The writer of an April 13th New York Times article, A Decades-Old Study, Rediscovered, Challenges Advice on Saturated Fat, makes a common leap to conclusions about fat in the diet, adding to persistent confusion.
The article looks at an old study ending in 1973 (The Minnesota Coronary Experiment) that followed 9,000 patients and their saturated fat/polyunsaturated fat consumption. Part of the group ate a diet including saturated fats (animal fats) and the other part ate a diet including only polyunsaturated fats (plant-based fats, in this case corn oil) with the expectation that the corn-oil group would fare better.
The results were that while the corn oil crew lowered its cholesterol by 14% compared to the animal fat crew, whose cholesterol dropped by 1%, mortality for the corn oil consumers did not change. In fact, they were at HIGHER risk of death during the trial.
The writer is surprised by the results and deduces (without really knowing) that the study authors were probably startled by the results and resisted having them published upon the study’s conclusion. (The results were only re-examined recently).
The writer examines an explanation for the findings. Vegetable oils, he says, such as corn oil, are high in omega-6 fatty acids (the bad kind). So even if cooking with corn oil causes cholesterol to go down, omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation in the body, causing disease and mortality. The negative impact of the omega-6 fatty acids outweighs benefits from cholesterol-lowering effects.
The other possibility is that the people who experienced the greatest cholesterol drops may have had the highest cholesterol at the study’s outset. The people with the most advanced disease experienced the greatest mortality during the study period.
The writer draws several logical conclusions in his article, which does end by saying the “science behind dietary fat may be more complex than nutrition recommendations suggest.” While saturated fat is bad, polyunsaturated fat is bad too. Eating unprocessed whole foods with plants is best.
However he includes a quote from a medical investigator named Christopher Ramsden who said the study did not show saturated fats are good but “maybe they aren’t as bad as people thought.”
Hmmmm. I wonder why Ramsden sums it up this way. It seems far more sensible to ask why we don’t study overall added fat consumption whether it’s saturated fat or polyunsaturated fat.
Many researchers now recommend a whole-food, no-added-fat approach. Unfortunately, this means no added olive oil and no added coconut oil, among other oils that are considered “healthy fats.” It is far better, say, to eat olives than to strip the fiber and nutrients away from the olive, just using the oil. When you strip food of its fiber and nutrients, you are left with a calorically high, nutritionally poor food.
People increasingly accept this line of logic about no-added sugar. That is, your body needs the fiber and other nutrients to go along with the sugar. (It is better to eat whole grapes than it is to drink grape juice, for example.)
This is the crux of the whole foods movement. What applies to sugar also applies to fat.
Ever since I attended the Women’s Heart Health Conference at the Cleveland Clinic, I’ve done my best to avoid adding oil to my cooking. In some ways this is easy. Cooking onions and garlic in a little bit of water is just as good as cooking them in oil. In other cases, though, I miss the oil, as in the case of roasting vegetables in the oven, although I’m getting used to it. Eating out is the real trick. I’m not sure how to avoid added fat at restaurants, but perfection isn’t my goal. I like eating out.
If we strive to consume our fat (and sugar) by eating whole foods, our overall fat (and sugar) consumption will probably decrease. The fat and sugar levels take care of themselves naturally. I think that’s a fairly logical conclusion, and I will read headline-grabbing articles about fat through this lens going forward.