What if there was a widely accepted theory that guided government policy and affected your life in all sorts of ways- and what if it were absolutely, bone headedly wrong?
You’d be pretty mad, right?
That’s how I- and many of my colleagues- have felt for years about the theory that saturated fat causes heart disease.
And finally, we’re getting some vindication.
According to a new study in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which researchers examined data from 21 different studies from across the world involving over 350,000 subjects, there isn’t a shred of evidence that saturated fat is associated with an increase in the risk of either coronary heart disease (CHD) or cardiovascular disease (CVD).
You read that right.
“Our meta-analysis showed that there is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD,” wrote the researchers, led by Dr Ronald Krauss from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California.
Yet avoiding saturated fat has been the cornerstone of “official” dietary advice for years, based on the assumptions that it increases the risk for heart disease, (not true), that it raises cholesterol (sometimes true but fairly irrelevant) and that cholesterol itself is a solid marker for the risk of heart disease (very far from true).
Meanwhile this misinformation- dare I say “disinformation”- has informed our food choices for decades. The food companies jumped on it, pushing margarine as a substitute for butter, and “healthy” oils like soybean, sunflower, and corn oil as replacements for saturated fat. This has caused a massive imbalance between omega-6’s and omega-3’s in the diet, which in turn contributed mightily to the epidemic of inflammation we’re now seeing.
I believe—as do many of my colleagues- that inflammation is a far more serious risk factor for heart disease than cholesterol ever was.
Omega-6 fats, you may recall, are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory. They are supposed to be in balance, with an idea ratio of about 1:1- 4:1. We currently consume a ratio of at least 15:1 omega 6: omega 3, with some estimates putting the ratio even higher. My friend Jade Beutler, CEO of Barlean’s Organic Oils, likens it to putting Mike Tyson in the ring with Pee Wee Herman.
The current study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is not the first time the demonization of saturated fat has been questioned by responsible scientists.
An excellent 2004 paper entitled “Saturated Fats: What Dietary Intake?” made the following statement: “Whether a finite quantity of specific dietary saturated fatty acids actually benefits health is not yet known.”
A terrific conference entitled “Saturated Fat: What is the Evidence?” was put on by the Nutrition and Metabolism society (of which I am a member) as part of the 2008 Western Regional Obesity Course of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. I attended that conference and I can tell you the collective answer to the question “what is the evidence?” could be summed up in two words: Not much. (You can read an excellent report on that conference by Laura Dolson here )
Saturated fat has a very different fate in the body when it’s consumed in the context of a low-carbohydrate diet. As researchers Jeff Volek, PhD, RD and Cassandra Forsythe, PhD wrote recently in a paper in Nutrition and Metabolism, “We contend that the recommendation to intentionally restrict saturated fat is unwarranted and only serves to contribute to the misleading rhetoric surrounding the health effects of saturated fat.”
I’ll be the first to say that not all saturated fat is created equal. I’m not interested in consuming more saturated fats from French fries, but I think egg white omlettes are ridiculous.
It’s interesting to note that prior to the 1920’s, Americans ate tons of lard, butter, beef and cheese but both strokes and heart attacks were far less common than they are today. Enter the saturation (forgive the pun) of the food supply with hydrogenated oils, high omega-6 vegetable oils and tons of carbohydrates. Now heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.
Obviously there’s more than one factor involved in making us as unhealthy as we are, and no one- least of all me- is claiming that increasing saturated fat (without changing anything else about our diet) is a good thing, let alone a cure-all.
But maybe it’s time to consider that we’ve been demonizing the wrong component of our diet.
Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond the conventional advice about saturated fat and cholesterol and find out what’s really making us sick and fat!