The cover of TIME magazine this week tells us to “Eat Butter”, that saturated fat has nothing to do with our cholesterol or heart disease. TIME magazine is wrong.
The studies highlighted in the article indeed show no correlation between saturated fat and high cholesterol. That is because the type of studies they used for this article could never show this correlation, by their very design.
Hundreds of randomized clinical trials, the strongest type of research study when it comes to our health, have proven for over 50 years that eating more saturated fat will increase our blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease. The research is so consistent that there is an equation (called the Hegsted Equation) that determines just how much our blood cholesterol will go up when we eat more saturated fat and cholesterol.
These randomized, controlled trials not only show that cholesterol levels to up and down depending on the percentage of calories in our diets that come from saturated fat and cholesterol, they also show that lowering our blood cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol, reduces our risk of heart attacks, strokes and coronary artery disease. Significantly.
We can’t say that eating X amount of saturated fat will cause your cholesterol to go over 200, because your genetics play a big role in your cholesterol level. We can determine how much your cholesterol will rise or fall when you change your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. That handy Hegsted Equation!
The studies highlighted in TIME and other publications trying to convince us this isn’t true aren’t randomized controlled trials. They are observational studies, which take a cross section of the population, ask them about their diet and then compare that information to their cholesterol and heart disease status. This type of study could not possibly show that eating more saturated fat causes heart disease.
Why, you ask?
- This type of general observational study can not prove that one thing causes another, there are too many variables not taken into account.
- Self reported food intake is never very accurate. We always think we eat healthier than we actually do. Especially when someone is looking.
- Two people can eat the same diet yet have very different cholesterol levels. Some people have low cholesterol and low risk of heart disease no matter what they eat. The determination of heart disease risk is an individual assessment.
- Most Americans eat too much saturated fat and cholesterol. These studies weren’t really looking at low intake versus high intake, more like high versus really high.
When scientists were first talking about smoking being bad for our health, the tobacco industry conducted this type of cross observational study to try and show no correlation between smoking and heart disease. Their strategy was the same – a study that would intentionally not show a correlation by its design. Since everyone smoked or was exposed to second-hand smoke in public areas, everyone had an increased risk.
The studies could not possibly show a correlation between smoking and heart disease, because they weren’t looking at the right thing. Just like the studies cited in TIME could not possibly show a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. But they sure sound scientific and reliable.
Some of the researchers doing these studies are under contracts with the Dairy Council and the Beef Council. Yep, that’s who is funding a lot of this research. Research that the head of Harvard University’s nutrition program says should be retracted because it is so misleading.
The bottom line is that we have no need for saturated fat or cholesterol in our diets. Eating too many animal foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol raises our risk for blocked arteries, heart attacks and strokes. You can reduce your risk significantly by reducing your intake of animal fats. Its a fact.