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Saturated Fats: Sense, Nonsense and the Real Cause of Heart Disease

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myths-and-facts“Despite the fact we have reduced the fat content of our diets, more Americans will die this year of heart disease than ever before…The discovery a few years ago that inflammation in the artery wall is the real cause of heart disease is slowly leading to a paradigm shift in how heart disease and other chronic ailments will be treated.”  – Dr. Dwight Lundell

Dr. Dwight Lundell, the former Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery at Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa, AZ, took a brave and long-overdue stance on heart disease when he began promoting the idea that severe inflammation due to poor diet was the real cause of heart disease, not cholesterol.

And with Big Parma banking nearly $40 billion dollars a year on the 25 percent of the population that takes statin medications every day, it’s easy to see why medical boards and pharmaceutical companies were eager to keep him quiet.

The mainstream media has relentlessly promoted the saturated fat-heart disease hypothesis, despite a 60-year-long failure of scientific research to prove it. Strikingly, atherosclerotic heart disease and heart attack deaths in the U.S. have increased during the very period when the consumption of saturated fat decreased and the consumption of polyunsaturated oils increased.

How The Cholesterol Myth Started

At the beginning of the 20th century, the most commonly consumed fats in the American diet were predominantly saturated (i.e., butter, lard and tallow) and heart disease was rarely seen in clinical practice. Today, the dominant fats in our diets are soybean oil, canola oil, and cottonseed oil, and heart disease accounts for 40 percent of U.S. deaths. Yet the myth of the cardiovascular dangers of eating saturated fats persists among many physicians and dietitians.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, a researcher named Ansel Keys had analyzed the fat and cholesterol intake of Minnesota businessmen and later, the diets of the populations of more than 20 countries. As a result, he published studies claiming to show a positive link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. His findings in the now-infamous Seven Country Study resonated with the media and many other researchers of that era.

A careful analysis of Keys’s data by skeptical scientists as well as further studies that attempted to confirm his saturated fat-heart disease hypothesis revealed two surprises:

1. Keys had cherry picked his data, carefully selecting only data from countries that fit his hypothesis and concealing the data from countries that showed no link between saturated fat consumption and deaths from cardiovascular disease.

2. Keys’s diet-heart hypothesis could be neither replicated nor proven. Numerous long-term population studies and clinical trials published during the last 60 years have failed to confirm that diets high in saturated fats cause heart disease and heart attacks by raising blood levels of cholesterol.

In 1973, a leading diet researcher warned that the evidence for Keys’s saturated fat/cholesterol-heart disease link didn’t hold up under scrutiny:

“The message that everyone is in serious danger of coronary heart disease if he does not restrict the amount of saturated fat in his diet is being propagandized by every known medium of communication. Unfortunately, the following on faith of the advice to reduce saturated and animal fat ingestion runs the risk of the consequences of any food fad: extremism and unbalanced diets.”

The mainstream media ignored this and other calls for a skeptical interpretation of Keys’s data and hypothesis and instead chose to run sensational headlines warning of the dangers of consuming saturated fats. The meme went viral (even though the Internet would not be invented by Al Gore for another decade J) and engendered decades of misdirected and fruitless scientific research. In addition, it helped create enormous profits for Big Pharma and seed oil manufacturers, which capitalized on the nation’s cholesterolphobia by making drugs and processed food products that created a new constellation of health risks and medical problems.

Two prominent researchers who reviewed the studies on saturated fat intake in relation to cardiovascular risk and deaths have concluded:

“The lack of a scientific, mechanistic understanding of these relations should be a warning that population-wide recommendations for all persons at all ages and circumstances to reduce their intake of saturated fats may be premature.”

Biologists have pointed out that if saturated fatty acids were of no value or were harmful to humans, evolution would not have allowed the mammary gland the means to produce butyric, caproic, caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids — the identical saturated fatty acids found in coconut and coconut oil. It is precisely these saturated fats that provide a source of nourishment to ensure the growth, development, and survival of all mammalian offspring.

Research Busts The Notion That Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease

Here are six compelling studies and observations that help discredit the diet-heart hypothesis:

1. In the long-running Framingham heart study, 80 percent of the subjects who went on to have coronary artery disease (CAD) had the same total cholesterol concentrations as those who did not. This is, in part, because the size and density of the lipoproteins that carry fats and cholesterol in the blood, not the total cholesterol concentration, are more involved in the disease process. CAD is a multifactorial disease with multiple causes, but saturated fat levels in the diet are not one of them. Studies show that diets higher in saturated fats and lower in carbohydrates promote the formation of cardioprotective large and buoyant LDL particles, in contrast to the more atherogenic small, dense particles seen in people who eat low-fat, high-carb diets.

2. During the last half-century, France and Finland — countries that have similar intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol — have consistently experienced significantly different death rates from cardiovascular disease (Mann GV. A short history of the diet/heart hypothesis, in Mann GV (ed.): Coronary Heart Disease: The Dietary Sense and Nonsense. Janus Publishing, London, 1993, pp. 1-17).

3. Investigators who reviewed six controlled large clinical trials (totaling 119,000 person years) designed to evaluate mortality from coronary heart disease, cancer and other causes found no consistent relation between reduction of cholesterol concentrations and mortality from cancer, but there was a statistically significant increase in deaths from suicide, violence, and accidents in groups receiving treatment to lower blood cholesterol levels relative to control groups. Other investigators have reported similar findings during their cholesterol-lowering studies.

4. A comprehensive review of the diet-heart hypothesis has yielded one clear finding about the alleged health risks of eating saturated fats and cholesterol, as revealed by the study’s authors:

a. “An almost endless number of observations and experiments have effectively falsified the hypothesis that dietary cholesterol and fats, and a high cholesterol level play a role in the causation of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. The hypothesis is maintained because allegedly supportive, but insignificant findings, are inflated, and because most contradictory results are misinterpreted, misquoted or ignored. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that not a single life has been saved by experimental manipulation with dietary fat.”

5. Twenty-three obese patients with atherosclerotic disease participated in a prospective medical clinic trial. All had been on statin therapy before entry in the trial. Fifteen people with polycystic ovary syndrome 8 people with reactive hypoglycemia were fed a high-saturated fat diet for 24 and 52 weeks, respectively. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopic analysis of lipids revealed decreases in total triglycerides, very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) triglycerides, large VLDL concentration and medium VLDL concentration. Importantly, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and LDL concentrations were unchanged, but HDL size and LDL size increased. Patients with polycystic ovary syndrome lost an average of 14.3 percent of their total body weight and patients with reactive hypoglycemia lost an average of 19.9 percent of their total body weight. 24 and 52 weeks, respectively, without adverse effects on serum lipids. Investigators concluded that: “A high-saturated fat diet results in weight loss without adverse effects on serum lipid levels verified by nuclear magnetic resonance, and further weight loss with a lipid-neutral effect may persist for up to 52 weeks.”

6. A preclinical study compared the effects of different oils on oxidative stress in heart mitochondria and on lipid risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Lab animals were fed for 16 weeks with coconut, olive or a fish oil diet (saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fatty acids, respectively). Importantly, the cardiac mitochondria from animals fed with coconut oil showed the lowest concentration of oxidized proteins and peroxidized lipids. The study’s authors concluded, “A diet enriched in saturated fatty acids offers strong advantages for the protection against oxidative stress in heart mitochondria.”

7. An editorial by Harvard’s leading epidemiology research and Chairman, Department of Nutrition, Walter Willett, M.D., acknowledged that even though “the focus of dietary recommendations is usually a reduction of saturated fat intake, no relation between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD was observed in the most informative prospective study to date.”

Scientists Sum Up the Current State of Research

Researchers from the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California, Davis and the Nestle Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland have summed up the current state of research bias against saturated fats:

Most of what is known about the functions of fatty acids is fragmented and biased by the assumptions made within the experimental investigations in which the fatty acids were studied. This bias is particularly true for studies of the saturated fatty acids, most of which have been examined solely for their tendency to alter lipoprotein metabolism and to influence the concentrations of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in blood.”

This insight was held long before its time by many physicians and researchers such as our aforementioned friend Dr. Dwight Lundell, as well as others such as Dr. Jonny Bowden, author of The Great Cholesterol Myth. While Big Pharma will no doubt do everything in its power to save its $20 billion industry, you have the power to protect yourself. Below are a few more articles we’ve published on this topic. We highly encourage you to check them out and arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.

Are Statins This Generation’s Tobacco?

A Simple Cholesterol Solution Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About

“Bad” LDL Cholesterol May Protect Against Cancer


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Article updated on: October 30th, 2013

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