Excessive fat intake--not cholesterol--is the strongest dietary link to heart disease, cancer and obesity, a leading cancer researcher said.
"Just because a product claims to be cholesterol-free doesn't mean it's fat-free," Dr. David Heber, chief of clinical nutrition at UCLA School of Medicine, told 200 California Dietetic Assn. dietitians attending a recent symposium in Los Angeles on fat and disease.
"Many consumers aren't aware of that and recklessly add to their fat intake with cholesterol-free salad oils, shortenings and processed cake mixes, crackers and breads," he said.
"Consumers have reduced their intake of saturated or animal fat by choosing leaner meat and lower fat dairy foods. However, while doing this, they've increased use of polyunsaturated fats. Now it's time for consumers to reduce polyunsaturated fats.
"Obesity, cancer and heart disease are all interrelated, with total fat intake being the common risk factor," he said.
High fat intake, regardless of the source of fat, usually raises blood cholesterol levels, total calorie intake and weight, increasing the risk for heart disease and cancer of the colon, breast, uterus and prostate, according to Heber.
When total fat intake is within 30% of total calories, as recommended by the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society, blood cholesterol levels, total calorie intake and weight generally stay at a healthy level, he said.
Going below 30% fat in the diet is probably not harmful, but it's a difficult level to maintain and may compromise other important nutrients, Heber said.
"Even a 30% level requires a conscious effort in food selections," Heber said.
He recommends balancing fat intake evenly between saturated, polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats.