Relax! It still is!
But you may be unsure now, after last week’s breaking news: The American Heart Association has issued a Presidential Advisory, which said that ‘coconut oil is just as ‘unhealthy as eating beef fat and butter’, and replacing saturated fats (SFA) by polyunsaturated ones (PUFA) reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 30 per cent.
Reading the headline put my mind at rest though, because I know that beef fat and butter are not unhealthy either. All is well. There is so much wrong with the entire article on the BBC news website that I felt the need to write a little more about it.
While saturated fat may raise total cholesterol, it does that by raising HDL cholesterol – the good cholesterol – not the bad.
Moreover, it is a disgrace that this is meant to be ‘updated advice’, when it is in fact a very, very, very old hat. The American physiologist Ancel Keys first dished it out in the 60s, after he used his famous ‘7 Countries Study’ to substantiate his ‘Diet-Heart Hypothesis’: High cholesterol is the main risk factor for heart disease, and high cholesterol is caused by a diet high in saturated fat. In fact, the ‘7 Countries Study’ could have been a ’22 Countries Study’, because relevant data was available from 22 countries at the time. Keys dismissed the data from 15 countries, because it did not confirm his hypothesis. This is called confirmation bias: It is common for researchers to only find what they want to or expect to find. The recommendation to lower cholesterol – by lowering saturated fat intake – was based on Ancel Keys’ flawed research and the whole world has been following it ever since.
It has to be said that even Ancel Keys never claimed that lowering dietary cholesterol (i. e. by avoiding or reducing eggs or prawns) lowers serum cholesterol, even though we have all heard that advice, I’m sure. It doesn’t. The liver produces much more cholesterol every day than you could ever eat. A couple of eggs a day don’t even make a dent in it. No, it is allegedly saturated fat that increases the risk for heart disease. Instead, we were advised to consume polyunsaturated fats, which were said to lower the risk. But here’s the thing: This has never been proven. There is no research to substantiate that claim. Only last year, the British Medical Journal published an analysis of data from a randomised control trial (the gold standard!), the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, which had been carried out from 1968 to 1973. It was never published, because the data didn’t confirm the diet-heart hypothesis. It was buried instead and only came to light last year. Confirmation bias again.
You would think that maybe it has now been proven, since the AHA felt the need to ‘update’ it’s advice. But, no, it hasn’t. The AHA has reviewed the research we have on the subject and – as is common – eliminated studies they considered as flawed, which was all but four out of all of them. They dismissed everything that did not confirm their belief – that saturated fat promotes heart disease – including several of the largest and most reputable studies ever done. (For details, click here and read Gary Taubes evaluation of the AHA paper.) What was left were four (4!) studies they were happy with, all of them dating back to the 1960s. All of them. Apparently, every study ever since has come to the wrong conclusions. Confirmation bias yet again. So last week’s ‘update’ is based on ancient research. What would it take, how many more years, before official advice from governments and charities, will accept the results of solid NEW research and update their advice? How much longer do we have to wait?
The BBC news article further:
Well, yes. If science is being ignored and official bodies we have to rely on for advice cling to outdated hypotheses that could not be proven, while at the same time new research keeps getting published that finds just the opposite … that is very confusing. Evaluate the available data, listen to researchers, actually update your advice and there is no more confusion. Poof, gone.
By whom? Not doctors and scientists that are actually up-to-date.
Animal fats are generally seen as bad, because of the above, which we know is wrong. Olive oil – a (mainly) monounsaturated fat – is indeed a very healthy option. Sunflower oil … not so much. There’s nothing wrong with it if it is cold pressed, stored in – ideally opaque – glass bottles, kept away from heat and light, not used for frying, used up quickly and not over-consumed in relation to omega-3 oils (sunflower oil is – mainly – omega-6). However, hardly any of the sunflower oil we consume is made or used that way. It is extracted using solvents, put into clear plastic bottles, displayed under the bright light of supermarkets, is the preferred oil for frying at high temperatures (deep-frying), and reheated over and over again, a process in which it develops more and more trans fatty acids - toxic fat that has indeed been proven to contribute to heart disease - and aldehydes, thought to be toxic, but not yet extensively studied. Moreover, we consume considerably more omega-6 (e. g. in the form of sunflower oil) than omega-3, but the ratio between the two matters. Click here to read more about why.
Exactly: It’s a theory. It was never proven, no matter how many times it was attempted. When will we have enough evidence to put this theory to rest?
No, as I said above: Saturated fat may raise HDL cholesterol, and thus total cholesterol, but not LDL. A diet high in sugar and carbohydrates – particularly of the refined kind – raises LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can now be analysed in more detail than before. There are subfractions of LDL, and it turns out that to evaluate heart disease risk, it's worth finding out about the particle size. Moreover, even LDL cholesterol doesn’t randomly clog arteries, like fat may clog your drain if you keep pouring it down the sink. Biology is a lot more complicated than that, but essentially cholesterol is only accumulating on the arterial walls in an attempt to fix damage caused by inflammation. And guess what promotes inflammation: a high-sugar/high-carb diet. Cholesterol of whatever kind is not the most useful analyte for predicting someone’s risk of heart disease. There are much better ones, we just never hear about them.
And here comes the recommendation:
They are seriously recommending replacing coconut oil and butter with ‘spreads’ – margarine. At this point I wanted to cry and bang my head on the table top. Who – in this day and age – seriously still recommends that people eat margarine! An artificial spread made from pretty much nothing but trans fats and aldehydes. Really?
Oh, wait … Is it perhaps possible that the people who sell margarine have an interest in this kind of recommendation? Or the ones who sell sugar? Or those who sell medication, such as statin drugs, blood thinners, beta-blockers? Here’s a link to the sponsors of the American Heart Association. It’s a charity, it needs money, and this is where it gets it from.
So, what do you think? Would you expect a manmade product such as margarine, which has been around for just about 150 years or so and only really took off after Ancel Keys’ dire warnings against saturated fats, to be healthier than natural saturated fats – whether from animals or coconut oil – which humans have been consuming for millions of years? Or would you think that the dramatic rise in heart disease, diabetes and stroke that developed countries all over the world have been experiencing (to various extends) since the late 1970s could be down to the fact that we have been given the wrong advice?
To learn more about what really causes heart disease and how come that we’ve been sold unsubstantiated inaccurate advice for so long, and how it is possible that we continue to be fed such rubbish, click here for a reading list. I just haven’t got enough room here.