How we got it wrong saturated fat and heart disease

Dear Nutritionist,

My doctor has told me to eat low fat because I have high cholesterol. I am confused because I’ve read there are good fats. I want to know which ones I should eat and which ones I should cut out.Thank you. — Renee

Dear Renee,

Wow, that’s a really great question. We’ll have to cover a couple things. My answer is going to contradict orthodox nutrition information, so I’m going to go into a bit of detail. As such, this will be a two-part answer. I will this week address the idea that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease and where that deep-seated myth has its roots. Next week, I will address the issue of cholesterol from a holistic perspective and go into healthy fats.

I’ll be sure to link to sources and videos from industry specialists for those readers who want to investigate for themselves. It’s important to understand and check the information we are given for credibility.

So the first myth I have to bust here regarding fat is that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. This mythinformation has become medical dogma, but it’s based entirely on bad science. The diet-heart hypothesis, as it’s called, states that saturated fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, which then becomes trapped in the arteries and causes heart disease.

In the 1970s, American physiologist and researcher, Ancel Keys, hypothesized that dietary saturated fat causes cardiovascular heart disease, which was a growing concern at the time. Keys’ research was officially endorsed by health organizations in the West even though the data was limited, cherry-picked, and unverified with supporting third-party studies. 

We now have clear information that he was financially ‘incentivized’ by corporate food interest groups to create data to endorse and promote their products. For a better understanding of this issue, I suggest watching this amazing documentary, which goes into the documents that were found to support the claim that research data was paid to be manufactured. I haven’t met a person yet who wasn’t shocked and motivated after watching it.

As a result of Keys’ endorsement, the national dietary standards and resulting food policy and public recommendations demonized saturated fat and promoted vegetable oils, trans fats, and grains as healthier alternatives to saturated fat and animal products.

Sugar, which had been identified as dangerous by other researchers, was completely ignored. In case you didn’t know, most low-fat foods have extra sugar added to make them more palatable to consumers. The resulting food policy has been detrimental in many ways:

Animal and saturated fat were maligned. Fatty cuts of meat, like organ meat that is most nutrient-dense, were regarded as unhealthy.

Margarine, shortening, and vegetable/ seed oils replaced lard, tallow, and butter for cooking and prepared foods began using hydrogenated oils as ‘healthier’ alternatives.

Low-fat dairy was promoted over more natural and nutritious high-fat dairy.

There was greater emphasis on cereal grains as a healthy alternative to meat. It became a foundational food group, with high recommended daily servings.

Factory-made and processed food was endorsed as more healthy than traditional foods – for example, artificial eggs rather than whole eggs, which contain fat, or meatless burgers with 20 ingredients rather than natural meat burgers with 2.

Consider these statements from researchers:

“Advice to reduce saturated fat in the diet without regard to nuances about LDL, SFAs, or dietary sources could actually increase people’s risk of CHD. When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, and specifically with added sugars (like sucrose or high fructose corn syrup), the end result is not favourable for heart health.” PMID: 26586275

“Every single country with the lowest fat consumption had the highest mortality rates from heart disease and those with the most fat consumption had the lowest. The French consumed three times as much saturated fat compared to Azerbaijan but had one-eighth the rate of heart disease. The heart disease death rate in Finland was three times greater than in Switzerland, even though the Swiss ate twice as much fat.” Paul J. Rosch, M.D., M.A., F.A.C.P.

In studies from ~350,000 participants following data for periods of five to 23 years, the following conclusion was made, “Saturated fat intake wasn’t linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, or strokes, even among those with the highest intake.”

“…substituting refined carbs for saturated fat may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

For more detailed information on five of the largest, most comprehensive studies on the diet-heart hypothesis, go here.

Back to the history of this medical blunder, Keys wasn’t the only researcher of his day looking into the links between heart disease and nutrition. In 1972, in Pure, White and Deadly, British physiologist and nutritionist, John Yudkin, opposed Keys’ findings. He cited evidence that the over-consumption of sugar was the significant factor in the growing incidence of heart disease, dental deterioration, obesity, diabetes, liver disease, gout, dyspepsia, and some cancers, not saturated fat. But Keys was much more influential and heavily connected, and he publically thrashed and ridiculed  

Yudkin (Keys was known to be a bully even by his friends), such that, even decades later, researchers were afraid to touch the issue of sugar’s correlation to disease.

Recently, American pediatric endocrinologist, Robert Lustig, made a video called Sugar: The Bitter Truth, that was unprecedented in internet popularity as a nutrition video. In it he debunked Keys’ conclusions and revisited Yudkin’s research with research of his own to add credibility. In his words:

“The fat’s going down, the sugar’s going up and we’re all getting sick. This is not a hyperbole, this is the real deal. Everyone thinks that the bad effects of sugar are because sugar has empty calories. What I’m saying is no, actually, there are lots of things that do have empty calories that are not necessarily poisonous.”

Despite this, modern dietary recommendations still carry Keys’ hypothesis forward as fact and medical professionals and dieticians alike are indoctrinated with it. They believe saturated fat is responsible for heart disease because they were taught that it is so. Blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drugs are dispensed like candy, despite mounting data that this is detrimental to overall health:

“High cholesterol does not increase risk for heart attacks or other coronary events in people older than 65, women of any age, as well as patients with diabetes or renal failure. Senior citizens with high cholesterols have significantly fewer infections and live longer than low cholesterol controls. In familial hypercholesterolemia, there is no association between the very high cholesterol and LDL levels and a corresponding increased incidence or prevalence of coronary disease.” Read more: Paul J. Rosch, M.D., M.A., F.A.C.P.

The Melbourne Women’s Midlife Health Project measured cholesterol levels annually in a group of 326 women aged 52-63 years. During the eighth annual visit, subjects took a test that assessed memory. They found that higher serum concentrations of LDL-cholesterol and relatively recent increases in total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol were associated with better memory in healthy middle-aged women. Read more: Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig.

During the last 50 years, when saturated fat was largely removed from our diets and replaced with recommended vegetable oils, trans fats, and low fat, non-animal foods, we began to get sick en masse:

The incidence of cancers went up.

The incidence of diabetes went up.

The incidence of obesity went up.

The incidence of heart disease went up.

The incidence of liver disease went up.

The incidence of mental disorders went up.

The incidence of chronic joint problems went up.

The incidence of dental decay and malformation went up.

The incidence of chronic childhood inflammatory disorders (asthma, allergies, etc) went up.

Many nutritionists, nutrition-based physicians, and researchers have called for drastic reform of national food guidelines to reflect this current data, but there remains a backlash. The entire scenario is best addressed by investigative journalist, Nina Techolz, in her book The Big Fat Surprise. This YouTube video, Big Fat Nutrition Policy talks about what she discovered about nutrition policy as a result of that 10+ year investigative journey.

She found asking about who decided the policy and why it wasn’t changed was like living in a mafia movie! The resistance she faced drove her to dive deep into the issue and ultimately, to write her book and create a group of scientists and food activists to lobby for data-based nutrition policy going forward.

Tune in next week for a holistic explanation of arterial cholesterol deposits and data-based healthy fat recommendations.