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Experts still sparring over saturated fats- heart disease link

July 14, 2017

“Coconut oil is bad for health!” announced headlines recently when the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a new Presidential Advisory[1] on saturated fats, stating that these fats really do most definitely cause heart disease. As a writer who’s spent more than a decade researching the science, and as a cardiologist whose practice is based on the most updated findings, we can say that the AHA paper is an outlier, with at least nine other expert reviews finding weak to nonexistent evidence for this link. Who’s right?

What is striking about the latest AHA Presidential Advisory is that it’s such an anomaly.

The official notion that saturated fats cause heart disease goes back to 1961, when the AHA published[2] the world’s first recommendations to avoid these fats, along with dietary cholesterol, in order to prevent a heart attack. This “diet-heart hypothesis” appeared as a windfall for a panicked public grappling with a disease that had risen quickly from the 1920s on to become the nation’s leading cause of death. Yet the diet-heart hypothesis had never been tested in a clinical trial—the only kind of science that can establish cause and effect—meaning that the AHA advice, despite being adopted by most leading experts, lacked a firm scientific foundation.

Eric Thorn, MD

Recognizing the need for rigorous data, governments around the world, including our own National Institutes of Health (NIH), spent billions of dollars in the ensuing decades on some of the largest and longest human clinical trials ever conducted. Somewhere between 10,000 and 53,000 people were tested on diets in which saturated fats were replaced by unsaturated vegetable oils (the tally depends on which trials are counted). However, the results did not turn out as hoped, and so researchers, either unable or unwilling to believe the outcomes, largely buried the data. For instance, the leaders of one large NIH-funded study with findings unfavorable to the diet-heart hypothesis did not publish them for 16 years.[3] When asked why, one reportedly replied that there was nothing wrong with the study; “We were just disappointed in the way it turned out.”[4]

Long-Buried Trials Reexamined

In recent years, however, work by us[5] and others[4] has shed light on these forgotten trials, prompting teams of scientists all over the world to unearth and evaluate this evidence. One set of files was literally hauled out of a basement, reconstructed, and reexamined.[6]

And the results? None of these reviews could find any evidence that saturated fats had an effect on cardiovascular mortality or total mortality (Table).[6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14]

As quite a few of the authors state in their conclusions, the results clearly do not support the current national dietary guidelines which limit saturated fats to 10% of daily calories, or those by the AHA and American College of Cardiology, which further limit those fats to 5%-6% of calories for people with high cholesterol.[15,16] [MORE]


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