In fact, there is also a theory that the ratio of polyunsaturated fat to saturated fat in the diet may be more influential in heart disease risk than the absolute numbers -- yet another example of the importance of balance in the world of nutrition.
Several large studies have verified that when people replace saturated fat with unsaturated oils, a 40 percent to 65 percent reduction in heart disease deaths can be achieved, especially when a little omega-3 fatty acid is added. Interestingly, these studies showed only a modest reduction in LDL, which illustrates the importance of paying attention to other risk factors such as inflammation.
Comparatively, treatment with statin drugs that lower LDL cholesterol (arguably one of the most prescribed medications today) reduces heart disease deaths by only about 30 percent because it doesn't remove all the risks. So even when taking statins, dietary change is essential.
"Diet and lifestyle change can work better than statins," says Ernst Schaefer, director of the Lipid and Heart Disease Prevention Program at the New England Medical Center. "But the problem is compliance."
Many people find it challenging to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diets. Life without chocolate or butter seems draconian and a goal that is impossible to meet. But a heart-healthy diet need not be so austere if you keep balance and variety in mind.
The trouble comes with extremes, when you're eating burgers, fries and a shake -- all in one meal. Try this instead: Choose a leaner burger with a green salad and vinaigrette on the side and a bowl of berries and nuts for dessert. The antioxidants from the salad and berries, and the healthy fats from the nuts and vinaigrette just might counterbalance the saturated fat in the burger.
Another solution would be to try to always have surf with your turf. The anti-inflammatory compounds in the omega-3 fatty acids in fish may help counteract the inflammatory compounds in the beef.
"And if you burned what you ate through activity, this all wouldn't be as much of a problem!" says Baer, research physiologist at USDA.
Katherine Tallmadge is a Washington nutritionist and author of "Diet Simple" (Lifeline Press, 2004). Send e-mails to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company