Recent findings from a large study are challenging a widely-held belief: that saturated fat is responsible for preventable heart diseases. However, results of the study indicate otherwise, with no concrete evidence linking consumption of saturated fats to poor cardiovascular health. 

The study looked at data from more than 500,000 people, drawn from almost 80 separate studies, examining the composition of fatty acids and fat tissue. Researchers also drew evidence from 27 randomized controlled trials to determine whether or not complementing one's diet with polyunsaturated fat supplements was beneficial for overall heart health. While the data did lead the researchers to establishing a link between heart disease and trans fats - most commonly associated with processed foods - there was insufficient information to rule that saturated fats were also a contributing factor to heart disease.

However, that doesn't mean it's time to break out the barbecue for steaks and burgers. "The single macronutrient approach is outdated," said Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health who was not associated with the study. "I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients."

Indeed, the development is also significant in that it's likely to reignite the debate on what constitutes a healthy diet. With saturated fat - the persona non grata of the food world - no longer looking like the prime culprit for dietary-induced disease, a return to the principles of moderation and whole foods are being espoused by nutritional professionals.

"These are interesting results that potentially stimulate new lines of scientific inquiry and encourage careful reappraisal of our current nutritional guidelines," said lead researcher, Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury of Cambridge University. "Cardiovascular disease, in which the principal manifestation is coronary heart disease, remains the single leading cause of death and disability worldwide. In 2008, more than 17 million people died from a cardiovascular cause globally. With so many affected by this illness, it is critical to have appropriate prevention guidelines which are informed by the best available scientific evidence."

The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and was funded by the British Heart Foundation. 

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