Nutrition experts have egg on their faces. For years, public health policy has been to discourage consumption of saturated fat–or most any fat at all.
The diet-heart hypothesis got its start in the 1950s. Ancel Keys, PhD, and his colleagues collected epidemiological data from around the world and decided that they showed a connection between saturated fat consumption and high blood cholesterol, and consequently, an elevated risk of heart disease.
The National Cholesterol Education Program, the American Heart Association and many other public health organizations promoted the idea that eating a low-fat high-carb diet would reduce heart disease. A meta-analysis involving 72 studies and over 600,000 participants now contradicts that traditional wisdom. The researchers found no link between saturated fat consumption and a higher risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular complications (Annals of Internal Medicine, March 18, 2014).
Dietitians had told people to use margarine instead of butter and polyunsaturated fats found in corn or safflower oil because they were supposed to lower cholesterol and be heart healthy. The new analysis found no cardiac benefit from such omega-6 rich fats. Trans-fatty acids like those found in shortening and margarine up until a few years ago were associated in the analysis with a higher incidence of heart disease.
This is not the first study to suggest the conventional sat-fat wisdom might be wrong. The Sydney Diet Heart Study was conducted in Sydney, Australia, at the height of the diet-heart hypothesis, between 1966 and 1973. In this research, the scientists recruited 458 men who had recently had a heart attack and were therefore at high risk for a second cardiac event. The men were divided into two groups: half continued with their usual diet, while the other group was given safflower oil and margarine made from safflower oil and told to use it instead of butter or animal fats. The hypothesis, of course, was that the polyunsaturated safflower oil would protect the men from a second heart attack, but the scientists ran out of research money and the data were not fully analyzed until a research team resurrected them last year (BMJ, online, Feb. 5, 2013).
The data showed that the men given safflower oil did have lower cholesterol, but they were also 60 percent more likely to die during the study, especially from heart disease. Of those getting the safflower-supplemented diets, 16.3 percent died of heart attacks compared to 10.1 percent of those eating their usual diets with butter and lard.
Too many of the dietary recommendations of the past half century were based on belief rather than data. From the evils of eggs to the sins of sodium, simple public health messages have been shown time and again to be misleading.
So what guidelines should you use to follow a healthful diet? We think the grandmothers got it right: real foods, lovingly prepared. It does take a little longer to cook from scratch rather than eating out of a package, but the taste and health benefits are big. To learn more about how to follow this type of healthy diet, you may be interested in our books, Recipes & Remedies and Favorite Foods (online at PeoplesPharmacy.com).