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The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease
1 year ago

This post was modified from its original form on 10 May, 5:07
1 year ago

One consequence is that in cutting back on fats, we are now eating a lot more carbohydrates—at least 25% more since the early 1970s. Consumption of saturated fat, meanwhile, has dropped by 11%, according to the best available government data. Translation: Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we're eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Even seemingly healthy low-fat foods, such as yogurt, are stealth carb-delivery systems, since removing the fat often requires the addition of fillers to make up for lost texture—and these are usually carbohydrate-based.

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.

The real surprise is that, according to the best science to date, people put themselves at higher risk for these conditions no matter what kind of carbohydrates they eat. Yes, even unrefined carbs. Too much whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast and whole-grain pasta for dinner, with fruit snacks in between, add up to a less healthy diet than one of eggs and bacon, followed by fish. The reality is that fat doesn't make you fat or diabetic. Scientific investigations going back to the 1950s suggest that actually, carbs do.

The second big unintended consequence of our shift away from animal fats is that we're now consuming more vegetable oils. Butter and lard had long been staples of the American pantry until Crisco, introduced in 1911, became the first vegetable-based fat to win wide acceptance in U.S. kitchens. Then came margarines made from vegetable oil and then just plain vegetable oil in bottles.

All of these got a boost from the American Heart Association—which Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crisco oil, coincidentally helped launch as a national organization. In 1948, P&G made the AHA the beneficiary of the popular "Walking Man" radio contest, which the company sponsored. The show raised $1.7 million for the group and transformed it (according to the AHA's official history) from a small, underfunded professional society into the powerhouse that it remains today.

After the AHA advised the public to eat less saturated fat and switch to vegetable oils for a "healthy heart" in 1961, Americans changed their diets. Now these oils represent 7% to 8% of all calories in our diet, up from nearly zero in 1900, the biggest increase in consumption of any type of food over the past century.

This shift seemed like a good idea at the time, but it brought many potential health problems in its wake. In those early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides. Alarmed by these findings, the National Institutes of Health convened researchers several times in the early 1980s to try to explain these "side effects," but they couldn't. (Experts now speculate that certain psychological problems might be related to changes in brain chemistry caused by diet, such as fatty-acid imbalances or the depletion of cholesterol.)

We've also known since the 1940s that when heated, vegetable oils create oxidation products that, in experiments on animals, lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death. For these reasons, some midcentury chemists warned against the consumption of these oils, but their concerns were allayed by a chemical fix: Oils could be rendered more stable through a process called hydrogenation, which used a catalyst to turn them from oils into solids.

From the 1950s on, these hardened oils became the backbone of the entire food industry, used in cakes, cookies, chips, breads, frostings, fillings, and frozen and fried food. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also produced trans fats, which since the 1970s have been suspected of interfering with basic cellular functioning and were recently condemned by the Food and Drug Administration for their ability to raise our levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol.

Yet paradoxically, the drive to get rid of trans fats has led some restaurants and food manufacturers to return to using regular liquid oils—with the same long-standing oxidation problems. These dangers are especially acute in restaurant fryers, where the oils are heated to high temperatures over long periods.

The past decade of research on these oxidation products has produced a sizable body of evidence showing their dramatic inflammatory and oxidative effects, which implicates them in heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer's. Other newly discovered potential toxins in vegetable oils, called monochloropropane diols and glycidol esters, are now causing concern among health authorities in Europe.

In short, the track record of vegetable oils is highly worrisome—and not remotely what Americans bargained for when they gave up butter and lard.

Cutting back on saturated fat has had especially harmful consequences for women, who, due to hormonal differences, contract heart disease later in life and in a way that is distinct from men. If anything, high total cholesterol levels in women over 50 were found early on to be associated with longer life. This counterintuitive result was first discovered by the famous Framingham study on heart-disease risk factors in 1971 and has since been confirmed by other research.


1 year ago

Since women under 50 rarely get heart disease, the implication is that women of all ages have been worrying about their cholesterol levels needlessly. Yet the Framingham study's findings on women were omitted from the study's conclusions. And less than a decade later, government health officials pushed their advice about fat and cholesterol on all Americans over age 2—based exclusively on data from middle-aged men.

Sticking to these guidelines has meant ignoring growing evidence that women on diets low in saturated fat actually increase their risk of having a heart attack. The "good" HDL cholesterol drops precipitously for women on this diet (it drops for men too, but less so). The sad irony is that women have been especially rigorous about ramping up on their fruits, vegetables and grains, but they now suffer from higher obesity rates than men, and their death rates from heart disease have reached parity.

Seeing the U.S. population grow sicker and fatter while adhering to official dietary guidelines has put nutrition authorities in an awkward position. Recently, the response of many researchers has been to blame "Big Food" for bombarding Americans with sugar-laden products. No doubt these are bad for us, but it is also fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines issued by the AHA and USDA, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar.

Indeed, up until 1999, the AHA was still advising Americans to reach for "soft drinks," and in 2001, the group was still recommending snacks of "gum-drops" and "hard candies made primarily with sugar" to avoid fatty foods.

Our half-century effort to cut back on the consumption of meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy has a tragic quality. More than a billion dollars have been spent trying to prove Ancel Keys's hypothesis, but evidence of its benefits has never been produced. It is time to put the saturated-fat hypothesis to bed and to move on to test other possible culprits for our nation's health woes.

Ms. Teicholz has been researching dietary fat and disease for nearly a decade. Her book, "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet," will be published by Simon & Schuster on May 13.


1 year ago

I have found this very interesting and wanted to share it as now we can say, Diane, keep the butter in those recipes and lots of cheese, please.  I have heard over and over that butter is actually better for your heart than margarine and thank goodness as it sure tastes better.

But not the research is proving it to really be true.  Does anyone else ever wonder about all these different changes in dietary awareness.  All the "don't eat this as it will cause cancer", "don't eat that as it causes obesity", etc.  I know that my great-grandmother lived to 95 and she used butter all the time and was not the least bit overweight.  I suspect that the obesity is more directly related to lack of exercise than it is to diet.  We ate hamburgers and fries growing up and were not obese; but we also got more than our share of exercise.  We didn't sit at computers or in front of video games.  We were out riding our bikes and playing games such as baseball, tag, kick the can, etc. from morning to bedtime with exception of meal time.  

We had recess for 15 minutes twice a day and at lunch time for 30 minutes; today my grandsons get a 5 minute recess twice a day and 15 minutes for lunch time.

We had real physical education classes from 1st grade through our sophomore year in high school and we didn't just play games, we did warm up exercises and then played a game of basketball, softball, volleyball, tennis, etc.

We were allowed to watch no more than 1 hours of TV a day and it was in the evening on a rainy day during the summer, or after homework was finished and before bed during the school year; that was it.  And if it was not pooring down rain, we were oiutside playing.  Snow didn't stop us, it added to the things we could do outside; sledding down the hill close to our home, snowball fights after building a snow fort to hide behind, building snowmen, playing Duck, Duck Goose or making Snow Angels.  

I think that the only part of Michelle's war on childhood obesity that has merit is getting the children to exercise.  As to the food aspect, she is way off base and needs to realize that even middle income parents can't feed their children steak and tons of fresh veggies and fruit; it costs way too much to do that and we don't have the taxpayers to pay our food bill as she and Barack do; we have to earn oiur living and it is not in the 6 digit figures.

So, hope that this encourages people and Diane, butter is great in those recipes and lots of cheese is fine, too.

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