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May 3, 2014 05:19 AM

The questionable link between saturated fat and heart disease

Great article discussing the source and evolution of the dubious theory that butter, cheese and red meat are bad for you. Don't know why the url is so long, but for now the article is available to all and not behind the paywall:

The money quote:
"The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias."

We'e been duped. Read the whole thing.

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  1. This has been debated endlessly on this site, just FYI. There's an entire book on it if you're interested Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories

    4 Replies
    1. re: fldhkybnva

      Well, yes but the debate isn't closed just because there are other posts. The linked article was published TODAY.

      1. re: janniecooks

        I get that, but it's not news really. The debate is redundant and it becomes a battle of who can yell louder. I understand that the general public is now only realizing this but the idea has been around for quite a while now.

      2. re: fldhkybnva

        You completely missed and misstated the point of the article. The article is not about fats versus carbs, good calories or bad calories. It is not about the debate. What the article discusses has not been discussed endlessly here. And so what if it might have been?

        This very timely WSJ article appeared on Saturday's edition, where it was the top-read article.

        The article, as I very clearly wrote in the first sentence of my post, is about "the source and evolution of the the dubious theory that butter, cheese and red meat are bad for you". The article at the link DOES NOT DEBATE THE ISSUE, it explains, to those who bother to read it, how and why we were sold this dubious claim.

        The article is about how bad politics, lousy sciene, personal bias, and big bucks combined to shove a dangerous, unproven and experimental diet literally down our throats. Kind of the like the dubious climate change claims now being shoved at us without debate.

        1. re: janniecooks

          The article is about how bad politics, lousy sciene, personal bias, and big bucks combined to shove a dangerous, unproven and experimental literally down our throats. Kind of the like the dubious climate change claims now being shoved at us without debate.

          AND, so is the book I recommended. It's in a fine article, I'm not here to argue with you. Not sure why you're being so sensitive.

      3. People believe what they want to believe. Load up on butter and cheese all day if you like. But this woman isn't the most academically qualified person on the topic, so her views might be interesting but not persuasive enough to be called "truth."

        10 Replies
        1. re: calumin

          I thought it was quite a good article. You say she isn't qualified although she is a investigative journalist rather than a research scientist.

          That said she studied for her first degree in Biology at Stanford and Yale, and received her MA from Oxford University, then worked at Columbia University as Associate Director for the Centre for Globalisation and Sustainable Development. She has quite a history of food/science investigative journalism including work on trans-fat.

          So no not a Professor of Nutrition running steam at a top university - but still a pretty good academic background for her chosen journalistic focus.

          I think bottom line there is so much disinformation, spin and myth around diet and health it's nice to see well written rebuttals of some commonly held positions.

          1. re: PhilD

            Well, she really contributes to the myth and spin. Just look at the title of her book!

            And the paper quoted at the beginning of her article has been pretty widely panned. The week after it came out, the authors had to submit a revised edition to correct a number of errors -- one of them being incorrectly analyzing a study on omega-3 fatty acids. The paper claimed that the study showed a slightly negative effect of omega-3 consumption on heart disease, when in fact it showed a very positive effect (meaning people who report high omega-3 consumption have significantly less heart disease).

            There is no doubt that the science has evolved in understanding of the effects of different fat types -- especially with regard to transfats and fats with a high PUFA ratio.

            But she really goes out on a limb by saying that people consume more vegetable oil, that people also have more heart disease, and then implying that those two facts have a positive correlative effect. There are lots of other eating habits that have changed which can explain the outcomes.

            And by qualified, I'm not saying she's not an intelligent person. It's more that peer review is important. I don't buy the idea that thousands of scientists who devote their lives to studying this topic all have their ears closed when good research challenges current thinking. Some of the statements in her article show good thinking, but the title of her book is a gross distortion of the factual detail she presents and isn't well-supported in the scientific community.

            1. re: calumin

              I took "academically qualified" literally, and as she is a journalist who writes about scientific issues its actually good to see she has a relevant science degree so there is a more than better chance she understands the subject.

              Clearly a article by a journalist won't be peer revised nor will her book. Instead she is reporting on peer reviewed scientific studies and papers which again seems pretty logical (are you aware of other articles that are "peer reviewed" by journalists?).

              And whilst the paper mentioned attracted a fair amour of criticism and mis-reporting (by the tabloid press) its basic tenant has not been challenged or found to be wanting i.e. simplistically put saturated fats are no worse for you than un-saturated.

              The bit that should be a concern to all of us is the idea in your last para "....thousands of scientists who devote their lives to studying this topic all have their ears closed when good research challenges current thinking".

              This is exactly what happened for the last 30 or 40 years and it established the low fat/low cal orthodoxy which is thought to be a major contributor to the obesity issues we see today. The science behind calorie counting and highly reduced fat diets was very flawed as it neglected to consider how food is metabolised. There were a few lone voices but the industrial/scientific community (especially those with vested interests) swamped the debate and its only now we see balance.

              And that's the key. Its not a binary argument. Its a matter of balance and sensible eating. Moderation is essential, but exclusion tends to spark the law of unintended consequences with dire results.

              1. re: PhilD

                "the low fat/low cal orthodoxy which is thought to be a major contributor to the obesity issues we see today."

                First - the paper that was the pretext for the link article is about a fat and heart disease link, not fat and obesity.

                Just because there has been a rise in obesity, and for roughly the same period the medical establishment has advocated low fat for heart disease, does not mean that the 2 are linked. What doctors recommend, and people eat are 2 different things. Especially considering that many people don't have regular doctors.

                I can point to a obesity-research blog that looked at the correlation between macronutrient consumption (based on USDA data) and obesity rates. He found that the rise in fat, carb, and protein were all highly correlated with the rise in obesity. At least at the national aggregate level, we are not eating less fat and more carbs. We are eating too many calories (across the board).

                Despite all this talk about an industrial/scientific conspiracy, we (in the agregate) have not changed our diet all that much in the last 4-5 decades. Yes, there have been shifts in the types of fat, but the overall balance between fat, carbs and protein has not changed much. And yes, individuals have shifted their diet, some cutting back on saturated fats, others cutting back on carbs. Some have gone paleo, others vegetarian. And most lie to their doctors (and researchers) about what they eat and don't eat. But not everyone is on a diet.

                1. re: paulj

                  I understand correlation is not causation. However, the two concepts have got tangled up in day to day dietary advice. We have low sat fat diets for heart health, and low fat diets for weight control. Animal fat is thus cast as the villain with both issues, that is then overlaid with the fact that obesity does contribute to heart disease and you start to get a bit of a virtuous circle.

                  I also don't point the finger of blame at doctors: there is a mass of dietary advice from the qualified to the unqualified, and from the totally independent to those selling things e.g. the low fat marketing of, and labels on, products that don't have fat.

                  I totally agree that the rise in calories consumed contributes to obesity. But the source of the calorie affects how its processed is as, if not more, important. So, as I said upthread, not a binary argument. Fewer calories is good, part of a well balanced diet is better, and exercise is essential.

                  The data point of little change in in diet over the last four or five decades takes us to roughly 1970's which is really when this type of dietary advice came into vogue and the probably coincides with the massive increase in processed foods. So in effect it shows us how fundamental this shift was.

                  I tend to use diet as the term for what people eat rather than in the context of a person being on a diet. One of the issues is the subtle change to diet which is a result of the universal marketing of the low fat dogma. Think of the number of products on the shelves have low fat or fat reduced, or low cal stickers.

                  Consumer preferences change as a result of this barrage of marketing, a new product won't sell unless it has the sticker - not because of those on diets but simply because the masses perceive its good for them. The message has become ingrained in people psyche.

                  1. re: paulj

                    The blog I mentioned is

                    The correlations that he ran use data back to 1960. While the idea that saturate fat is bad precedes that (I'm a Wesson oil kid), The rise of 'low fat' as a marketing ploy is later.

                    However if you take wheat as a stand in for 'carbs', then the historic trends observed by the USDA are relevant

                    1880 - 225 pounds per capita
                    1970 - 110
                    2000 - 146
                    2005 - 133
                    now - 132

                    "...The drop from 2000 reflected public interest in lowering carbohydrate consumption. Interestingly, the rise in wheat consumption that started some 30 years ago was also triggered by health concerns. In the 1970s, American began shifting from animal products to grain-based foods, including wheat products, because of concerns about cholesterol and heart disease."

                    Their discussion of wheat consumption going back to pre-colonial times in interesting. This article has a graph of wheat consumption back to 1968; I've seen plots going back into the 19th c.

                    is a spread sheet of per capita consumption of calories, carbs, protein and fats (including different types), going back to 1910.

                    1910 - 3400kcal, 500g carb, 99 prot, 120fat
                    2006 - 3900kcal, 474g carb, 111prot, 178fat

                    re. fats
                    1910 - 52sat, 47mono, 13poly
                    2006 - 54sat, 77mono, 39poly

                    1. re: paulj

                      "re. fats
                      1910 - 52sat, 47mono, 13poly
                      2006 - 54sat, 77mono, 39poly"


                      So, if heart disease has increased between these years, and if the ingestion of a specific type of fat is to blame, the wrong fat has clearly been lynched.

                    2. re: paulj

                      It seems to me that the American diet has changed a lot over the decades. Here is a USDA study that shows changes:


                      We eat a lot more meat, use a lot more fat, and a lot more refined grain and sugars. In short, a lot more of everything.

                      And the idea nobody has challenged the core tenet of the paper saying that saturated fats aren't worse for you than other fats isn't true. That's wishful thinking on the part of the author. In fact, the paper's author isn't even making that claim, and is very specific and vocal in saying so. His claim is actually that he's not convinced that the existing research shows that saturated fats are worse, and his view is that nobody knows. (Of course that's a different view from the WSJ author -- who seems to think that we need to eat a lot more meat, cheese and butter to promote good health.)

                      1. re: calumin

                        They are working from the same sort of ERS data that I linked. That study is from around 2000, so it doesn't reflect trends in the last decade.

                        Note also - we eat more fruits and vegetables (20% over 1970s)

                        I noted that grain (wheat) consumption was low around 1970. They attribute the growth to:
                        "strong consumer demand for variety breads,other instore bakery items, and grainbased snack foods; and increasing fastfood sales of products made with buns,doughs, and tortillas."

                        They aren't claiming that we eat more refined grains (compared to whole). They note that whole grain consumption is well below the recommendation. In my experience it is easier to buy whole grains (and products) now than in the 70s. Back then you had to go to 'hippy' stores to get bulk whole grains. Now WF has them. Half the breads at Traders are 'crushed sprouted wheat'.

                  2. re: calumin

                    Anyone who can read and think critically and analytically is qualified.

              2. We already discussed that March Annals article

                No evidence saturated fats promote heart disease, no evidence unsaturated fats reduce it

                Teicholz has been writing about this since 2007

                She's mentioned in the 'popular press' section of this Wiki overview of the controversy

                1 Reply
                1. The original comment has been removed
                  1. Interestingly, the author of that WSJ piece appears in a piece in today's Washington Post opinion section (stupidly) titled "Ten Things to Toss." One of those 10 things is Low-Fat Products, written by Nina Teicholz.

                    No matter your take on low versus high fat diets, clearly Teicholz's PR team is doing a good job getting her prime placements.

                    Personally, I welcome the continued discussion of this issue. IME, mainstream physicians and dietitians are still promoting a low-fat diet so the issue is hardly settled.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tcamp

                      "Personally, I welcome the continued discussion of this issue. IME, mainstream physicians and dietitians are still promoting a low-fat diet so the issue is hardly settled."

                      I agree. As a physician, it's quite frustrating when my own colleagues think I'm nuts.

                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                        The new medical school in my area anounced it is planning carb restriction for its nutrition dept, not the long term failure, low fat, high carb.

                        They also claim they're going to be patient care centered and encourage medical students to be lifelong learners who continually self evaluate. They say they want to change the course of medicine as currently practiced.

                        HOPE. The tide is slowly turning, prominent researchers are voicing disdain for corporation strangleholds on treatment and diagnostic guidelines form our prestigious medical institutions.