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Is Vegetable Oil Worse than Saturated Fat?

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The number one dietary evil in America today is saturated fat (sat fat). Ask most doctors and nutrition experts the one thing you should remove from your diet over everything else, and you are likely to be told that red meat, butter and other sources of sat fat must go. The diet dictocrats have suggested that you should substitute PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) for sat fats. The point of the exercise is to lower blood cholesterol, which has long been thought the main culprit behind heart disease.

PUFAs are found in vegetable oils, so tens of millions of Americans have followed decades of dietary recommendations and stopped cooking with butter. Instead, they have switched to "light" oils such as safflower oil. So, how did that work out? Fortunately, we have a lovely experiment that actually provides us an answer. Between 1966 and 1973 a randomized controlled trial called The Sydney Diet Heart Study (SDHS) was carried out in Australia. This is gold-standard research that trumps the usual epidemiological studies that simply look to see what people are eating on their own and how they fare.

In this study, 458 men who had recently had a "coronary event" (a heart attack or something like it) were randomly assigned to two separate dietary groups. One group was told to carry on its usual way of eating, with the expectation that it would be using the butter and ordinary margarine that was common in Australia at that time. The other group got safflower oil and margarine made from safflower oil rich in omega 6 linoleic acid. This is the most common of the PUFAs that Americans as well as Australians consume. Back in 1978 when the study results were first published, there was no analysis of which men had more heart attacks and heart attack deaths.

Scientists recently recovered the original data, dusted them off and analyzed them (BMJ, online, Feb. 5, 2013). The results were alarming. The men who had been provided with "heart-healthy" safflower oil were 60% more likely to die during the study (17.6% of them died compared to 11.8% of the men on their usual unsupervised diets). In addition, they were 75% more likely to die of coronary heart disease (16.3% of the men on the PUFA-rich diet compared to 10.1% of the men eating butter).

Even though the men consuming omega-6 PUFAs did lower their cholesterol as the investigators had hoped, this did not save their lives. Switching to a diet rich in linoleic acid was counterproductive for preventing heart disease and cardiac mortality. Here, in their own words, are the conclusions of the Australian researchers:

"In this evaluation of data from the SDHS [The Sydney Diet Heart Study], selectively increasing the n-6 PUFA LA [omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid linoleic acid] from safflower oil and safflower polyunsaturated margarine increased rates of death from cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and all cause mortality compared with a control diet rich in SFA [saturated fatty acids] from animal fats and common margarines. This is the first published report to show an increase in mortality from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, comparing this LA [linoleic acid] intervention to the control group, and demonstrating that the magnitude of increased n-6 LA intake was associated with higher risk of death."

These results throw the traditional diet-heart hypothesis into question and suggest that overdoing on omega-6 fatty acids in the diet might not be a good idea. In fact, it might be a bad idea! And this is not the first time vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids have been called into question. The Australian investigators point out that:

"These unfavorable effects of n-6 LA shown in the SDHS are consistent with two other randomized controlled trials, in which experimental dietary conditions selectively increased n-6 LA in the place of SFAs by replacing animal fats and common margarines with corn oil. Together, these three trials provide a rare opportunity to evaluate the specific effects of increasing n-6 LA without confounding from concurrent increases in n-3 PUFAs. In a pooled analysis, the increased risks of death from coronary heart disease (hazard ratio 1.33 and cardiovascular disease (1.27) approached significance. Secondary prevention trials showed significant adverse effects of n-6 LA on coronary heart disease mortality (1.84). By contrast, pooled analysis of the four randomized controlled trials that increased n-3 PUFAs alongside n-6 LA showed reduced cardiovascular mortality (0.79)."

What that means in plain English is that using vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids increased the risk of death from heart disease whereas using omega-3 fatty acids actually reduced cardiovascular mortality. Our ancestors ate meat that was raised on grass rather than corn. That food was high in omega-3 fatty acids. And people who ate a Mediterranean diet also consumed foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil is a prime example of a heart-healthy oil.

So there you have it. The diet dictocrats have been telling people to use PUFAs like safflower and corn oil because they are supposed to be "heart healthy." Turns out they were wrong. And according to the Australian researchers, this is especially true for people who smoke or drink, exposing their bodies to excessive oxidative stress. When breakdown products of linoleic acid are oxidized, they form nasty compounds that are likely to cause clogging of coronary arteries. They now urge caution in simply substituting omega-6 PUFAs for sat fat around the world.

Once again we have learned a painful lesson. The "experts" don't always know what is best for us. It can take decades to unscramble dietary dogma and learn that grandma's wisdom was right after all. To learn more about heart-healthy food and the specifics of the Mediterranean diet we suggest our book, The People's Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. It is loaded with common sense solutions to common problems and details about heart healthy food. Although this book has been out of print for the last two months, we will be receiving copies from National Geographic within the next two days. We will get your book off to you as soon as possible after that.

If you want to take advantage of our "Holiday Bundle," we are reopening this very special offer for fans of The People's Pharmacy. Because we were out of print for so long over the holidays, we are re-offering our 50% discount on the book Recipes & Remedies from The People's Pharmacy when you buy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. That's a savings of $7.48 off the cover price. Here is a link to the "bundle" offer.

If you are having a hard time swallowing this new information we encourage you to check out the research in the BMJ for yourself. Because it does not fit with the prevailing paradigm, it is likely to sink without a trace. But when you read the original research you will see that evidence trumps long-held dietary dogma.

[BMJ, Feb. 5, 2013]

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We welcome your thoughts about heart healthy diet recommendations below.

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I don't get it. It has been known for several years (or more) that polyunsaturated fats lower good cholesterol as well as bad. Why is that not addressed here?


This is the first really well-conducted study (randomized, double-blind) to demonstrate the long-term outcome of PUFAs on cardiovascular mortality. Up until now it has been mostly conjecture. Whether PUFAs lower good along with bad cholesterol is far less interesting than the ultimate outcome: death!

These Aussie researchers demonstrated the only metric that ultimately matters in a convincing manner.

Thanks so much for publishing this. The information regarding PUFAs has been well-known in the Paleo/Primal Diet community for quite some time, and demands the widest possible distribution. In addition to the Graedon's excellent books, I would highly recommend "The Cholesterol Delusion" by Ernest N. Curtis, M.D.

Thanks again for all you do, Joe and Terry, you rock!

Who exactly are the diet dictocrats? Anybody with a decent education/training in the field of nutrition knows that polyunsaturated fats are problematic. Oils high in monounsaturatd fats, such as olive oil and canola oil (good for high heat), have been recommended for years in private practice and publicly.

Funny that you are presenting this as new news! I've known this for a very very long time and I don't know where I originally read the information on it. I do know I've read over and over that canola oil and olive oil are the safest oils to use and I use a spread that Land 'O Lakes makes that is a combination of real butter and canola oil.

I gave up corn oil and safflower oil years ago and have read from many different sources on the evils of polyunsaturated fats and the good benefits of monosaturated fats, found in canola and olive oils. It's great, however, that this original study has been updated and shows the unequivocable results.

What bearing does this report have on taking the widely available supplement CLA [conjugated linoleic acid] for its weigh management or anticarcinogenic properties? I'm terribly confused. Thanks!

This is hard to believe. Not that their facts are not correct, but that it took so long to be unveiled. Are there other studies to support these conclusions?

This was very interesting and a bit alarming. I have a question. What oil would you recommend for cooking? Olive oil is great for salads and some cooking, but not for everything. I've been using Canola oil when I don't use olive oil. Is there an oil you recommend that would contain more omega 3 than omega 6?

I'm having difficult;y with answering the presenting question about saturated fats compared to omega 3 fatty acids. Red meats are high in N-6 fatty acids so I presume are still bad. And N-6 FAs high in many margarines are bad. But what about those who choose to use butter instead of margarines for all the traditional margarine uses? This information is too important to be safely confused about.



Red meat is high in n-6 fatty acids if the animal is grain fed. If allowed to eat grass, quite the contrary. Butter is not usually high in n-6 fatty acids unless the animals were grain fed.

Unfortunately, this is not the prevailing belief, and even in many enlightened nutrition circles, excess omega-6 intake is thought to be beneficial when sourced from nuts, seeds, etc. More specifically, the AHA has held an obstinately pro-omega-6 view for quite some time, but that's for another article...

Congratulations on one of the most succinct and perceptive summaries of the exciting new BMJ publication thus far. Very well-written.

As a vegan, I have been focused on consuming monounsaturated fats such as olive oil. My understanding has been that monounsaturated is better for you than polyunsaturated which is better for you than saturated which is better for you than trans-fat. It would be wonderful to see a gold-standard study to confirm or deny this.

Thank you for placing so much on the web. Joe and Terry, you are as important to me as my olive oil.

You 2 are a blessing and an alarm on the health confusion that is out there. I am a fan since the "grapefruit interferes with medicine" days. Keep up the great work and continue saving lives.

What can you tell us about walnut oil? The Spectrum brand label says it is good for use in medium to high heat situations and has 1900 mg. of Omega 3 in a tablespoonful. It does need to be refrigerated.

Growing up during depression years, we didn't have all the fancy food we do now. My dad was a farmer so we ate what we raised. My mom cooked with lard, rendered from the pig we raised. Milk was separated so we could sell the cream. The calves and us got skim milk. We frequently had whole wheat bread when we didn't have gasoline to take the wheat to the mill to be ground.

Yes, we also had molasses because my dad made it out of the cane we planted. Dinner was usually some salt pork as we had no refrigeration, potatoes, carrots, or squash from the cellar with fruit that mom had preserved in the summer. My parents lived a long life, although my mom died of cancer at 84.

> Red meats are high in N-6 fatty acids so I presume are still bad.

I'm not sure, but I think fish fed corn products (most farm fish) have the same problem. If our food-stock animals eat what they were designed to eat, they are much healthier for us to eat. One of our local doctors even started raising grass-fed beef to offer to his patients when it became difficult to find in local food retail. Tastes very different from grain-fed beef.

I AM NOT SURE about canola oil, (98% is GMO and treated with chemicals) organic and vegan foods articles do not recommend canola. They are recommending olive oil (with limitations, not abusing it) avocado and coconut oil because of its benefits.

I am not buying this data, which is confusing. Regrettably, pharmacology & kinetics were different than science of today. There are other great published data at Lancet & numerous scientific data in France.

I believe, we should look further rather draw conclusion.

As my great aunt used to tell me "only eat the real stuff, honey" just not too much. Overindulgence has never been a good thing and vegetables have always been on my table.

Thanks for the article. There is no mention of canola oil in the article, and as the comments reflect, many doctors recommend it and many people make it their 'healthy choice'. But there is a great deal of literature that says canola oil, after processing for today's home market and for makers of processed foods, is rancid when bottled and can cause troublesome inflammation when consumed.

For a long time I thought I was smart to select canola oil. But since I stopped using it, in favor of unrefined extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, hemp seed oil, and good old animal fat, and got off processed foods, I've lost 20 pounds without trying and my inflammation level (as tested in the cardio C-reactive protein test) has come down.

My digestion, respiration and joints feel much younger. Getting off processed foods is a larger change than just omitting canola, but after reading several books, including Udo Erasmus' book, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, I can't help but think canola played a role in my many problems and discomforts. I cleaned out the cabinets!

On the internet the presentation by Sally Fallon Merrill called "Oiling of America" explains how the saturated-fat phobia came about. Bad science and more. Mary Enig, the scientist one who finally got the word across about the danger of trans-fats, is the one who also tells us that saturated fats are good for us. The AMA, AHA, and ADA are bad for our health but the drug companies just love for us to listen to them.

Doesn't the hydrogenizing of the oil into margarine create a lot of the unhealthy effect? I always thought it is healthier to eat butter than margarine, but only in very small amounts; it's still not a health food.

So what about Canola Oil? Susan W. claims a benefit to using Canola and I disagree. Here is a good informative chart from the Canola Oil Industry:

Finding that vegetable oils are harmful is interesting and would be unsurprising if people actually believed they were animals and looked at the studies in animal nutrition. I believe it was in the late 1940's there were one or more studies trying to raise calves on vegetable fats rather than animal fats (milk?). The calves died. While as I recall the study the diet was 35% fat rather than probably a lower percent in the studies mentioned above it seems we can never refrain by trying to save a penny so the undertaker can rake in the dollars.

Where can you buy grass-fed beef? I've looked for it at several supermarkets (including Whole Foods) and can't find it.

try peanut oil

After some research, I made the switch to real butter, full fat dairy, etc. My cholesterol dropped 50 points. My husband made the switch after that and his also dropped 50 points. He had been fighting really high cholesterol numbers for years, had a bad reaction to statin drugs, etc. Other diet changes, exercise, tons of herbal/supplements, nothing seemed to work until he went back to saturated fats.

My feeling is the longer it's been around, the safer it is and that's what I'll use in cooking when I need fat. So I render chicken fat from the skin and save bacon grease. Instead of oils for salad dressings, we experiment with homemade yogurt, sour cream, etc.

>My dad was a farmer so we ate what we raised.

Calories (and carbs!) don't count when you grow it yourself.

Of all the "calories don't count" rules (birthday cake, stuff you eat in the dark, etc etc and so forth), that's the only one that has any chance of being true.

What do any of you know about palm fruit oil? I've been using Smart Balance spread as a substitute for butter, thinking it was healthier (even though it does have some saturated fat, it's less than butter), but now I'm not sure. It has no trans fat and says it's an excellent source of Omega-3.

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE: Palm fruit oil contains saturated fat. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (the Nutrition Action folks that have warned of the dangers of everything from movie popcorn to Chinese take-out food) have suggested that Smart Balance is a reasonable choice, however.

I had 2 "warning" heart attacks and never thought I would live to see 50. I refused prescription drugs but changed to natural oils, olive, almond, coconut. I left the cosmetics on the shelf and used these in place of those also. Limited beef to deck of card size portions and no processed luncheon or smoked meats in the pork family.

Dr reports are excellent. My exercise is fairly limited. I was blessed to have celebrated my 70th in 2012.

>Smart Balance spread as a substitute for butter,

Here's my rule on fat substitutes: will my dogs eat it? They won't touch margarine wrappers or tofu ice cream.

(That's the only call they get to make; there's plenty they will eat I'm not going to touch...)

Totally confused! Can you give a concise summary & your recommendation much like you did on the calcium alert article. thanks......

I'm with you, MK. Smart Balance is not the same as margarine.
I don't have a dog with which to do the "dog test", I've heard olive oil is not good to use at high heat and, depending on the food it isn't always suitable, due to taste. Butter can also burn at high heat. For instance, what kind of oil would one use to pop popcorn if you don't enjoy air popped corn?

What about Smart Balance spread? Been using it for years. Also big user of any kind of olive oil, even in cooking and baking with it.

One of the best oils for cooking at higher temperatures is grape seed oil. It is neutral in taste so it doesn't alter the flavor of foods. and high in omega 3'3, antioxidants and minerals. It lowers bad cholesterol and raises good. I have been using it for a couple of years now and like it much better than canola. It is more expensive though, so I use canola when larger quantities are required such as for deep fat frying.

I have used primrose oil 1,000 2xdaily for years as an antinflamatory. It's use mainly seems to keep interstitial cystitis nearly unnoticeable for many years. It is a #6 fatty acid. I also take flax oil #3 FA and fish oil for a #9 FA.

Is this use of primrose oil at high dose a problem? I have high cholesterol and triglycerides. There is no indication of heart disease or much of arthritis. I brought my Cholesterol down by 20 points by eliminating milk and lowering cheese intake. If Primrose oil is a problem what will help inflammation?

I hope the People's Pharmacy will do a show about this because, frankly, this whole thing is pretty confusing and upsetting.

The findings from the Sydney Diet Heart Study are not new, as one of your correspondents has correctly stated.

It is a long established fact that saturated fats raise HDL-cholesterol and lower Lp(a) thereby reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease.

By contrast, omega-6 rich poly-unsaturated fats, when not balanced with 0mega-3 poly-unsaturated fats, have the potential for inflammatory changes in the lungs, musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular and central nervous systems.

See my commentary on this study, "LOST AND FOUND - THE FAT FACTS" at

Research by T. Colin Campbell and many others shows that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat. And yes, such a diet is low in saturated fat and reduces your risk of heart disease.

Bottled vegetable oil, on the other hand, is not a whole food! Bottle vegetable oil is about as processed and refined a food product as you can consume.

The author of this article is impressed by a study which tells people to carry on their usual way of eating while one group uses butter and ordinary margarine, and the other group got safflower oil and margarine made from safflower oil. Seriously? That's "gold standard research?" The study sounds simplistic and reductionist to me.

People's Pharmacy response: This study was conducted in the 1960s. It is a "placebo-controlled" trial. That design is what makes it "gold standard research." finding the healthiest diet, of which there may be many, is still a work in progress.

I am interested in coconut oil I hear it's good for ones health but when I read on the jar saturated fat I became confused, should I use it with my somewhat high cholesterol I was using it instead of butter I mixed it with lite olive oil beat it up and placed in a container in fridg, I hope to get information on coconut oil the best as I can.

I eat a lot of coconut oil--do all my cooking with it or butter. My HDL is 100--about the same as my triglycerides. I avoid PUFAs.

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