There are few moments that parallel the anticipation of chowing down a perfectly cooked, juicy steak. That tender, helpless cut of meat sits on your plate obediently as you prepare to slice it open with your razor sharp knife and deliver it unencumbered to its final destination within your digestive system. Just after you have stabbed that filet mignon with your fork but before the meat has entered the black hole that is your mouth, a thought of fear and terror enters your mind.”Isn’t all of this saturated fat going to give me a heart attack?” A particular image may then form in your head. Tiny little blobs of fat swimming around in your blood stream and fixating onto your blood vessels, bellowing in cruel and evil laughter as they do. This is the picture that has been branded in the minds of Americans for over 60 years. The relentless demonization of saturated fat by nutritional “authorities” continues today. I will now inform you that this link between fat and heart disease is utterly and entirely a myth.
So where did this idea that eating lots of fat gives you heart disease come from? Well we can thank the Seven Countries Study (or more appropriately: The Seven Countries out of Twenty-Two that Gave the Best Result for the Hypothesis I was Trying To Prove Study) for that one. The leader of the study was a guy by the name of Ancel Keys. Basically, the study showed that there was an association between the amount of fat a country ate and the the number of deaths from heart disease (key word: association). Unfortunately, there were several problems with the results of the study. 1) Keys only picked 7 out of the 22 countries that he had collected data for and these countries conveniently portrayed the strongest association between fat intake and heart disease deaths (all data showed to the left) Having trouble drawing a line through those points? So am I. 2) In the 1950s (when the study was done) countries were not very good at keeping records causes of death nor could they accurately measure the amount of fat that the country actually consumed. 3) By far the most important problem with studies like this is that they lead to faulty conclusions. Even if the the data is trustworthy (which it isn’t), just because the fat intake of a country is associated with heart disease does not mean that fat causes heart disease.
This is a critical learning point, because we are constantly inundated with these types studies from the mainstream media. “Doing crosswords can prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s Disease!” “Cell phones cause cancer!” “If you drink tonic water on Tuesdays anytime after 2pm you will get gonorrhea! Huh? As you can see, equating associations with correlations is incredibly misleading and downright ridiculous. Suppose that every day I forget to shower, Miley Cyrus comes out with a new single. This does not mean that my fragrant body odor wafts into Miley’s nostrils and inspires her to pump out another classic jam. So here is my point: in 1950, when data collection was far from reliable, was an association made between the amount of fat intake by a country and heart disease? A small one. Does this mean that eating fat gives you heart disease? Absolutely not.
The end result of this study was that Keys got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine (pretty sweet deal!). He also convinced the American Heart Association to go on television and recommend that people avoid foods high in fat such as butter and that tantalizing steak I was talking about earlier. Then, in 1977, although there still was no evidence that saturated fat had anything to do with heart disease, the government got involved. Senator George McGovern, head of a nutrition committee, published a document called Dietary Goals for the United States. This was a watershed moment as it was the first time (but certainly not the last) that the government had issued nutritional advice for its citizens. As you might expect, one of the key principles of the document was to eat less saturated fat and replace it with more carbohydrates such as cereal grains. The message to ditch the saturated fat for more carbohydrates might sound vaguely familiar… oh yeah! It’s the same one we still hear in 2013.
As you are beginning to see, the war waged on saturated fat and fat in general has been an unscientific one and it continues on today. Just walk into any grocery store and you will be blasted with a dizzying array of low-fat products. Despite all of this hand-waving about reducing the fat in our diet since the 1970s, heart disease is still the number one killer in this country. Take a gander at the American Heart Association’s stance on saturated fats and you’ll see that not much has changed. The AHA and others are now saying that saturated fats raise cholesterol levels which then can lead to heart disease. This is basically the same argument with a mediator (cholesterol–another undeservedly victimized compound) between saturated fat and heart disease. Well, it turns out that several recent studies have reported no link between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk. The only thing that Team Anti-Saturated Fat had going for them is weak association studies from the 1950s which have now been overturned, and studies in animal models that do not have the slightest resemblance of human physiology.
Your government has been telling you for some 40 years that eating saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease and now I am inform you that these conclusions were based on unreliable data. Be wary of nutritional recommendations your government has made and realize that they often aren’t based on solid scientific evidence. Also, if you want a much more detailed account of the story of the anti-fat movement, please read Gary Taubes’ book . And as always, stay #geared.