Are saturated fats and cholesterol really the bad guys?

The story is a familiar one – saturated fat raises cholesterol levels, cholesterol blocks the arteries and blocked arteries cause heart attacks and strokes. However many current medical opinions now think this is a flawed theory.

Dr Dwight Lundell is a past Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery at the Banner Heart Hospital in Arizona.  He believes the science that saturated fat alone causes heart disease is non existent and the science that saturated fat raises blood cholesterol is also very weak.  He says it is now widely accepted that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease.

His views are echoed by George Mann, MD, Professor of Biochemistry and Medicine who states that:  “Saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet are not the cause of coronary heart disease.  That myth is the greatest ‘scientific’ deception of the century, and perhaps any century.”

Different Kinds of Fats

Historically populations have consumed mostly saturated fats from dairy products, animal fats and coconuts.  Some populations also used monounsaturated fats from products such as olives, while populations from cooler climates had a high intake of omega 3 polyunsaturated from cold water fish.

Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats are found mainly in vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean.  Large scale production of omega 6 oils has only been possible since the 1950s but since then use of these oils has skyrocketed.  Not only are they now the main source of fat in our modern diets, but their use has been recommended by the medical industry in the fight against heart disease – at the expense of saturated fats.

It is the excessive use of omega 6 oils and an unhealthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 that is a current source of debate. Dr Lundell says:  “Mainstream medicine made a terrible mistake when it advised people to avoid saturated fat in favour of foods high in omega 6 fats.”  The Sydney Diet Heart Study, published in the British Medical Journal, also found that replacing dietary saturated fats with omega 6 polyunsaturated fats increased all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality and mortality from coronary heart disease.

Many health experts are now recommending the use of saturated fat for cooking, monosaturated fats for dressings, cold water fish for omega 3 and heavily reducing or avoiding omega 6s.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is essential for life.  It is naturally produced by the body and has a number of vital functions contributing to healthy nerve function and hormone production as well as liver, brain, bone, intestinal and cellular health. Cholesterol is both produced by the body and found in animal products in our diets, but it has been known for years that consuming dietary cholesterol does not significantly influence blood cholesterol levels.

So how did we get it so wrong?

According to the Cambridge International Institute for Medical Science in 1954-1955 a study was done using rabbits eating high fat/high cholesterol food.   The diet clogged the rabbit’s arteries and so a low-fat diet was recommended for us.  Apparently the fact that rabbit are herbivores and do not consume foods that contain fat or cholesterol from animal-based foods was not questioned.

So what does cause heart disease?  

Medicine is now viewing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity as related medical issues with the common factor being chronic inflammation.

Dr Lundell believes this inflammation can be caused by ingesting toxins or foods the human body was never designed to process – such as refined carbohydrates and excessive consumption of refined omega 6 polyunsaturated vegetable oils, while the Cambridge International Institute believes that refined carbohydrates are at fault.

Although medical opinion is still divided as to what exactly causes chronic inflammation a general consensus appears to be an overconsumption of refined foods and a popular recommendation is to return to ‘foods that Grandma used to make’.

This advice seems to be supported by history.  In the 1900s the American death rate from heart attack and stroke was only 3%.  Less than 100 years on and rates of these diseases have jumped to nearly 50% despite the fact that today Americans eat less saturated fat than they did in the early 1900s.

Dr Lundell says that “the cholesterol theory led to the no fat/low fat recommendations that in turn created the very foods now causing an epidemic of inflammation.”

So what seems to be our best allies in the fight against chronic inflammation – a return to using natural unprocessed ingredients and products lower in omega 6 – red meat, cold water fish, vegetables (including starchy vegetables), whole grains (such as rice and oats) and fruits.