Top 7 Nutrition Myths: Number 1

Myth: Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease

Myth 7: A Plant-Based Diet is Healthiest
Myth 6: Counting Calories
Myth 5: Government and Nutrition Organizations Provide Healthy Advice
Myth 4: Eating carbohydrates, especially complex carbs, is vital for health
Myth 3: Grains are Good for You
Myth 2: Exercise is Integral to Health
Myth 1: Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease

Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.  -Jeremiah 17:5-6

Many years ago, before the invention of man-made products such as vegetable oil, margarine, soybean oil, Crisco (which was actually first intended to be used as wax for candles), people cooked with lard, tallow, and butter. Back in those days, heart disease was very rare. Paul Dudley White, a renowned early cardiologist who practiced at Harvard, had this to say when asked about restricting dietary fat and cholesterol: “See here, I began my practice as a cardiologist in 1921 and never saw a myocardial infarction [heart attack] patient until 1928. Back in the MI-free days before 1920, the fats were butter, whole milk, and lard, and I think we would all benefit from the kind of diet that we had when no one had ever heard of corn oil.”

Nowadays, we know that saturated fat clogs arteries. It’s so well known that sources of dietary advice can instruct us to lower our intake of saturated fat without citing any research that supports the idea. This has been common for many years. It must have been proven back then, because it’s common knowledge right now. However, if we go back far enough, we find little in the way of evidence and much in the way of assumptions.

The idea that saturated fat clogs arteries probably began with a study (read about it here) in which rabbits were fed a load of cholesterol and saturated fat, and then subsequently developed arterial plaques (they never suffered heart attacks, though). However, a rabbit’s digestive system is remarkably different than that of a human’s. That herbivorous rabbits might develop atherosclerosis on a diet that does not consist of carrots (or other foods suitable for bunny consumption) but rather of meat should not stand to convict saturated fat or cholesterol of anything in omnivorous humans. The idea that saturated fat clogs arteries has been, in a large part, based on a study that is not relevant to human physiology. Of course there are other studies too that look at the relationship between saturated fat and artery cloggage. In this article, Stephan Guyenet takes a look at many of these studies, many of which show no relationship, and all but one showed no clear association between saturated fat and blood cholesterol. Guyenet concludes: “Overall, the literature does not offer much support for the idea that long term saturated fat intake has a significant effect on the concentration of blood cholesterol in humans.”

Ancel Keys

This source, a government publication, thanks Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries Study and the Framingham Heart Study for establishing saturated fat and cholesterol as risk factors for heart disease. Let’s take a look at these studies.

The Seven Countries Study showed a correlation between the amount of fat that people ate in a country and the rates of heart disease. But data for 15 other countries were not included (not necessarily for cherry-picking reasons though), and when these data are included, the correlation between fat and heart disease disappears. A possible correlation between sugar consumption and heart disease seems to be ignored.

The Framingham Heart Study, which involves thousands of people from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, is an ongoing cardiovascular study that started in 1948, and continues to this day. After 40 years, the director had this to say: “In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol. . . we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.”

The Lipid Hypothesis states that consuming saturated fat elevates blood cholesterol, and that elevated blood cholesterol causes heart disease. But half of all patients admitted into the hospital for a heart attack have normal or low cholesterol, according to cardiologist and nutritionist Stephen Sinatra. And a national study puts this number at 75%. Sinatra also states that half of all people with elevated cholesterol have clean arteries.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence as well. Besides the people of Framingham, many tribal people, such as the Inuit and the Massai, experience little to no heart disease (or any other disease) on diets rich in saturated fat. This is also observed in France, where creams and cheeses and butter and eggs in the diet and a lack of heart disease contribute to what’s known as the French Paradox. And in America, the rising rates of heart disease in the 20th century correlated with a drastic reduction in the consumption of butter and animal fats.

A cheese market in France. Lots of cheese, lots of saturated fat.

There is much more evidence than can be put down here, and my resources page can direct you to an article (The Skinny on Fats) that goes over other HUGE studies that failed to show a link between saturated fat and heart disease. But I’ll leave you with this meta-analysis. It looked at the data from 21 studies, involving around 350,000 people in total, and found no link between saturated fat and heart disease.

Senator George McGovern

But if there is such little evidence backing the Lipid Hypothesis, why is so well planted in contemporary nutritional thought? Well, for many reasons. Special interests seems to be a big reason. When a government committee chaired by Senator George McGovern first put forth the national standard for a low-fat diet, it was met with great resistance. Much of the research for a diet low in saturated fat was supported by the vegetable oil industry, which had a lot to gain if Americans ditched the lard and used vegetable oil instead. With limited evidence, and the power of the government behind it, the Lipid Hypothesis became the standard.

So what does cause heart disease? New evidence in the field of nutrition and cardiology points to inflammation of the arteries as a significant cause of heart disease–not elevated cholesterol or intake of saturated fat. Dr. Dwight Lundell, a heart surgeon with 25 years of experience, explains here, that arterial inflammation, and with it heart disease and many other diseases, is caused by excessive consumption of refined vegetable oils and processed carbohydrates, something we Americans eat on a daily basis. Maybe its time we ditched the refined carbohydrates from unnatural foods like Cheerios and begin eating unrefined saturated fats from natural foods such as grass-fed beef.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Links to sources of pictures.
 Can of lard
 Bugs Bunny, by avni099
 Ancel Keys
 French cheese market
 Senator George McGovern