Butter in paper and two bottles of different types of oil, diet-heart hypothesis

Vegetable oils, also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs, may not be as healthy as nutrition experts believe. For decades people have been told to cook with corn, safflower or sunflower oil to lower their cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.

Health professionals, including cardiologists, internists, family doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants registered dieticians and nutritionists warned patients that saturated fat and cholesterol were the enemies and would cause heart attacks, strokes and premature death.

For over 50 years American cooks imagined that frying eggs in butter for breakfast would be the equivalent of walking the gang plank to heart disease. Instead, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereal with skim milk and a couple of slices of banana were considered heart healthy. Cream in coffee was believed to be a decadent indulgence while artificial coffee creamer loaded with trans fats was thought to be a safer alternative. Were such recommendations wrong?

The BIG Experiment:

A new analysis of old data just published in the BMJ is throwing doubt on the old dietary dogmas. The original research, called the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, was conducted over five years, beginning in 1968. It was a randomized controlled trial. That design is rare for dietary studies, partly because it is so hard to implement.

The participants were 9,000 individuals in mental institutions and a nursing home. Those assigned to the intervention were fed a diet lower in saturated fat than the average American diet of the time. Their food was cooked in corn oil and the subjects were given corn oil margarine, considered heart healthy fat.

The control group was given a typical American diet with the usual amounts of butter and meat as sources of saturated fat. Investigators Ivan Frantz and Ancel Keys followed up on participants’ cholesterol levels and conducted autopsies on those who died. They were looking specifically for evidence of clogged heart arteries and heart attacks.

The BIG Fat Lie:

Ancel Keys and his colleagues could not have been happy with the results of their study, which ended in 1973. They waited until 1989 to publish their findings.

Even then, they obfuscated and spun the data to try and support their diet-heart hypothesis that cholesterol and saturated fat were harmful to the heart. They never published the results of the autopsy part of the study, perhaps because they were afraid of what it might do to the hypothesis.

Now the Truth is Out.

More than three decades later, on April 13, 2016, a new analysis of the original data was published in the BMJ. It shows that the corn oil-consuming subjects had lower cholesterol levels than the people eating high saturated fat diets, but their mortality statistics were no better. In fact, older participants were actually more likely to die during the study time frame if they were in the corn oil group.

Even more alarming, those eating lots of vegetable oil were more likely to show signs of a heart attack upon autopsy than those eating more saturated fat. There was no difference in clogged arteries between the groups.

These results are consistent with those from an Australian study conducted around the same time. The investigators were able to analyze the previously unpublished data from that one, termed the Sydney Diet Heart Study. Those data also showed no survival advantage for people consuming corn oil instead of the more common forms of saturated fat such as bacon or butter.

Doing a U-Turn on the Diet-Heart Hypothesis:

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the lipid hypothesis of heart disease. There are now a number of controlled trials that pretty much put the nail in the coffin of the vegetable oil recommendations of the last 50 to 60 years. We’ve already buried trans fats, so maybe we should rethink many, if not most, of the dietary dogma that has not been supported by decent data.

Learn more about the saturated fat mistake in these articles:

“Has the Flip-Flop on Saturated Fat Made Your Head Spin?”

“Are Saturated Fat, Cholesterol and Salt Really Dietary Demons””

“No Evidence Found Linking Saturated Fat Consumption to Heart Disease”

You can read more about other dietary approaches to keeping your heart healthy in our book, Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy.

Share your own thoughts about this dietary betrayal below in the comment section and please vote on the article at the top of the page.

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  1. Rita

    The Mediterranean diet makes the most sense to me: olive oil (rather than corn oil or butter), fruits and vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed nuts, fish.

  2. Angie
    Franklin, Tas

    Great article and I concur with what you have reported. Do you have any references for the studies that you have mentioned?

  3. Mindy

    My grandmother died in 2009 at age 99. She grew up on a farm eating pork, beef, poultry and at times salted cod and drinking cows milk, eating veggies/fruit grown on their farm. She wasn’t an anomaly. Two of her aunts and her own mother lived well into their 90’s in good mental/physical health. They lived long/healthy lives because they knew how to feed themselves properly and were educated and loved reading, active socially and didn’t go to the doctors for “wellness” visits. They didn’t have to. Time to start getting back to the basics: growing our own foods, learning homesteading skills, reading more and being entertained and distracted less.

  4. Barb
    Albany, NY

    It has always been my belief that inflammation is the culprit in heart disease and many other diseases. I just read a study where fat cells in the body release inflammatory cytokines. So there may be a connection between fats and heart disease but just not in the way we presently think. The fight may be with inflammation, whatever the cause. Thank you for sharing up-to-date information.

  5. Sue

    The Ornish and mediterranean diet studies both prove unequivocally that reducing saturated fat, cholesterol, and PUFAs- while adding MONOUNSATURATED fats- will unclog arteries and reverse heart disease. These diets may not prove what clogged the arteries in the first place, but it’s a pretty safe correlation that saturated fat, cholesterol, and PUFAs are the culprits. It has been many, many years since any study anywhere advocated consumption of PUFAs for good health. This is old news.

    • Mindy

      everyone is different. one size does not fit all. what is old news to you might be new news to others. :)

  6. JimP
    Winchester, Va

    We need to carefully note what is being investigated. It seems that studies that show vegetable oils are good for you only look at heart problems. But if vegetable oil prevents me from having a heart attack but causes me to die from something else, I haven’t gotten any benefit!

    The LA Veterans Administration Study involved dietary intervention for 846 elderly veterans in a VA facility for an 8-year period in the 1960s. The control group ate what was a normal American diet at the time that contained a lot of saturated fat. The experimental group was given a diet low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fats. The experimental group reduced heart disease mortality, which was published in Circulation in 1969. All-cause mortality remained about the same between the two groups. This was due to increased cancer mortality in the experimental group. This result was published in the Lancet in 1971 as, “Incidence of Cancer in Men on a Diet High in Polyunsaturated Fat.”

    This study was described in the book, “Death By Food Pyramid” by Denise Minger, 2013, which is a fascinating review of the political and scientific battles about healthy diets since Ansel Keyes. The sub-title is, “How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Ruined Your Health … and How to Reclaim It!”

  7. Sam

    I recommend a You Tube video from UCSF called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”.

  8. Gail

    That study used corn oil. I think other studies have shown benefits from eating olive oil. Fats are just part of one’s diet. If the rest of the diet is not healthy, i.e., too much sugar, not enough vegetables, then the type of fat won’t make that much of a difference.

  9. Maggie
    Vancouver Island BC

    I have always been my own best doctor. I have studied nutrition most of my life, it is a fascinating subject & each culture has information that adds wisdom to the cocktail .

    Perhaps it was a sense of rebellion & more faith in the passion of folk like ‘Adele Davis’ & the tree nibbler (sorry but I cannot remember his name), the ‘Silent Spring’ author, who had such a profound affect on my gut intelligence…as I learnt to also think for myself & not subscribe to the ‘science community/doctors-as-gods-myth’. I listen but question & follow my own road. It has served me well, & it is the road that is proving to be the wise choice after all. Be your own council, patient heal thyself. We are indeed responsible for our choices, watch who/what you trust.

  10. e

    At one time I estimated the number of cans of solid shortening that my mom used in replacing lard, because everyone was told vegetable shortening was so much better for the heart. (That would have been at least 1500 cans of the hydrogenated fat.)

  11. Sue

    You guys are really making a mountain out of a molehill on this one, and frankly I’m really disappointed because I always thought you were right on target. Now , I have my doubts. PUFAs?? C’mon, guys, when was the last time we heard ANYTHING about corn oil being good for us?? I can’t even remember, it’s been so long; but probably sometime before Keys published his findings in 1989: “No difference in clogged arteries” and “no survival advantage”. Right! The PUFA vegetable oil arteries were just as clogged as the saturated fat arteries, which is exactly why the attention then turned to MONOUNSATURATED fats like olive oil, walnut oil. peanut oil, and avocado oil. And unless you’ve been asleep at the wheel, the evidence is indisputable that these oils do not clog arteries and do in fact assist in lowering cholesterol, which contributes to overall heart health. The evidence is also indisputable in relation to the Ornish and mediterranean diets, where study participants had less clogged arteries and fewer heart attacks. But here’s the real puzzler: if it’s not saturated fats and cholesterol that are clogging up our arteries, then what the heck is doing it? Gummy Bears?? Hmm. Maybe someone needs to do a study on them…..

  12. Marja

    I think I am just going to stop eating everything. It seems that what was good for you a few years ago, is now bad and what was bad is now good.

  13. Laurie

    And all these wise people thought Dr. Atkins and his low-carb diet was akin to witchcraft. Too bad he’s not here to get the last laugh!

  14. JP

    Great! Another story about quack nutrition! This betrayal went on for 50 YEARS. Why do we believe any dietary recommendations any more?

    • Connie

      I agree. You have to wonder if organic foods are a big hoax, too!

      • Bobbie
        Lake Macquarie, NSW, Australia

        Organic Foods – I think that any foods which do not included chemicals and pesticides would have to be better for your body. Less foreign bits for your body to fight. Natural is always better. Grow your own foods would be best, if we could

      • Elliot
        New Jersey

        Why would organic foods be a hoax? Essentially they are foods grown in synthetic chemical free soil. It’s actually how plants were grown before the chemical industry took over. The hoax is that the plants grown with synthetic pesticides and herbacides are considered the same as organic. Organic produce is grown in soil that is healthier than our commercially grown produce. It irks me that so many people repeat just what you have said, that organic is a hoax. Yeah, it’s more expensive and the organic system of certification might not be perfect but a hoax? I think not. The quack nutrition that you were replying to was a government program, not really a scientific nutritional program.

  15. rosemary

    Butter and bacon fat and heavy manual labor :-) your genetics say when you are done for, all the rest is just a waste of money and time. It makes the drug companies trillionares, though.

  16. Paula

    Regarding the 9000 people participating in the controlled study….Just how were the psychotropic drugs the patients in the mental institutions were likely taking ……and the many drugs the people in the nursing homes were likely taking factored in or out of this controlled study?

  17. Lida

    So what then is responsible for the plaque that forms in the arteries?

    • Bobbie
      Lake Macquarie, NSW, Australia

      A few very modern, thinking Doctors now believe that plaque in the arteries are infection and inflammation. My sister–in-law who was supposed to have a triple by-pass was treated for infection and inflammation and now her arteries are clear. So good to do some research and thinking.

      • Barb
        Albany, NY

        Totally agree. I understand plaques are the body’s response to injury, inflammation and/or infection and the plaques cause the clogging. All the oils someone mentioned above (olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, etc.), have also been proven to lower inflammation levels in the body.

  18. BONNIE V.

    It goes to show that, the natural products that GOD provided and provides us are the best foods for us!!!

  19. Ross

    ” We’ve already buried trans fats”… This statement is ambiguous. Does it mean that the trans fats, hydrogenated fats, are acceptable in a diet, or that consuming trans fats is detrimental to cardivovascular health?

  20. DS
    Denton TX

    Dr. Atkins was right. The Weston Price Foundation is right. Oiling of America on utube is right and very amusing as well. When I started using coconut oil and cut carbs and my HDL went to 100 and my husband’s also went very high, my doctor said it was genes! Funny that our genes suddenly changed when I started ignoring the advice of the AMA.

    • J. David Auner
      Springfield, MO, USA

      HDL cholesterol is a good lipoprotein bound to cholesterol. The HDL-C number is a transitory snapshot which indicates cholesterol is being taken out of the artery and back to the liver for further processing, without cholesterol you can’t measure the HDL lipoprotein. A person with no plaque and little available cholesterol in the artery might do what you did and not get a higher HDL number when tested. If you are able to do enough good things to decease the cholesterol and inflammation in your arteries over years, your HDL-C number may decrease and this may not be a bad sign. Some people don’t have enough of the HDL-C lipoprotein system which takes the plaque away – which is a disadvantage for people with a typical American diet. Then there are the 6 other things which cause vascular disease besides “cholesterol.”

  21. Carrie

    Gee, I really like to use olive oil. Maybe I use too much?

    • Ann

      Olive oil is not a PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid).

    • Jeffery

      I was told by my doctor to cut my carbs down to no more than 100 grams per day, I have lost 35 lbs. in 6 months. I use olive oil, butter and coconut oil. I take 2 tbs of olive oil, like medicine every day.
      Since I have started using the olive oil daily, I have noticed my stools have been more regular with no constipation. I eat very little processed foods and feel much better. Real food – meats, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. No rice, no bread, no pasta.

    • JJ

      Olive oil is great… but NOT for frying… if you heat it, it becomes very bad for you. Extra Virgin is the stuff to get… Cooking? Use coconut or almond oil. :-)

  22. nell

    There may be many things discovered about other things also, particularly sugar – plain sugar not changed in varying ways not known as I was growing up. Sugar is a NATURAL ORGANIC PRODUCT. It is the packaged and fast food products that have made it on the naughty list. Starting at home cooking and a spoonful on your corn flakes or cooked cereal plus fruits and vegetables for snacks kept us going. Just re think how such things are used.

  23. Edwin
    North Carolina

    The status of linoleic acid as preventive or causative of atherosclerosis has been one of the most controversial aspects of nutrition research in the past decade. Some authorities, such as Dr. Willett of Harvard, have assured us that, as a polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid is a healthy substitute for saturated fat with no need to limit the amount eaten. Others have vigorously raised caution flags over consuming excessive amounts of linoleic acid. The results of this re-analysis should give us pause over unrestrained consumption of linoleic acid and motivate us to be aware of which vegetable oils are highest in LA content, and to look at the ingredient list in Nutrition Facts labels of each food product we eat to avoid excessive amounts of LA.

  24. Bev C

    Gary Taubes talked about this study back in 2007 in Good Calories Bad Calories.

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