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Low fat food products are a con


Book cover 'The Big Fat Surprise'

The clearest version yet of the story behind the distressingly confused and troubled world of dietary advice has just been presented by Nina Teicholz in her New York Time bestseller The Big Fat Surprise, which has attracted favourable reviews.

In the book Ms Teicholz reveals that the war on dietary saturated fat was declared by the American Heart Association in 1956, based on flawed science, unwittingly boosted by the national anxiety that followed a serious heart attack experienced in 1955 by President Eisenhower. Media attention to the President’s health opened the way for a particular theory about the widespread incidence of heart failure to be elevated to national acceptance. Put simply — and to borrow a phrase from more recent history — saturated fat was dubbed erroneously to be a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ of healthy hearts.

The medical researcher who developed the saturated fat theory was Ancel Keys, who had cherry-picked data from six countries showing a correlation between fat consumption and heart disease, while ignoring data from many other countries where there was no such correlation. 

Serum cholesterol was identified as a key indicator of cardio-vascular risk. It was found that saturated fat (most common in animal fats) raised cholesterol, while unsaturated fat (found mostly in oil seeds like olive and soy) did not. Keys achieved celebrity status in the media through aggressive promotion of his theory, so that his demonisation of saturated fat was swiftly embraced in a national policy urging an incisive reduction of fat, particularly saturated fat, in the American diet.

Decades later, the incidence of heart disease has not diminished, while obesity and Type-2 diabetes have reached epidemic proportions. Credible science journals have lately been publishing robust reports that saturated fat is not implicated in heart disease.

At the same time, research has shown that cholesterol is a complex entity coming in both good and bad forms. Two lipoproteins of low and high density respectively (LDL and HDL) ‘manage’ cholesterol in the blood stream. They have opposing effects on its availability to do harm by over-patching inflamed arterial walls to the point of blockage, thereby presenting a neutral risk of harm when present is balanced proportions. 

There are many other factors which pre-dispose the body for the development of cardiovascular disease — especially smoking, excess alcohol, lifestyle stress, and excess dietary sugar promoting inflammation, as well-asType 2 diabetes and obesity. Saturated fat in the diet is now recognised as not even present on the ‘short list’ of risk factors. It is reported that President Eisenhower had a history of being a chain smoker, an obvious pre-disposing factor, but that went unnoticed at the time, and saturated fat got the blame for his heart troubles.

In spite of the steady flow of robust publications in recent decades showing that saturated fat is not a heart risk, the US authorities (Food and Drug Administration, Heart Association and others) and the National Health and Medical research Council of Australia have so far failed to change their advice against saturated fat. In the meantime the recommended low fat diets have resulted in sugar and other carbohydrates overload, due in part to the lack of the satiety response that fat induces in the body. That is the mechanism that naturally reduces hunger and moderates food intake, reducing the risk of obesity. 

What is behind this lack of response to a seemingly obvious paradigm shift in understanding among health researchers? Well, clearly there must be acute embarrassment for policy defenders confronted by unequivocal evidence that the low fat diet they have embraced for so long has been disastrous. Naturally multinational and other food processors and marketers that have invested heavily over a long period in low fat products, would be expected to apply pressure on the policy makers to hold the line. Their primary interest is profit for the shareholders, not community health. Any level of dependence of our policy makers and defenders on funding support from these same investors would surely weaken all but the strongest resolve to change policy.

But this leaves us all, obliged as we are to be food consumers, still exposed to promotions defending the old paradigm, and still dependent upon a confused medical service industry. Our older cardiologists and GPs were trained in a time of certainty that saturated fat was truly a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ of heart security. Now, as with George Bush's belief that such a weapon of war was available in Iraq, the belief that such a dangerous dietary weapon exists must be cast upon the scrap-heap of history.

Mike FoaleMike Foale is a retired CSIRO scientist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. His focus is on supporting small coconut producers in the Pacific and elsewhere with reasearch into potential snack foods exploiting the nutritional and health value of coconut oil that has been confirmed in recent times.

Topic tags: Mike Foale, nutrition, fat, diet, science, agriculture, multinationals



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Existing comments

I have discovered an ice cream product that is low in fat and low in sugar. Liking ice cream as I do, I had to buy it. It tastes great with strawberries....but only with strawberries. We all know lots of fruit & veg plus walking are very beneficial for health. I close my ears when I hear about how yummy meat pies are!

Pam | 04 August 2014  

As one reads this review of the subject matter of fat in the diet, you have to realize that this article is written by Mike Foale, who has been in the business of promoting high fat coconut oil for the past 15 years. Its like asking a hog farmer what he thinks about bacon and health. The book in question has been roundly panned by most medical experts. Especially by cardiologists who end up dealing with those who have clogged arteries.

Dax Harwood | 04 August 2014  

Thans Mike for this important and easily explained piece. If people only new how much processing goes into making food 'fat-free' they may not ever be tempted again. Addition of sugars, flavours, colours etc are a real put off for me.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 05 August 2014  

sadly you are unwilling to publish anything by anyone who questions Mike Foale's objectivity.

dax | 05 August 2014  

I'm very disappointed with such a misleading headline which doesn't do justice to a good article, as well as wrongly challenging an appropriate practice to lose and manage weight. His article is about erroneous theories about SATURATED fat. Weight-loss dieting is based on low energy (that is, low fat, low sugar, etc.) foods healthily balanced, where it matters little whether the fat is SATURATED or not.

Jack | 05 August 2014  

Other scientifically proven cons driven by business are vitamin supplements, detoxification programs and homeopathic health food products, soon to be joined by the new trends for preventing bacterial and viral disease transmission. All of these cons ignore the basic fact that the human body has the most remarkable built-in functions to control the need for and the levels of all the dietary requirements and the most amazing anti- bacterial and anti-viral decontamination systems. Problems arise only when these built-in systems become deficient for some reason, often self-inflicted.

john frawley | 05 August 2014  

Very very interesting, as some wise owl once said: Not only can we be harmed by what we don't know, but harmed by what we do know that isn't so. A parable perhaps from the world 'of fats' that has intimations for the present state of affairs that have caused not a little floundering in the arena of faith and belief.

Paul Goodland | 05 August 2014  

Another expert trying to sell a pet theory. I think it is the best to us common sense and listen to experts from the Heart Foundation.

Beat | 05 August 2014  

Did not Catalyst and the ABC get into trouble for questioning the science behind saturated fat, cholesterol and the use of Lipitor late last year?

Dada | 05 August 2014  

2 years ago my wife and I scrapped the 'low fat' dogma of the last 60 years and went back to what has kept humans healthy for the last 2 million. We are eating mainly fat and protein from animals, dairy (mainly cream and cheese), some nuts, limited (in season) fruit and limited vegetables. (Granted dairy has only been around for the last 10,000 or so years but we find we can tolerate it). We have also eliminated grains (particularly wheat) as well as sugar from our diet. During the period that we changed our way of eating, we've lost more than 10 percent of our original body weight and reduced our waist measurements to less than half that of our height. I completed reading Big Fat Surprise (which I won as a prize for submitting the story of our health recovery) and find that it backs up everything I've researched in the last 2 years. Other people may achieve good health via differing pathways, this is just our story: http://profgrant.com/2014/07/29/3-low-carb-success-stories/

Gregg Sheehan | 05 August 2014  

John Frawley, what is a "homeopathic health food product" pray tell? I have never heard of such a thing. Homeopathic remedies are something entirely different. I use them regularly, to good effect.

Janet | 05 August 2014  

Janet. Homoeopathic remedies are based on very small doses of substances which do not have a therapeutic effect. That is they do not treat an existing disease nor prevent a disease. They do, however, in large doses, produce symptoms in otherwise healthy people. In summary then, they do nothing for general health or wellbeing, except in the user's belief, but do earn buckets of money for the purveyor. Better to save your money and receive proper therapeutic products should you develop a disease!

john frawley | 05 August 2014  

Well done Mike on offering us your analysis of this massive conundrum and spotlighting the book. Re Daz's comparison below re pig farming - unlike those 'in the business' I understand Mike does not stand to gain a gram of fat to his bank account from continuing to assist in finding a solution to all the suffering that is part our obesity epidemic. If you're interested in balance perhaps you could write an article for us explaining 'roundly panned' and quote your medical experts and cardiologists?

Shelle | 06 August 2014  

How does this person explain the comparative excellent health of vegetarians and even vegans? They're not all slurping down coconut oil.

Penelope | 07 August 2014  

Interesting article - I appreciated the link to the review article which provides a scholarly review of the research evidence in relation to dietary fats and health. It's technical but still possible to extract a straightforward message which is that the link between saturated fats & cholesterol has been overstated.

Kelly | 08 August 2014  

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