If you google images for cholesterol or heart attacks, you will inevitably end up looking through countless images of eggs, bacon, butter, cheese, and the like. Everybody loves bacon, and yet we are told it is a guilty pleasure that causes high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.
I will begin with the origins of the “low fat hypothesis”, or “lipid theory”, since it is where our fears of consuming too much bacon and butter originate from.
If some of you are wondering what the lipid hypothesis, or low fat theory, is, here is a great explanation by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon from their book Eat Fat, Lose Fat.
- We eat a diet containing too much cholesterol and saturated fats, and as a result we develop a high level of cholesterol in our blood.
- High cholesterol causes arteriosclerosis.
- Atherosclerosis obstructs the vessels that bring blood to the heart, resulting in heart disease.
I find it fascinating that prior to the 1950’s, heart disease and heart attacks were relatively rare. Butter and bacon were not invented in the 50’s. They are traditional foods that have been consumed for centuries together with sprouted grains, lacto-fermeted vegetables, cultured dairy, and antibiotic free meat without being subject to high rates of heart disease.
Before 1920 coronary heart disease was rare in America; so rare that when a young man internist name Paul Dudley White introduced the German electrocardiograph to his colleagues at Harvard University, they advised him to concentrate on a more profitable branch of medicine. The new machine revealed the presence of arterial blockages, thus permitting early diagnosis of coronary heart disease. But in those days clogged arteries were a medical rarity, and White had to search for patients who could benefit from his technology. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, Page 5
Fast forward to the 50’s, when the rate of heart attacks began to skyrocket. What changed? For one thing, the consumption of butter declined dramatically, and instead everyone began consuming copious amounts of margarine and other vegetable oils instead. Why? They were cheaper, and the foods industry used them instead of more expensive animal fats.
Over the past century as butter consumption dropped to less than one quarter of what it was (from 18 pounds per person per year to four), vegetable oil consumption went up five fold (from eleven pound per person per year to 59). In 1900, heart disease was rare. By 1950, heart problems were killing more men than any other disease. Now, at the dawn of the second millennium, heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women. Natural fat consumption: down. Processed fat consumption: up. Heart disease way-up. Forget for a moment what “the experts” are saying, and ask yourself what these trends suggest to your inner statistician. Catherine Shanahan, MD,”Deep Nutrition”, Page 171
(You can click here to preview the book.)
The same young doctor who brought the German electrocardiograph from Germany suggested a link between the newly engineered margarine and other hydrogenated oils, and heart attacks, but his idea was completely rejected.
Dr White and many others pointed out that these facts – heart disease increasing along with the use of polyunsaturated oils and partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods- suggested that Americans should eat traditional food like meat, eggs, butter, and cheese. Mary Enig, Sally Fallon, Eat Fat, Loose Fat, Page 23
(You can click here to preview the book.)
Instead, the scientific community listened to Ancel Keys, an ambitious young man who invented the k-rations during the war. According to doctor Cate Shanahan, Ancel Keys was not a cardiologist or even an M.D. He earned his PhD in 1930 studying salt water eels. Yet the Minnesota public health department hired him to study the problem of rising rates of heart disease at the end of the war.
In 1956 members of the American Heart Association appeared on national television warning people about the link between consuming butter, eggs, bacon, and milk, and coronary heart disease. The birth of a new era began for the American public. By the late sixties nearly everyone embraced the new “lipid theory” and Dr. Keys became the chairman of the International Society of Cardiology. Dr Keys hypothesized that a Mediterranean style diet low in animal fat protected against heart disease and a diet high in fat led to heart disease. In order to back his theory he collected data on death from coronary heart disease from twenty-two countries, but ultimately chose to analyze the data of only seven. These seven countries happened to support Dr. Keys low fat theory. He concluded that serum cholesterol was strongly linked to coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association finally had an answer to the high rate of heart disease. Dr Keys became the darling child of the vegetable oil and margarine industies.
While this was a happy ending for Dr. Keys and the vegetable oil industry, not everyone was convinced. Many scientists accused Keyes of “cherry picking” the data to match his hypothesis in his seven country study. What about the other 13 countries? What were their results? In fact, the results in the famous study was based only on males. Women were not even included! But the lipid hypothesis caught on fire. Young men like Nathan Pritkin began using the new discovered theory to promote a new health diet that reversed heart angina, cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, etc. While the Pritkin diet also eliminates all processed foods (which could have also be a reason for low cholesterol levels), it is mostly known for it’s low fat dimension. The whole trend of low-fat yogurt, salad dressings, and milk was born around this time.
The success of the Pritkin diet was probably due to a number of factors having nothing to do with with reduction in dietary fats – weight loss alone, for example, will lower cholesterol, at least at first- but Pritkin soon found that the Pritkin diet presented many problems, not the least of which was the fact that people had trouble staying on it. Those who possessed enough will power to remain fat free for any length of time developed a variety of health problems including low energy, difficulty in concentration, depression, weight gain and mineral deficiencies. Pritkin may have saved himself from heart disease but his low fat diet did not help him recover from leukemia. He died, in the prime of life, of suicide when he realized his spartan regime was not working. Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, Page 5
Crisco, Wesson, and other vegetable oil companies donated thousands and thousands of dollars for studies that supported the low fat theory, and by the 60’s the theory was almost universally accepted. The famous epidemiological Framingham Heart study is used as proof for the lipid/low fat theory. The study followed six thousand people over the period of forty years. The researchers followed two groups: one that consumed little saturated fats and another one that followed the low fat diet. Later Dr. William Castilli, director of the Framigham Heart Study, admitted:
In Framigham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fats one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower people’s serum cholesterol. We found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories weighed the least and were the most physically active. “Concerning the Possibilities of a Nut“, Archives of Internal Medicine
On Farmingham Heart Study’s updated website, the risks for heart disease are listed as tobacco, low exercise, thyroid dysfunctions, alcohol, etc. There is no mention of fats being a cause for heart disease.
In fact, a significant number of scientists since then have continued to question the low fat theory out loud, occasionally causing public uproar. Uffe Ravnskov‘ book “Cholesterol Myths” was literally set on fire during a Finish television program. Google Mary Enig, PhD, and you will see some of the rudest, most abusive comments from the public, simply because she openly doubts the low fat theory.
(You can click here to preview the book.)
The lipid theory was one of the many hypothesis the scientists were grappling with during the 50’s in an attempt to make sense of the sudden spike in coronary heart disease. Why did Ancel Keys’ theory win the day?
- He was ambitious and knew how to “cherry pick” the right kind of evidence to support his theory. The seven country study is one of the most famous study to date.
- The American Heart Society chose him as their spokesman after he presented his famous study.
- Crisco, Wesson, and the rest of the vegetable oil companies, who were interested in popularizing their products, donated huge amounts of money to studies that supported the low fat theory. In less than two decades everyone switched from butter to hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, and vegetable shortening.
- Once the lipid hypothesis was accepted as the true healthy heart theory, only the scientists who searched to prove it right were published and accepted. Everyone else was publicly ridiculed.
- Enthusiasts like Nathan Pritkin embraced the lipid theory and created famously popular diets.
Yet as Bob Dylan’s song goes “the times are achangin”. I recently came across Doctor Andrew Weil’s article in which he openly admits that saturated fats do not cause coronary heart disease. In fact he humbly admits that the medical establishment has been wrong:
Looking back at the dietary information collected from these thousands of participants, the investigators found no difference in the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, or coronary vascular disease between those individuals with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat. This goes completely against the conventional medical wisdom of the past 40 years. It now appears that many studies used to support the low-fat recommendation had serious flaws.