Barbara and I have been following a gluten-free, low-carb, healthy-fat way of eating (LCHF) for about 8 months. And we’ve had outstanding results. Both of us have lost over 15 pounds and, importantly, we’ve kept it off. Some of that weight was water but most of it was that fatty baggage that everyone hates so much.
Amazingly, our weight loss has not affected our strength gains as we continue to get stronger and leaner.
While our diet has made us healthier (proven by our recent blood test results), feel better, and look better, it’s not without its detractors.
If you were to listen to the USDA, the FDA, and the American Heart Association (AHA), they would undoubtedly say our diet is quite unhealthy. Their reasoning is that our diet is way too high in saturated fats.
These experts all say that high consumption of saturated fats is highly correlated to increased heart disease risk.
It’s true that our diet contains more saturated fat (SFA) than the FDA recommends. We eat grass-fed red meat several times during the week, and I particularly enjoy coconut oil every day in my green tea. Does that mean that we’re on a road to disastrous health consequences?
I think not.
A Recent Study Says Our Diet Will Not Kill Us
One significant study released last week revealed that current AHA and FDA dietary guidelines, which recommend low SFA consumption, are unwarranted. It also revealed that recommendations for a high carbohydrate intake may lead to increased mortality.
Wow, I’m doing a little dance because this completely upends the AHA’s and FDA’s concerted efforts over the last year to try and convince the public that SFAs will kill you.
The AHA Demonization Of Saturated Fat
A few months back the AHA came out with a Presidential Advisory recommending that Americans limit their intake of saturated fatty acids (SFAs) because of its potential to cause cardiovascular disease. They specifically targeted coconut oil as a particularly dangerous food.
Ooooh… That really frosted me. I really like coconut oil.
But what bothered me more was the AHA’s sloppy scientific justification for the avoidance of SFAs.
It turned out that the AHA’s advisory was based on only four old and extremely questionable studies. They also chose to ignore the numerous studies showing that SFA intake has no relation to heart disease. See my post here.
The FDA Recommends Soybean Oil For Heart Health
Following the AHA’s advisory, the FDA, in response to a request by soybean oil manufacturers, allowed food products that contained soybean oil to be labeled as heart-healthy.
Who said that soybean oil was heart-healthy? Well, of course, the AHA did in their report. They advise us to avoid eating SFAs and instead consume more polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), especially soybean oil. Soybean oil happens to be the number one PUFA consumed in the United States.
The FDA allowed this even though there is ample evidence showing that PUFAs, including soybean oil, are extremely unhealthy. See here.
The New “PURE” Study Refutes the USDA, FDA, And AHA
This week a team of 37 researchers led by Dr. Mahshid Dehghan of McMasters University in Canada released a study showing that increased consumption of fat, including SFA, had no effect on cardiovascular disease.
This study, also known as the “PURE” study, revealed that a high consumption of carbohydrates may lead to a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
What made this study significant is its size and scope. Researchers studied the dietary habits of 135,335 people in 18 countries over five continents with an average follow-up of 7.4 years.
It’s the largest study ever done concerning the relationship between fats, carbohydrates, cardiovascular disease, and mortality.
Notice the conclusion of the authors,
High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke. Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings.
Did you get that? Total fat won’t kill you. SFAs won’t kill you. And neither of them will give you heart disease. In fact, SFAs decreases your risk of a stroke.
However, a high carbohydrate intake was associated with increased death.
Hey, That’s Not What The USDA Told Us!
The mainstream medical community and dieticians have been telling us for years that SFAs are dangerous because they have the potential to increase our risk of heart disease.
If they’re wrong and PURE is right, that means the low-fat high-carbohydrate diet the USDA and AHA have been touting for the last 50 years might be making millions of Americans sick.
The PURE researchers were so sure of their findings they suggested that global dietary guidelines on SFAs should be revised.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Are Current Dietary Guidelines Unhealthy?
The FDA’s current guidelines concerning macronutrient intake as per a percentage of total daily calories is as follows: 60% carbohydrate, 10% protein, and 30% fat. The FDA suggests you consume less than 10% of total calories from SFAs.
The USDA’s guidelines are very similar to the FDA’s. You can see them here.
The AHA, however, suggests an even lower consumption of SFAs. They recommend that SFAs comprise no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total caloric intake.
The cap on SFAs of less than 10% of total calories is contrary to the finding of the PURE study.
Concerning the FDA’s limitation of SFAs, the PURE study researchers had this to say,
Mahshid Dehghan and colleagues echo the views of a growing number of scientists by stating that advice to restrict saturated fatty acids “is largely based on selective emphasis on some observational and clinical data, despite the existence of several randomised trials and observational studies that do not support these conclusions”.
In other words, there is no good reason to restrict the amounts of SFAs in your diet. This is exactly what advocates of a low carb, healthy-fat diet have been saying for years.
A Limitation Of The PURE Study
Some detractors have pointed out that the PURE study was an observational study, and we should, therefore, limit our enthusiasm for its results.
That may be somewhat true. This was an observational study, and these studies can be lacking because they’re based on correlation, not causation.
However, that doesn’t mean that observational studies are worthless. This was a large study, and the association between all fats and the lack of heart disease was significant.
The PURE study also correlates well with what better studies, called randomized clinical trials (RCT), have found concerning SFAs.
Randomized Clinical Trials Have Not Shown That SFAs Cause Heart Disease
It’s doubtful that the PURE study will cause diet “experts” to revise their guidelines concerning the consumption of SFAs and total fat.
Dr. Alice Lichtenstein is a senior scientist and director of Tufts University’s Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. She was also instrumental in formulating the US Department of Agriculture’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association’s (AHA’s) Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. She was also a lead author on that poorly designed AHA Presidential Advisory report advising against SFA intake that I previously mentioned.
Obviously, Lichtenstein has some skin in the nutritional guideline game.
Concerning individual studies, Lichtenstein remarked, “Rarely are guidelines changed based on a single study.”
Lichtenstein is correct. It would be foolish to change dietary guidelines because of one study, especially an observational one.
However, this is not the case here. Researchers have been arguing for years that there is no good scientific data supporting the cap on SFAs.
Dr. Zoë Harcombe Reviews The Data
Dr. Zoë Harcombe, an obesity expert and a researcher in the United Kingdom, recently performed a review of the studies that U.S. and U.K authorities used to set dietary guidelines on SFAs. She found that all the studies the U.S and U.K. relied upon were deeply flawed. See here.
From her research, Harcombe concluded,
Dietary fat guidelines have prevailed for almost 40 years. The evidence base at the time of their introduction has been examined for the first time and found lacking. Evidence currently available provides no additional support. Public health opinion differed when the guidelines were introduced. Opposition to the guidelines is becoming more strident. Substantial increases in diet-related illness over the past four decades, particularly obesity and type 2 diabetes, indicate that a review of dietary advice is warranted.
There is simply no good evidence that limiting SFAs to less than 10% of your daily caloric intake is good for your heart.
But if there isn’t good evidence, then how did the USDA come up with this recommendation?
The Big Fat Surprise
In 2014, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz released a book concerning her 10 years of research into how current dietary guidelines on fat were established. Her book The Big Fat Surprise literally shocked the nutrition world.
Teicholz was able to prove that current USDA guidelines on SFAs, which have been in existence since the 1970s, were based on a flawed study done by a researcher by the name of Ancel Keyes.
From his study called the Seven Countries Study, Keys said there was good evidence that men who eat high amounts of SFAs had a higher risk of developing heart disease. Keys’ study eventually produced what has been called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis.
However, in her book, Teicholz shows that Keys’ work was severely flawed and should never have been accepted as scientific evidence. In the video below, she summarizes her findings.
See here for another critique of the Diet-Heart Hypothesis.
While the PURE study does a lot to dispel the myth that SFAs are dangerous, the PURE researchers didn’t really endorse a LCHF diet.
The PURE Researcher’s Diet Recommendations
While PURE researchers suggested that a high carbohydrate diet could be detrimental to your heart, they only recommend a carbohydrate consumption of between 50% – 55% of your total caloric intake.
That’s only slightly lower than the 60% recommended by the FDA.
Their recommendation for fat intake is 35% which includes all types of fat. This is only 5% higher than FDA guidelines.
While the PURE study did much to help stem the attack on SFAs, their dietary recommendations are still considered a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet by LCHF advocates.
A typical LCHF diet would be comprised of at least 60% healthy fat, 20% or less protein, and 20% or less carbohydrate. These percentages are approximate as different advocates will suggest slightly different amounts of fats and carbs.
Unfortunately, the PURE study did not reveal what would happen if individuals reduced their carbohydrate intake to lower than 30%.
Are Low-Fat Diets Harmful?
While we’ve been told by the USDA since 1980 that SFAs are harmful to our health, could it be that a low-fat, high-carb diet is the real unhealthy diet?
Consider the Women’s Health Initiative. This was a 12-year study, conducted between the years of 1993 to 2005. It included 48,835 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 79 years.
This study revealed that a low-fat diet significantly worsened insulin resistance in diabetic women. Since the diet mentioned was low-fat, we can assume that it was also high in carbohydrates. That doesn’t sound like a high-carb, low-fat diet is a good choice for diabetics.
Further, this 2012 Stanford University Medical School study of 81 obese women showed that “dietary recommendations that advise people to follow an LF/high-carbohydrate diet for weight loss may actually undermine the success of IR (insulin resistant) -individuals.”
Below is a graph showing obesity rates since the 1960s. Notice the jump in obesity starting in 1980. This was the year USDA dietary guidelines were introduced recommending a high-carb low-fat diet.
So it appears that high-carb, low-fat diets may not be as healthy as the USDA, FDA, and AHA make them out to be.
While the PURE study didn’t prove that an LCHF diet is a healthy diet, it did show that there is good observational evidence that a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet is unhealthy.
It also showed the SFA is not the villain the government has made it out to be. So, yes, I’m going to continue enjoying my coconut oil.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We don’t gorge on SFAs. Much of our healthy fats are monounsaturated from sources like extra virgin olive oil, macadamia nuts, and avocados.
But I will also continue to enjoy grass fed beef, bacon, coconut oil, and all that other good stuff that contains SFAs.
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