Purpose of review: The purpose is to evaluate recent findings concerning dietary fats and the risk of coronary heart disease. Monounsaturated fatty acids are often regarded as healthy, and many have recommended their consumption instead of saturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Support for the benefits of monounsaturated fatty acids comes largely from epidemiological data, but they have not been an isolated, single variable in such studies. Beneficial effects on the plasma lipid profile and LDL oxidation rates have also been identified. More recent findings have questioned the impact of suspected beneficial effects on coronary heart disease, indicating that studies with more conclusive endpoints are needed.
Recent findings: Human dietary studies often produce conflicting results regarding the effects of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids on the plasma lipid profile. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids both appear to reduce total and LDL-cholesterol compared with saturated fatty acids; however, the effect on HDL is less clear. Lowered HDL levels in response to low-fat or polyunsaturated fatty acid diets and the decreased protection from oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acid-enriched LDL may not indicate increased coronary heart disease risk. Several lines of evidence also suggest that polyunsaturated fatty acids may protect against atherosclerosis.
Summary: Recommendations to substitute monounsaturated fatty acids for polyunsaturated fatty acids or a low-fat carbohydrate diet seem premature without more research into the effects on the development of atherosclerosis. Current opinions favoring monounsaturated fatty acids are based on epidemiological data and risk factor analysis, but are questioned by the demonstrated detrimental effects on atherosclerosis in animal models.