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Are all saturated fats associated with an increased risk of heart attack?

It is well known that different types of saturated fats will have varying effects on cholesterol levels. The effects of consuming different saturated fats on the risk of having a heart attack are currently unclear. A recent observational study explored the differences between different saturated fats and the risk of heart attacks.

Saturated fats are fat molecules that only have single bonds between the carbons making up the fat chain. This means that the carbons are saturated with hydrogen bonds. These fat molecules differ from polyunsaturated fats, which have double bonds in the fat chain. To prevent cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association and Canada’s Food Guide recommend limiting saturated fat intake.

Despite these recommendations, the studies exploring the association between saturated fats and congestive heart disease have yielded conflicting results. One possible reason to explain the inconsistent findings is that different saturated fatty acids have different effects on the cardiovascular system.

Three types of saturated fats

There are three categories of saturated fats: short, medium, and long chain saturated fatty acids. The number of carbons in the chain determines if the saturated fat is categorized as short, medium, or long chain. Considering the consumption of all saturated fats as a whole can affect cardiovascular disease risk scores in observational studies.

Researchers from the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in the Netherlands designed an observational study to investigate the effects of different types of saturated fats on heart attack risk in Danish and English populations.

Data from two cohort studies, EPIC-Norfolk and EPIC-Denmark, was used for this analysis. The EPIC-Norfolk population included participants from rural areas of Norfolk, and the city of Norwich in the United Kingdom and the EPIC-Denmark population included participants from Copenhagen and Aarhus.

Dietary information was collected through validated questionnaires that allowed participants to specify their food consumption frequency over the past year. The researchers then gathered information about participants death, hospital admissions, and fatal and non-fatal heart attack events through government registers. The results of this study were published in the International Journal of Cardiology.

Number of carbons in saturated fats may affect heart attack risk

The results of the study show that in the Danish cohorts, a high consumption of saturated fats with 12 and 14 carbons is associated with a lower risk of heart attack. A lower heart attack risk was also observed in the Danish participants consuming median intakes of 1.23% and 1.54% of saturated fats with four to ten carbons. Other saturated fats were not associated with heart attack risk. Surprisingly, no associations were found in the English cohort.

This study has yielded further conflicting data. Similar studies conducted in the Netherlands and the United States reported that saturated fats with 16 and 18 carbons were associated with higher congestive heart disease risk. The present study did not find the same results. Also, the association of saturated fats with 12 carbons and a lower risk of heart attack reported in the present study has not been repeated in other studies.

Despite a large number of patients included in the study and the long follow-up period, the differences between the Danish and English cohorts are important limitations of the study. The different food sources and dietary and lifestyle patterns in these two nations can affect the results of the study. The design of the study was observational, and patients were required to think back to their consumption from the past year. Recall bias is a significant concern in observational studies. There was also a large difference in cohort sizes. The Danish cohort included over 53,000 participants, and the English cohort had less than half of the number of Danish participants.

More studies needed to determine individual effects of different saturated fats

There is a major debate concerning the effects of the consumption of saturated fats on congestive heart disease. Recent studies exploring the effects of different types of saturated fats on cardiovascular disease have yielded conflicting results. Different types of saturated fats may influence cardiac health in varying degrees. Further studies of higher quality are required to determine the individual effects of different saturated fat types.

Written by Jessica Caporuscio, PharmD


  1. Praagman J, Vissers LET, Mulligan AA, et al. Consumption of individual saturated fatty acids and the risk of myocardial infarction in a UK and a Danish cohort. Int J Cardiol. 2019.
  2. American Heart Association. Saturated Fat. American Heart Association, Inc. 2015.
  3. Canada’s Food Guide. Limit Highly Processed Foods. Government of Canada. 2019.
  4. Schonfeld P, Wojtczak L. Short- and medium-medium-chai fatty acids in energy metabolism: the cellular perspective. J Lipid Res. 2016.
Jessica Caporuscio PharmD
Jessica Caporuscio PharmD
Jessica received her Doctorate of Pharmacy from the University of Montreal in July 2014 and she has been working as a community pharmacist in the Greater Toronto Area since March 2015. She has a passion to communicate medical and drug information to her patients and other healthcare professionals. Jessica is also a marathoner and an Ironman triathlete. In her spare time, she is in her kitchen creating healthy recipes for her family.


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