How Nutrition Politics Hid the Health Benefits of Saturated Fat

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How Nutrition Politics Hid the Health Benefits of Saturated Fat

Tell your ‘low-fat’ friends about the health benefits of saturated fat. If they are anything like the average person, they are probably hesitant to believe you.

Now, tell them that you had bacon and eggs for breakfast. Fried in butter.

At this point, they might start to worry about your health. Talk of “clogged arteries” may even arise.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, foods like butter, eggs, and cheese always used to be valued for their healthful properties.

As for milk, people would have ridiculed the whole idea of removing the fat before drinking it. Unfortunately, all this changed when industrial food and nutrition politics came along.

This article takes a look at how nutrition politics misled the public and hid the health benefits of saturated fat.

A Brief History of Human Diets

A brief history of human diets - picture shows caveman family eating in a cave

When you think about what ancient humans ate, can you clearly see them eating a bowl of cornflakes in their cave?

No. In reality, what humans used to eat is very different to the products we class as “food” today. The most compelling evidence for this comes from looking at archeological studies.

Although a little ambiguous, the bulk of the research suggests that humans were carnivores who relied on meat, insects, bone and marrow for their health. (1, 2, 34)

So perhaps a typical meal was a piece of meat, some vegetation gathered from the local area, and maybe a few berries. In other words – lots of nutrients.

Plant foods are of course high in a variety of beneficial vitamins and minerals, and unknown to many, red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence.

What does the average person eat today? Potato chips? Sandwiches? Hamburgers? Pastries? The list is endless, and not surprisingly, the average American’s diet now consists of 61% highly processed foods by energy.

Additionally, a further 16% of energy comes from moderately processed food, meaning overall processed food consumption represents 77% of the average diet. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why rates of type 2 diabetes are skyrocketing (56, 7, 8).

Talking about the health benefits of saturated fat is like an alien language. Instead, heavy marketing goes toward promoting vegetable oils as “heart healthy.” Never mind the fact that those vegetable oils are ultra-processed and linked to disease (9, 10, 11, 12).

How Nutrition Politics Changed Perceptions of Saturated Fat

How nutrition politics changed the reputation of saturated fat

There are many instances where nutrition politics has negatively influenced public opinion on saturated fat. In general, the vast majority of these relate to the corporate profits of industrial food companies.

However, for today we will look at the deceptive behavior of the sugar industry and three Harvard scientists in particular.

Significantly, these researchers took money from the sugar industry to cover up and whitewash sugar.

Instead – and against the evidence – they squarely placed the blame on saturated fat for rising rates of heart disease. It’s important to realize that this one study had far-reaching effects.

Most significantly, it has potentially influenced dietary habits for decades. Whereas our ancestors used to talk about the health benefits of saturated fat, it soon changed to “the dangers.”

Rising Rates of Heart Disease: Two Potential Culprits

Two suspected culprits in heart disease - sugar and saturated fat, represented by a danger and safe sign,

In 1960s America, growing public concern at the increasing prevalence of heart disease was reaching fever pitch.

The lipid hypothesis of Ancel Keys had identified saturated fat as the culprit a decade earlier.

This theory was extremely controversial and based on what many people view as bad science. Still, it put a fear of saturated fat into the public mindset.

Increasing concerns over the potential role of sugar in heart disease appeared too. Perhaps the most famous of these dissenting voices belonged to John Yudkin.

John Yudkin was a professor at the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College London. He is known as the man who tried to warn the world about sugar.

Unlike Keys, Professor Yudkin believed that sugar was the underlying cause of heart disease.

And after more than a decade of campaigning, he very publicly asserted this suggestion in April 1966 (13).

With saturated fat and sugar both in the frame, the public eyed both with a suspicious eye. In the meantime, a review study was being readied for publication a short time later in August 1967.

This paper was entitled: ‘Dietary fats, carbohydrates and atherosclerotic vascular disease.’ And little did people know, but the sugar industry secretly funded it.

Saturated Fat Demonized and Sugar Whitewashed

Saturated fat was demonized and sugar was whitewashed

By late summer of 1967, the paper was in the public realm. To cut a long story short, the study’s conclusion read like this:

There is no doubt that the only dietary intervention required to prevent cardiovascular heart disease is to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the American diet.

To sum up, the scientists blamed saturated fat and cholesterol as the only dietary cause of heart disease. On the other hand, sugar walked away free of criticism.

The paper was an extensive review of all the existing evidence and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a respected publication.

As a result, the findings had a significant influence on nutrition policy as well as on the confused public themselves.

To reduce their risk of heart disease, they only had to cut out saturated fat.

However, there was one problem with this; the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) had paid bribe money to the Harvard scientists in return for a paper favorable to the sugar industry.

A Deceptive Study That Demonized Saturated Fat

A Deceptive Study that demonized saturated fat

In brief, this paper was an all-out attack on saturated fat with a strongly defensive take on sugar.

Here are a few of the key points:

  • Studies used in the review were hand-selected by the SRF.
  • The researchers played down any link between sugar and heart disease, while strongly emphasizing any connection to saturated fat.
  • In the clearer cases of sugar’s link to heart disease, the scientists alleged that the researcher responsible had used flawed methods or was simply “incompetent.”
  • The researchers received $50,000 by today’s standards from the SRF.
  • Extra money from what was initially agreed was paid for “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose and, in particular, fructose.”

Aside from this, there was also extensive communication between the SRF and the Harvard Scientists. As part of these discussions, the SRF gave big hints at the direction the study should take.

Following the publication of the Harvard scientists’ review, the fierce debate over the real dietary culprit behind heart disease was largely over.

Subsequent health advice (including the first dietary guidelines in 1980) aimed at restricting saturated fat.

If you want to get the full picture of what took place, the investigators who uncovered the information released a paper here.

What Happened When People Restricted Saturated Fat?

Following on from the release of the Harvard study, the introduction of the dietary guidelines for Americans in 1980 cemented the supposed health dangers of saturated fat.

The result of this was that people began to eat sugar (and carbohydrates as a whole) more liberally.

US sugar consumption - how sugar intake changed in America.
Source: Whole Health Source

In contrast, restriction of saturated fat was the policy for the majority of health-conscious people.

US animal fat consumption
Source: NHANES

Interestingly, sugar consumption goes up, and animal fat (a large source of saturated fat) goes down following a similar trend.

So, how did this affect the health of millions of Americans?

US Obesity prevalence - how obesity changed in America.
Source: Whole Health Source

What Are the Health Benefits of Saturated Fat?

Between Ancel Key’s lipid hypothesis and the Harvard bribe, we can see that nutrition politics has not been kind to saturated fat.

In truth, saturated fat is a perfectly healthy nutrient that has been part of the human diet for millions of years.

The health benefits of saturated fat are vast, and every cell in our body requires them. Specifically, saturated fat plays a crucial role in cell signaling, the manufacture of hormones and energy production.

As saturated fat is essential, if you don’t get enough from dietary sources then your body will produce it from carbohydrate (13).

Is Saturated Fat Dangerous?

Is Saturated Fat Dangerous?

The majority of earlier studies focus on the dangers of saturated fat. On the other hand, much of the latest research is showing saturated fat in a more positive light.

To emphasize this in a bit more detail, here are some of the more recent findings on dietary saturated fat consumption.

  • Saturated fats have immune-enhancing and inflammation-modulating roles, and replacing them with omega-6 oils can suppress the immune system (14, 15).
  • Saturated fat improves overall cardiovascular risk factors, significantly increasing HDL and reducing triglyceride levels (16, 17, 18).
  • A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that substituting omega-6 for saturated fat “produced an increased risk of death approaching statistical significance(19).
  • Saturated fats have no association with cardiovascular disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes (20, 21, 22).

As you can see, the health benefits of saturated fat play a fundamental role in keeping our whole body healthy.

Final Thoughts

On the whole, we can see how nutrition politics dictate the food we eat. For big industry, whether or not dietary advice is healthy comes second to the bottom line.

Also, the cases of ‘politics’ discussed here are far from isolated – just last year coca-cola got caught paying dietitians to promote soda.

This situation shows why it’s always important to do your own research on health-related matters.

Given that millions of people are now even adding butter to coffee, it seems that a change is taking place.

At the end of the day, saturated fat is not to be feared. And the resurgence of traditional dietary sources of saturated fat can only be positive for public health.

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