Saturated Fat to Blame for Our Nutritional Woes?

For a half-century, the idea that saturated fat in foods raises cholesterol and, consequently, causes heart attacks was dogma ostensibly justifying government regulation.  The attacks on dietary fat have increased in recent years due to the “war on obesity.”  But a new book based on nearly ten years of research has fired a devastating salvo in defense of this designated dietary enemy.  The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz traces the fat myth from its faulty scientific origin to its discrediting.

Teicholz notes that the Inuit people in the Arctic, who got 70% to 80% of their calories from fat and ate no plants, showed no signs of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension.  In another study, Maasai warriors in Kenya, who ate only blood, meat, and milk when they were studied in early 1960s, had no heart disease or high cholesterol.  

The alarming myth about fat was originated by Dr. Ancel Keys, for which he was honored by being on the cover of Time magazine in 1961.  That was the year he landed a position on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, the same year in which the AHA issued the first guidelines targeting saturated fats.  Keys violated several scientific norms in his research, but some of these weren't revealed until 2002 by later researchers.  It turns out that from the 655 men he originally selected as a representative sample, he used just 33 from Crete and 34 from Corfu as the basis for the entire revolution of our diet.  He also kept to himself for 16 years the results of a 9,000-patient coronary survey because it failed to find that cutting saturated fat reduced the risk of heart disease.  Though he advocated limiting diet to 7% saturated fat, Keys ate chops, roasts, and steaks three times a week and lived to be 100.

While our ingestion of saturated fats has dropped 11% since the early 1970s, we eat at least 25% more carbohydrates – including 50% more grains.  Teicholz explains:

Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we're eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables...The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin - - a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat.  Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news.  Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease

In 1961, the AHA advised switching to vegetable oils for a “healthy heart.”  Today these oils are 7% to 8% of our daily calories, from nearly zero in 1900.  But these were found to create not only higher cancer rates, but also gallstones.  It has also been known since the 1940s that when heated, vegetable oils create oxidation products that lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death in animal experiments.  To counter these concerns, vegetable oils were hydrogenated, a process of adding hydrogen that turns the oils from liquids into solids and also retards spoilage.

Unfortunately, hydrogenation also produces trans fats, which were condemned by the FDA and many European countries for raising the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.  This led some restaurants and food manufacturers to return to using liquid oils, which had long-standing problems with oxidation.  Worse, more recent research has implicated oxidation in a “sizable body of evidence ... to heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer's.”

In addition to Teicholz's work, researchers at Purdue University studied the relationship between fats and absorption of carotenoids, such as lutein, lycopene, and beta-carotene.  These are disease-fighting nutrients that slash the risk of cancer and heart disease, safeguard bone density, prevent macular degeneration, and soak up damaging compounds.  The researchers served veggie salads topped with various types of salad dressing to participants who were then tested for absorption of carotenoids.  Result: salads with the most fat – 20 grams – yielded the highest absorption of these nutrients.

So it's about time for the myths about saturated fat to die.

Edmund Contoski is author of the recent book The Impending Monetary Revolution, the Dollar and Gold and other books.  He blogs at

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