“Fat and cholesterol are bad.” How often have you heard that? Even though these innocent nutrients are so essential that we literally could not live without them, we’re still barraged every day by old myths and misconceptions promulgated by fat phobics and cholesterol cholerics.
Even worse, these myths continue to come straight from the mouths of paid experts who really should know better by now.
It is astounding to me that decades-old, ill-informed comments and recommendations about fat and cholesterol are still being made today. Despite the lack of any real proof—and a bunch of evidence to the contrary.
Here’s a look at nine commonly repeated fat and cholesterol “facts” that are as mythical as the nine lives of a cat.
Myth 1: Fat will make you fat and unhealthy
Yes, fat does have more calories than carbohydrates or protein. But this caloric density actually makes fat more nutritious. It’s the only food source of vitamins A, D, and E, for example. And we all know how important these vitamins, especially D, are to good health—and how deficient most people are today.
Fat also tends to be very filling and satisfying, so there is less of a tendency to overeat. Which leads me to Myth 2…
Myth 2: Low-fat is the optimal weight-loss diet
During the 1960s and ‘70s, some influential scientists came to believe that saturated fat was the main cause of heart disease and some cancers. Although there was not a single study in humans that proved this misguided notion, politicians jumped on board. And the low-fat diet was recommended to all Americans beginning in 1977.
It became the largest uncontrolled experiment ever foisted on the American people.
But the low-fat diet has now been thoroughly studied. And it should have been put to rest following the largest controlled clinical trial in nutritional history—the Women’s Health Initiative, which I originally helped to put together.
One Women’s Health Initiative analysis of nearly 50,000 postmenopausal women showed that participants who followed a low-fat diet only weighed one pound less after eight years compared to the women who ate a normal, well-balanced diet.1 Plus, the low-fat group didn’t have any lower rates of heart disease or cancer.
In other studies, a low-fat diet was actually associated with lowering HDL “good” cholesterol2 and reducing the size of LDL “bad” cholesterol.3 And while it seems counterintuitive, smaller, denser LDL cholesterol molecules are actually more likely to build up in arteries than larger, “lighter” particles.
So not only will you not lose weight on a low-fat diet, but it can potentially kill you. Talk about a big fat myth.
Myth 3: Processed, low-fat foods are healthy alternatives
When the low-fat craze took hold in the ‘70s and ‘80s, food manufacturers figured out how to remove fat from their products and make a bundle selling these higher-priced “healthy” alternatives. The problem was, without fat, the foods tasted terrible. So to combat this problem, manufacturers simply loaded low-fat foods with sugar, corn syrup, and tasty artificial chemicals instead.
But sugar—not fat—is the real culprit behind obesity and obesity-related diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Nevertheless, sales of low-fat, high-sugar foods have skyrocketed as consumers attempt to follow faulty nutritional advice without having to give up their favorite foods.
In fact, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, processed foods account for 75 percent of the added sugar in the average American’s diet.4
Of course, the best course is to avoid food that requires processing to make it low fat, low carb, or low anything. The purpose of eating is not to consume “low” foods with empty calories, but to eat highly nutritious foods.
Myth 4: You’ll have a heart attack if you eat saturated fat
The idea that saturated fat raises the risk of heart disease was initially based on flawed studies that clueless politicians, abetted by political scientists, somehow made into public policy.
The saturated fat myth is based on a chain of misconceptions. We’ve since learned that consuming saturated fat does not really appear to raise LDL “bad” cholesterol by much5,6 (Even assuming that cholesterol is the culprit behind heart disease in the first place—see Myth 6).
Saturated fat actually appears to change LDL from small, dense particles that can clog arteries to larger, lighter particles that are mostly benign.7 Further, saturated fat appears to raise HDL “good” cholesterol.
So, if anything, saturated fat seems to actually improve cholesterol profile in terms of supposed heart disease risk factors.
Still not convinced? Consider this: In 2010, researchers reviewed data from 21 studies involving 347,747 participants and found no evidence that saturated fat consumption increases the risk of heart disease.8
You can’t get much more proof than that.
Myth 5: Saturated fats are the same as trans fats
Trans fats are also known as partially hydrogenated fats. They do not occur in nature, but instead are manufactured in a highly artificial—and toxic—process that makes liquid fats solid and thus easier to cook with. Trans fats extend the shelf life of processed foods, which is why you’ll find them in everything from cakes to chips.
Trans fats pack a double health whammy: They raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.9 Even the FDA recognizes trans fats’ harm and has belatedly banned them. (See “FDA finally sees elephant in the room…and it’s a fat one” in the December 10, 2013 Daily Dispatch.)
Many experts and organizations lump trans fats and saturated fats together and label them all as “bad fats.” But as we learned above, saturated fats are safe. It’s the artificial trans fats that are totally toxic and have no place in any diet.
Myth 6: Foods that contain cholesterol will kill you
Cholesterol in food is broken down during digestion and has no correlation to the cholesterol that circulates in the blood. Nor does dietary cholesterol intake correlate to heart disease.
I repeat: Cholesterol in food is not the same as the cholesterol we’ve all been taught (misguidedly) to fear.
This tragic lack of basic knowledge and understanding has led to excellent, healthy foods such as eggs, lobster, and shrimp being consigned to the “bad list” simply because they contain cholesterol. To this day, so-called experts still drone on about how many eggs or shellfish servings you can “get away with.”
There is nothing wrong with eating shellfish if you enjoy it. And eggs are actually nature’s perfect food, packed with minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients. But keep in mind these nutrients are found in the yolk, which is also the part of the egg that contains cholesterol. Advising people to throw out the yolks and only eat egg whites is just about the most ridiculous and wasteful advice in the sad history of diet and nutrition recommendations.
Myth 7: LDL cholesterol is evil
Mainstream medicine is obsessed with lowering total and LDL “bad” cholesterol in the blood. But while cardiologists drop the LDL limit ever lower, endocrinology doctors who are experts in human metabolism are crying foul.
Studies have found that total and LDL cholesterol levels are poor indicators of heart disease compared with other risk markers.10 (See “Seven critical heart health markers more important than cholesterol” in last month’s Insiders’ Cures).
I also recently reported on a study of 231,986 patients hospitalized for heart disease. Half of them had normal LDL cholesterol levels.11
And in older people, there are studies that show that the higher the cholesterol, the lower the risk of heart disease.12
My late colleague, Dr. Arthur Schatzkin of the National Cancer Institute, first showed that low cholesterol is a risk factor for cancer nearly 30 years ago. Recent studies have found low cholesterol is associated with higher mortality worldwide—not only from cancer, but also suicide.13
Myth 8: Margarine is better than butter
As the U.S. government made the saturated fat myth official in 1977, margarine manufacturers and their ad agencies stepped up the opportunity to sell their unpalatable, slick chemical sticks as “healthy” substitutes for real butter.
But the truth is, most margarines contain large amounts of unhealthy processed vegetable oils and added trans fats. In fact, the well-respected Framingham Massachusetts Heart Study shows that eating margarine substantially increases the risk of heart disease, while butter has no effect.14
And an Australian study of 458 men who had recently had a cardiac event found that those who increased their margarine and vegetable oil consumption were a whopping 70 percent more likely to die of heart disease than their butter-eating peers.15
“Margarine, the toxic toast topper.” Now that’s an ad I’d like to see.
Myth 9: Corn and soy oils are heart healthy
I’ll finish with a myth that seemingly came out of nowhere: The corn and soy oils sold in grocery stores are somehow healthy.
Vegetable oils contain unsaturated fats, and thus are touted as a healthy substitute for saturated fats like butter. But, as I discussed in “The curious case of corn” in the June, 17, 2013 Daily Dispatch, the practice of irradiating corn seeds over many decades has created a genetically modified food and oil that is now virtually devoid of nutritional content.
Soybeans are even worse—93 percent of all soy planted in the United States in 2013 was genetically engineered.16
And that’s not all. Research shows corn and soybean oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids.17 Too many omega-6s can lead to inflammation—one of the chief markers for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious diseases. Furthermore, a study showed that soybean oils commonly sold in the U.S. can actually contain trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease.18
Despite all the research showing that these nine myths are nothing more than fairy tales that haven’t come true, I continue to see warnings from nutritional “experts” about the evils of fat and cholesterol.
But now you know better. Just say no to these outrageous misconceptions that have been promulgated upon the American people over the last four decades. Your body and your brain will thank you.
1 Howard BV, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and weight change over 7 years: the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006; 295:39-49.
2 Brinton EA, et al. A low-fat diet decreases high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels by decreasing HDL apolipoprotein transport rates. J Clin Invest. Jan 1990; 85(1): 144–151.
3 Dreon DM, et al. Reduced LDL particle size in children consuming a very-low-fat diet is related to parental LDL-subclass patterns. Am J Clin Nutr. June 2000 vol. 71 no. 6 1611-1616.
4 “Processed foods: contributions to nutrition,” Am J Clin Nutr 2014; Apr 23 (epub ahead of print)
5 Muller H, et al. The Serum LDL/HDL Cholesterol Ratio Is Influenced More Favorably by Exchanging Saturated with Unsaturated Fat Than by Reducing Saturated Fat in the Diet of Women. J. Nutr. January 1, 2003 vol. 133 no. 1 78-83.
6 Nichols AB, et al. Daily nutritional intake and serum lipid levels. The Tecumseh study.Am J Clin Nutr. 1976 Dec;29(12):1384-92.
7 Dreon DM, et al. Change in dietary saturated fat intake is correlated with change in mass of large low-density-lipoprotein particles in men.Am J Clin Nutr. May 1998 vol. 67 no. 5 828-836.
8 Siri-Tarino, PW. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. January 2010 ajcn.27725.
9 American Heart Association. Trans Fats. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/Fats101/Trans-Fats_UCM_301120_Article.jsp. Accessed April 16, 2014.
10 Lemos da Luz P, et al. High Ratio of Triglycerides to HDL-Cholesterol Predicts Extensive Coronary Disease. Clinics. Aug 2008; 63(4): 427–432.
11 Sachdeva A, et al. Lipid levels in patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease: an analysis of 136,905 hospitalizations in Get With The Guidelines.
Am Heart J. 2009 Jan;157(1):111-117.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.ahj.2008.08.010.
13 Neaton JD, et al. Serum Cholesterol Level and Mortality Findings for Men Screened in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. Arch Intern Med.1992;152(7):1490-1500. doi:10.1001/archinte.1992.00400190110021.
14 Gillman MW, et al. Margarine intake and subsequent coronary heart disease in men. Epidemiology. 1997 Mar;8(2):144-9.
15 Ramsden CE, et al. Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis BMJ 2013;346:e8707
16 USDA. Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx#.U07t4sbjPgI. Accessed April 16, 2014.
17 Russo, GL. Dietary n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: from biochemistry to clinical implications in cardiovascular prevention. Biochem Pharmacol. 2009 Mar 15;77(6):937-46. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2008.10.020. Epub 2008 Oct 28.
18 O’Keefe, S, et al. Levels of trans geometrical isomers of essential fatty acids in some unhydrogenated U.S. vegetable oils. Journal of Food Lipids.Volume 1, Issue 3, pages 165–176, September 1994.