A Lot More Fuss About Fats – 20 April 2016

When I first started writing about reducing cholesterol over three years ago, I realised that there was a lot to learn. What I didn’t know at the time was quite how difficult it would be to know what guidelines to follow. At first it seemed straight forward – reduce saturated fats, essentially – and replace with good, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, oily fish nuts, avocados and low fat dairy products. As regular readers of my blog know, I set about this project with zeal and, along with regular exercise, my cholesterol level dropped within three months.

Since those early and naïve days, I have discovered that the relationship between a raised cholesterol level and mortality is far less clear than I first understood. Many people who suffer heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels.  If this is so, then constantly trying to reduce cholesterol levels in order to extend our longevity might not be the simple solution I supposed it to be.

Over the past few years the notion of saturated fats being the devil incarnate has also come under scrutiny. Sugar is now in the spotlight as the number one killer and sad to say, low fat products are packed with the white stuff.

This week a very interesting article was published in the New York Times which had me scratching my head. It is an important addition to the ever increasingly muddled picture of what to believe, who to believe and what to do to preserve our cardiovascular health.

Entitled, A Study on Fats That Doesn’t Fit the Story Line, Aaron E. Carroll, professor of paediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, reports on an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on that controversial topic of how our diet affects our cardiovascular health.

The article in the NY Times points out that questions were being raised about saturated fats as far back as the late 1960s and 1970s. Guess what happened to this data? It wasn’t published. The study was called The Minnesota Coronary Experiment and was a well –designed study that collected data on the cholesterol levels of over 2 300 participants. They were put on a diet that reduced their saturated fat intake and increased their unsaturated fat intake. Over the course of the study their overall cholesterol levels dropped. No surprises here – many of us have found this to be the case when we replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.

However, the study showed that there was no decreased risk of death from this reduced cholesterol level. In fact, it showed an increased mortality especially in the group of participants who were 65 years and older. Most surprisingly, perhaps, was the finding that those whose cholesterol level had reduced the most, were also at the greatest risk of dying from any cause – ie not just from cardiovascular disease.

Since this time studies have proven and disproved these findings. The question is – why was the Minnesota study not published? Why was the Sydney Diet Heart Study (1966 – 1973) not published until three years ago? Could it be because it too found that eating a diet higher in unsaturated fats resulted in more deaths from heart disease? What might have happened to the health advice given over the past decades if all this research had been published? Where would the low fat food industry be then? Would we have grown fat on the sugars we have been eating as part of our low fat diets?

If this is sounding like a conspiracy, perhaps there has been one. The NY Times article suggests that perhaps these studies were not published because they contradicted the accepted wisdom of the time that saturated fats were the big bad wolf.

As Professor Carroll concludes “the state of nutrition research in general is shockingly flawed. It’s hard enough to debate the data we can see. Knowing there’s probably data out there that people haven’t shared makes everything much, much harder.”

So there we have the conundrum. No-one knows what to believe, which studies to follow, whose advice to take and what is being hidden from the public. Most of all, I don’t know whether to put butter on my toast and a steak in the pan or to just continue trying to get my cholesterol down. Who knows if that is more likely to extend or curtail life expectancy?

Next time: The Sugar Conspiracy

In the meantime you may like to read my fully saturated fat article published today in The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2016/04/18/what-like-eat-heston-blumenthal-hinds-head/8Z8utjEVDdnTECx2cYbXCN/story.html

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