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Another Look at Fats and Heart Disease

By Jennette Turner  www.jennette-turner.com

Here’s a joke for you: the French eat a lot more fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans and the British. The Japanese eat less fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans and the British. The Italians drink a lot of red wine, and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Americans and the British. Koreans drink little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Americans and the British. So it seems you can eat and drink what you like – it’s speaking English that kills you!

This joke is funny to us because for the last forty years a causative relationship has been assumed between dietary fats (specifically saturated fats) and coronary heart disease (CHD) – known as the “lipid hypothesis”. This theory (and it is only a theory) suggests that eating saturated fats causes heart disease, and that low fat diets or those replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils would cure or prevent CHD.

This theory has been relentlessly promoted in the media despite several serious flaws, most obviously the fact that CHD in the U.S. increased during a period when the consumption of saturated fat decreased and the consumption of polyunsaturated oils increased. At the turn of the last century, when the most commonly used fats in the American diet were lard, tallow and butter, CHD was very rare. Now, the most commonly used fats in our diets are soybean oil, canola oil, and cottonseed oil (1), and CHD accounts for 40% of U.S. deaths (2).

For millennia, people have primarily consumed the more saturated fats because they are the most easily extractable: the fat from animals, and coconut and palm oils in the tropics. These oils are very stable. They don’t oxidize (go rancid) easily, even without refrigeration. Other oils such as olive and sesame (also more easily extractable and stable) were also used. People just didn’t have the technology to make oil from vegetables like soybeans and corn as we do now (3).

Refined polyunsaturated oils are cheap and provide the food industry with a higher profit margin than traditional fats could. But we pay for them with our health. Consider this: after several decades of consuming “Western” vegetable oils and suffering epidemic increases in “Western” diseases including CHD, Japanese scientists at the Japanese National Institute of Health concluded that these oils are “inappropriate for human use as foods” (4).

If there was a correlation between saturated fats and heart disease, we would see it in different diets across the world, but we don’t. Greenland Eskimos eating their traditional diet in which 80% of the calories came from animal fats, had no heart disease (5). The French have less than half the rate of CHD of Americans despite a diet rich in animal fats (6). (This observation is referred to as the “Paradoxe Francaise” – it is only a paradox because it doesn’t support an incorrect hypothesis.) In Sri Lanka, coconut oil is the primary dietary fat, and the death rate from CHD is one of the lowest in the world (7). Across the board, people eating traditional natural fats have the lowest rates of CHD, no matter what those fats are and how much of them they eat.

In India, people were encouraged by the American Edible Oil industry to consume refined vegetable oils instead of their traditional saturated fats (such as coconut oil) to promote “heart health”. The result was a rapid increase in the occurrence of CHD, and Indian scientists are now recommending a return to coconut oil to reduce the risk of the disease (8).

In a 1990 editorial by Harvard’s Dr. Walter Willett, he acknowledged that even though “the focus of dietary recommendations is usually a reduction of saturated fat intake, no relation between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD was observed in the most informative prospective study to date” (9).

The Framingham Heart Study is often used to “prove” the lipid hypothesis, but after over 40 years of looking at the diets of over 6,000 people, the study’s director, Dr. William Castelli, admitted that “we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, who ate the most saturated fat, who ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.” There was no correlation between fat or cholesterol consumption and heart disease in Framingham (10).

So you see, the issue is much more complex than we have been led to believe. Products advertised as low-fat and heart-healthy may only be healthy for the pocketbooks of their manufacturers, especially if they are made with refined polyunsaturated oils. Think about it: heart disease is caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) which happens with the formation of plaque in the arteries. Only oxidized fat ends up as arterial plaque. What are the easily oxidized fats? The polyunsaturated ones, not the stable saturated fats (11).

According to respected lipid scientist Mary Enig (author of Know Your Fats), “The claim that saturated fat leads to heart disease is simply false. This claim was initiated as a marketing tool to sell oils and margarine… Eventually the idea became dogma as it was repeated year after year” (12). Something to think about if you’re currently denying yourself the delicious addition of butter to your diet.

Time has taught us again and again that eating traditional foods is our best protection against diseases such as CHD. This holds true for eating traditional fats, too, including those that come from animals and tropical plants. And, enjoying them benefits our palates as well as our health!

Jennette turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She Teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launced Dinner with Jennette (www.jennette-turner.com/dinner), to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. she can be reached at jennette-turner.com / 612-374-6039

Notes:

  1. Enig, M., Ph.D Know Your Fats © 2000, Bethesda Press
  2. Fallon, S. Nourishing Traditions © 1995, Promotion Publishing
  3. Enig, M., Ph.D Know Your Fats © 2000, Bethesda Press
  4. Harymi, O., Ph.D The Cloisters National Institute for Health.
  5. Price, W., D.D.S. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, ©1939, Keats Publishing, Inc.
  6. Fallon, S. Nourishing Traditions © 1995, Promotion Publishing
  7. Fife, B., N.D. The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil, © 2001, Piccadilly Books, Ltd.
  8. Sircar, S., M.D., Ph.D and Kansra, U., M.D., Ph.D 1998 Journal of Indian Medical Association 96(10):304
  9. Willet, W., M.D., Ph.D, Stampfer, M., M.D., Ph.D, Manson, J., M.D., Ph.D et al Lancet 341:581-585
  10. Castelli, W. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1992
  11. Fife, B., N.D. The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil, © 2001, Piccadilly Books, Ltd.
  12. Enig, M., Ph.D Know Your Fats © 2000, Bethesda Press
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