“I’ve been on a diet for two weeks and all I’ve lost is fourteen days.” – Totie Fields
In 1989, at the age of 21 and after a few years of inactivity, I made a visit to the doctor. I learned that I had a cholesterol level of 213, which (according to the doctor) placed me at “moderate risk” for heart disease. I left that day with a handful of literature that, among other things, advocated the restriction of saturated fat.
To me, good health had always been about physical fitness – how much weight I could lift or how easily I could climb a steep hill on my bike. So I began training again. But I also paid a lot more attention to what I ate, and I began to study everything I could get my hands on about nutrition.
Everything I read reiterated the same message: “Fat is BAD. Complex carbohydrates are GOOD!” The message appeared to be unanimous, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
When my father, an active, well-built man who appeared to be very fit for his age, experienced a heart attack in 1990, my resolve to eat what I believed to be a heart-healthy diet was further strengthened.
I resolved to eat only the leanest meats and low-fat fish. And because my intense training required a high caloric intake, I began consuming copious amounts of carbohydrates: rye bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole-meal pasta, rolled oats, buckwheat, and millet.
I began partaking of the delights of butter-less toast, egg whites, salad without oil, and water-packed tuna. If I were served meat that had – shock, horror, gasp! – visible fat, I would surgically trim it away before taking a bite. I wouldn’t even think of buying any new food item until I had scrupulously examined the nutrition label for fat content.
When I calculated the average amount of fat that I was taking in, I was proud to find that it was less than 10 percent of my daily caloric intake. I wore my low-fat habits like a badge of honor.
But reality began to bite several years later. Despite my “healthy” diet, strenuous training regimen, and strict avoidance of cigarettes, alcohol, and recreational drugs, my blood pressure had risen from 110/65 (a reading characteristic of highly conditioned athletes) to an elevated 130/90. It was increasingly hard to maintain the lean, “ripped,” vascular look I had always prided myself on. Instead, my physique was getting smooth and bloated.
My digestive system became more sluggish and my stomach often felt heavy and distended after meals. I frequently felt tired after eating. I began to rack up a rather impressive list of irreversible food sensitivities. I had never been much of a coffee drinker, but I was now trying to fight increasing fatigue by sipping a strong black or two before workouts. My fasting blood glucose level was below the normal range, indicative of reactive hypoglycemia.
In short, I felt terrible and my health was suffering.
Despite monumental effort and discipline, my supposedly wholesome low-fat diet had raised my blood pressure, sapped my energy, and left me with a screwed-up blood sugar metabolism. Ironically, these changes increased my risk of the very thing I was trying to avoid: heart disease.
This disheartening revelation was the catalyst for an extended period of self-experimentation, during which I anxiously tried a number of highly touted popular diets. It was only after settling into a high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan – the exact opposite of that recommended by most health authorities – that I was able to reverse the negative changes bought about by years of high-carbohydrate eating. My blood pressure and glycemic control finally returned to normal, while my digestive function, mental focus, energy levels, and overall sense of well being improved dramatically.
This experience caused me to question everything I had ever learned about nutrition. I wanted to know why the revered low-fat paradigm had failed me, while a diet in which the bulk of calories were obtained from supposedly “dangerous” animal fats made me feel better than I had in a long, long time.
Rather than simply take for granted the existence of data showing saturated fat to be harmful – as does so much of the public, medical, and research communities – I insisted on viewing this data for myself. My burning desire for the facts drove me into an intensive search of the medical literature.
What I discovered astounded me.
The low-fat, anti-cholesterol paradigm was a complete sham right from the outset. It began in the early 1900s when Russian researchers noted that feeding rabbits cholesterol caused a build-up of fatty deposits in their arteries. However – unlike humans – rabbits are herbivores. They are not metabolically equipped to eat animal products. (Plant foods do not contain cholesterol.)
In the mid 1950s, health authorities were at a complete loss to explain the rising prevalence of coronary heart disease (CHD). Inspired by the utterly irrelevant findings of the Russian rabbit experiments, scientists began examining possible links between fat, cholesterol, and CHD in humans.
One of those individuals, Ancel Keys, plotted CHD death rates from a mere six countries on a graph, and was able to show an almost perfect correlation between fat consumption and CHD mortality.
But what Keys didn’t share with his readers was the fact that he handpicked his data – even though relevant statistics were available for 22 countries. Other researchers demonstrated that when data from larger numbers of countries were included, the alleged association between fat and CHD vanished into thin air. Keys, however, was on the nutrition advisory committee of the powerful American Heart Association, and his erroneous theories were officially incorporated into AHA dietary guidelines in 1961.
The cholesterol theory of heart disease has been largely built upon “epidemiological” research, which examines disease trends among certain populations. Such population-based research can be useful in identifying leads for further research – but, due to many confounding factors, should never be used as conclusive proof of anything.
For example, one of the arguments commonly used in support of the lipid hypothesis is that countries with high levels of saturated fat consumption have the highest levels of heart disease. Sure they do. But they also have high levels of psychosocial stress, the highest consumption of sugar, refined carbohydrates, polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and trans-fats, and the lowest levels of physical activity. All these factors have been implicated in the development of CHD.
To conclusively prove that saturated fat causes CHD, we need to conduct randomized, clinical trials comparing low-saturated-fat diets with saturated-fat-rich diets, in which all other possible confounding variables are controlled.
Indeed, over the last six decades, numerous controlled studies have tested the effect of saturated fat restriction on cardiovascular and overall mortality. But supporters of the lipid hypothesis rarely mention them, instead focusing on the epidemiological data. That is because none of those controlled clinical trials have ever demonstrated a beneficial effect of saturated fat restriction or cholesterol lowering.
In fact, a number of these studies directly refute the cholesterol theory.
Ironically, statin drugs – the only cholesterol-lowering interventions that have demonstrated any ability to save lives – do not work by reducing cholesterol. A mountain of evidence shows that these drugs work via anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, artery-dilating, and antioxidant mechanisms. Thankfully, taking toxic cholesterol drugs is not the only way to achieve those effects.
Despite almost half a century of intense research, the indisputable fact is that heart disease is still the industrialized world’s number one killer – occurring with the same frequency as it did 50 years ago.
And the great tragedy is that the dietary and lifestyle factors that do increase CHD risk remain neglected or even completely ignored. Modern medicine has become far more adept at saving the lives of those who already have heart disease – but it has achieved little in the way of preventing the disease from occurring in the first place.
This situation will not change until health authorities drop their cholesterol obsession. But don’t hold your breath. The upper echelons of modern medicine are dominated by politics and money, and cholesterol paranoia is way too profitable for those who wield the most influence. The welfare of ordinary folks like you and me ranks far behind that of the powerful vested interests who lobby and fund health policy makers.
That’s why it is up to you to learn about the things that really matter when it comes to heart disease. These include reducing stress; avoiding elevated blood sugar; ensuring the adequate intake of omega-3 fats and avoiding excessive omega-6 fat intake; shunning heavily processed, nutrient-depleted foods; eating a diet that emphasizes fresh, nutrient-rich meats and vegetables; maintaining optimal antioxidant status through the use of proper diet and supplementation; avoiding high bodily iron stores; exercising regularly; and eschewing both passive and active cigarette smoking.[Ed. Note: In The Great Cholesterol Con: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Cholesterol, Diet, and Heart Disease Is Wrong!, Anthony Colpo destroys every defense of the cholesterol theory of heart disease. This book could save your life!]