In Defense of Fat and Cholesterol

This article is based on Part I of Gary Taubes’ scientific exploration of our diet: Good Calories, Bad Calories. If you find this article interesting I recommend you pick it up.

The Diet Transformation

Until the 1970s, our diet consisted mostly of protein and fat. Conventional wisdom, from the mid-19th century forward, was that eating only protein and fat, avoiding starches and sugars, would cause you to lose weight. Sugar, refined foods, and starches should be eaten for the purpose of weight gain. The evidence of this was that the fattest animals are all herbivores, the leanest are predators. Plus, when fattening an animal for slaughter we feed it grain.

As a result of a heart disease epidemic our diet changed. Cholesterol and saturated fat were blamed and a diet high in carbohydrates was to be our savior. In the 1980s the president of the American Heart Association (AHA), Anthony Gotto said that if everyone started this cholesterol lowering diet, “we will have [atherosclerosis] conquered” by the end of the century. We know, however, that is not the case. The majority of the western world knows cholesterol and saturated fat cause heart disease and has changed their diet accordingly. Despite this alteration, the rate of heart disease has not gone down and obesity rates have skyrocketed. There actually is no concrete proof that the cholesterol lowering diet advocated by the AHA, USDA, and numerous other agencies, extends our lives, let alone prevents coronary heart disease.

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem, neat, plausible and wrong.”

-H. L. Mencken

This recommended diet has changed little since the Food Pyramid was introduced in 1992 (it was actually birthed in 1978 by a Denmark consumer group). In 2005, the Food Pyramid became more complicated when it was renamed MyPyramid. Changes include the addition of exercise and changes to the amounts of each component you should consume based on your physical activity and Body Mass Index (BMI). The USDA has always stuck to the cholesterol lowering diet. They recommend that you limit almost all fat and eat mostly grains, fruits and vegetables, and very lean meats. They especially want you to avoid “solid fats” like butter, margarine, shortening, and lard. The diet is basically focused on limiting saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. Common sense says that if you limit dietary cholesterol than your blood cholesterol will go down. In the most famous case of heart disease, it did not help.

The Old Food Pyramid

In 2005 the USDA did away with this food pyramid


And Introduced this one that changes based on your lifestyle

President Eisenhower had his first heart attack on September 24, 1955, in Denver, Colorado. His family history showed no predisposition to heart disease. He was in excellent shape. His blood pressure was under control and his cholesterol was in the normal range at 165 mg/dl. After he recovered from his heart-attack he undertook a diet to prevent heart disease: the cholesterol lowering diet. His diet consisted of very little fat and almost no cholesterol. On this diet he gained weight, so he started eating less. So much less that his doctor was surprised anyone could eat that little, exercise, and not lose weight. As Eisenhower left office his blood cholesterol had risen dramatically to 259 mg/dl. Fearing what the President would do if he heard that number, his doctor lied and told him his cholesterol was a borderline 209 mg/dl. As Eisenhower was receiving this news the man who brought this heart-healthy diet to prominence, Ancel Keys, was featured on the cover of Time.

Mr. Cholesterol and the Bad Science

Ancel Keys is most famous for his hypothesis that there is a correlation between blood cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. He decided that dietary cholesterol had little to no effect on blood cholesterol levels. Instead, saturated fat was the culprit. He wanted the nation to immediately cut their fat intake by one third. Other scientists and doctors wanted to do studies. Keys wanted the world to change as soon as he believed his hypothesis. The thing is Keys’ hypothesis has only ever been supported with bad science. Ancel Keys and likeminded scientists and doctors have the terrible habit of only using the results that supported their hypothesis, ignoring objectivity and throwing the scientific method out the window.

The scientific method was created to prevent the outcome of an experiment to be influenced by the experimenter. The scientist comes up with a question, does research, and comes up with a hypothesis. He uses his hypothesis to create an experiment that will either prove a variable of his hypothesis right or wrong. When the experiment is over he looks over the results and objectively reports a conclusion based on those results.

“If science is to progress what we need is the ability to experiment, honesty in reporting results – the results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been – and finally – an important thing – the intelligence to interpret the results. An important point about this intelligence is that it should not be sure ahead of time what must be.”

-Robert Feynman

There are several cases of clinicians working on studies of the fat-cholesterol hypothesis not publishing their years of research because the results didn’t match the fat-cholesterol hypothesis. There are also several cases where parts of the experiment are thrown out because they don’t help prove the hypothesis.
The basis of the cholesterol lowering diet was the seven countries study. The study examined 12,763 middle-aged men from the United States, Japan, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, and Yugoslavia. Keys discovered that Japan and Greece have high life expectancies and low instances of heart disease. That the USA and Finland, where the lumberjacks he studied ate buttered slabs of cheese as an afternoon snack had the highest instances of cardiovascular disease. He also noted that Japanese men living in America had a higher risk of high cholesterol and cardiovascular heart disease. He chose to ignore the fact that the two weren’t related; cardiovascular heart disease was more prevalent in Japanese men in America whether they had high cholesterol or not.

The Masai nomads in Kenya had the lowest blood-cholesterol levels ever recorded. Their diet, however, consists of milk, blood, and occasional meat from their herd. Keys ignored the Masai and instead brought up other nomadic tribes that meshed well with his hypothesis.

Ancel Keys was determined to have his hypothesis be national policy. He felt his diet was the diet that would save us from heart disease. He wouldn’t have a small thing like contradictory evidence prevent the world from being healthier. His heart was in the right place but his science was not.

Why is this diet recommended if it can be refuted? Keys was always a powerful and determined man. He, and the people who agreed with his hypothesis, knew all they needed was a consensus and they created one.

Misled by Good Intentions

So, in fact, our diet for the last 20+ years has been based upon bureaucracy, not science. When your government tells you what to eat, don’t listen to them. They had years and countless cases of anecdotal evidence pointing to the more logical diet and listened instead to a man who ignored the facts and made up his own results. Instead, listen to your ancestors. They actually knew what to eat.


About Tom

I co-founded Health Now, Wealth Forever when I realized I was unhappy with where I was in life. I was overweight, unhealthy, and stuck in a business that I couldn't save. I had little hope. With our mission of helping others with the same problems, I am now in a much better place in all facets of my life. Most of my posts are about improving your diet - I think health most important. But, I also write about sustainable living, self-improvement, and occasionally improving finances. After all, one of my personal mottos is balance in everything.

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