2010, they found heart disease deaths due to a lack of healthy fats declined by 9 percent, while deaths caused by a high intake of saturated fats declined by 21 percent. This led researchers to believe it's a lack of healthy fats that should be the primary concern, and not cutting back on bad fat.

When looking at heart disease deaths in relation to the financial hierarchy of a particular country, the researchers realized different countries have different needs. Nations from the former Soviet Union like Ukraine had the highest rates of heart disease deaths due to a lack of healthy fats. Meanwhile tropical nations, such as Kiribati and the Philippines, had the highest rates of heart disease deaths caused by a high intake of saturated fats. Ultimately, this led researchers to see certain countries had distinct needs when it came to addressing diet-related heart disease.

"People think of trans fats as being only a rich country problem due to packaged and fast-food products,” Mozaffarian said in a press release. “But, in middle and low income nations such as India and in the Middle East, there is wide use of inexpensive, partially hydrogenated cooking fats in the home and by street vendors. Because of strong policies, trans fat-related deaths are going down in Western nations but in many low- and middle-income countries, trans fat-related deaths appear to be going up, making this a global problem."

Source: Mozaffarian D, Wang Q, and Afshin A, et al. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2016.