The American people have been given a lot of bad information about the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease. This misinformation is slowly being corrected, and more research is being done in the area, but most medical organizations still recommend low-fat diets as “heart healthy.”
In the 1940s, heart disease was increasing at a rapid rate in the U.S. and other developed nations, and the search was on for the cause. Dr. Ancel Keys was a strong proponent of the idea that dietary fats were the problem. He published a ground-breaking study called the Seven Countries study, which showed a strong statistical link between a high-fat diet and heart disease. He became a tireless advocate for his theory that a diet rich in saturated fats (primarily from animal sources) was the cause of heart disease. The medical profession has taken up the cause.
American’s diets have changed quite a bit since then. We consume a lot less fats, and as a result, a lot more carbohydrates. (An unintended side effect: This diet has been blamed for the large increase in type 2 diabetes in our society over the last few decades.)
But problems have come to light about the Seven Countries study. Dr. Keys has been accused of “cherry picking” data so the results agreed with his theory. More recent studies have not shown any link between dietary fats and heart disease, except for the fact that hydrogenated fats are a known cause.
Another problem was that too much was read into the conclusions. His data did show that people who ate more fat had more heart disease, but it did not show that the fat was the cause of the problem. Modern societies that eat more saturated fats also tend to be wealthier, less physically active, and — in my opinion, the most important — eat more processed foods. Also, commercially raised animals are not fed their natural diets, but instead are raised on grains, which changes their fat profiles. Grain-fed animals have unbalanced ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids, which is thought to contribute to inflammation as well as heart disease.
In my nutrition training, we were taught that our biggest nutritional problem is not that we eat too much meat, it is that so much of our foods are unnatural. Besides being raised or grown on “factory farms,” much of what we eat is highly processed. Process a food somewhat, and you reduce its nutritional value; process it a lot, and it becomes toxic, like sugar or hydrogenated fats.
We studied the work of Dr. Weston Price, who in the 1930s profiled many native cultures whose diets consisted almost exclusively of animal products, yet were nearly free of heart disease and other “diseases of civilization.” A more recent study showed that while 60 percent of the adult U.S. population has elevated blood pressure, only about 3 percent of tribal adults, who still live a native lifestyle, had blood pressure readings above normal.
It seems that medical science had the opposite view of nutrition — the more processed a food is, the better. Processed foods, like white bread, are “enriched” with highly refined vitamins and other nutrients. Artificial sweeteners are added, which are not even made from foods. Has the fiber been processed out of your brown rice or whole-grain wheat? No problem, you can buy a pill or a drink filled with processed fiber.
I predict that in 10 years the medical profession will make yet another dietary U-turn, and finally acknowledge that dietary fats actually have little to do with heart disease, let alone weight loss. It has already happened with hydrogenated fats, which doctors used to recommend as heart healthy but are now acknowledged as a major contributor to heart disease. In chiropractic school, over 30 years ago, we were advised against them in our nutrition class, based on the important dietary principle that hydrogenated fats are highly processed.
This change will take a long time. There is a lot of vested interest in keeping things the way they are, due to professional egos and huge amounts of money being made on statin drugs to lower blood cholesterol, based on the cholesterol-heart disease theory. But I believe the truth will eventually come to light, and the sooner the better.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.