The Saturated Fat Myth

saturated fat mythAccording to the saturated fat myth, saturated fats must be bad for us. After all, that is what we have been told for so long. And since we been told this for so long, it’s logical to think that there must be strong evidence to support this claim. It would be right to assume that everything we hear about saturated fat has been proven numerous times. If you’re sensing a bit of sarcasm, it’s because there’s actually very little evidence to support anything we’ve ever been told about saturated fat. The following article will outline how the saturated fat myth came to be accepted as fact. 

The development of the saturated fat myth started at the beginning of the twentieth century with the belief that there was a new national epidemic—that heart disease was rapidly becoming the leading cause of death. Simultaneously to this “rise” in heart disease deaths, our nation’s understanding of heart disease was also growing. So isn’t it possible that our new understanding of heart disease was mistaken for the emergence of the disease itself? The truth is, heart disease existed before we had the tools to detect it. Increased life expectancy also contributed to the appearance of a rise in heart disease. Americans were simply living long enough to die from heart disease instead of from non-degenerative diseases, like viruses.  

Part two of the creation of the saturated fat myth involved a physiologist from the University of Minnesota named Ancel Keys. During the growing awareness about heart disease, Keys took interest and started researching the matter. In the early 1950s, Keys set out for Naples where he discovered that only the rich population of the city experienced heart disease. After observing the dietary choices of the rich, Keys began to draw a link between saturated fat and serum cholesterol and heart disease. His conclusions were not greeted with popularity. Over the next six years, Keys travelled and made observations about diverse populations in order to support his case that saturated fat was one of the main causes of heart disease. The problem with his evidence was that he merely made associations between variables and failed to support any reasonable cause and effect relationships.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the development of the saturated fat myth occurred in 1960. It was just three years prior that the American Heart Association (AHA) opposed and rejected Ancel Keys’ claims about the saturated fats and heart issue. The AHA insisted that there was simply not enough evidence to authorize telling people to follow a low-saturated fat diet for better health. Yet, with the same evidence three years later, Keys and a committee of five other men issued a new report to the AHA. This time the report claimed it was “the best scientific evidence of the time.” It suggested that Americans should reduce the fat in their diets and replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in order to reduce the risk of heart disease. Although the previous report was said to be insufficient, the new one was indeed considered “the best scientific evidence of the time.”

Keys and his counterparts also successfully brought their saturated fat claims to the attention of the press. In the following weeks, months, and years the low-fat, high carbohydrate diet that Keys suggested boomed in popularity and the saturated fat myth became firmly established as fact. Keys was esteemed as “the face of dietary wisdom in America” (Taubes, 2007, p. 21), and although there was still some doubt about the validity of his claims, many physicians followed his lead. The medical community  was desperately trying to put a halt on the rising number of heart disease cases in America, and the saturated fat myth seemed to make sense. 

The Takeaway: So, what can we learn from all of this? Perhaps knowing this brief history of the creation of the saturated fat myth will make it easier to accept new myth-busting information. But more importantly, this history reveals how imperative it is to question and challenge what our friends, the media, and even health officials tell us about nutrition. We must remember that good health depends on a few wise choices, but wise food choices depend on constant vigilance

Reference: Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007), by Gary Taubes, 

Originally posted 2013-11-20 15:27:16.

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