Put away the tinfoil hats–but, still, WTF?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  Really. But as I wade through the thicket of science studies and rhetoric of science readings I have on my desk, I am more and more impressed with the power of paradigmatic thinking to distort how scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Daisy Zamora and company have once again climbed in their wayback machine to reanalyze data from the Minnesota Coronary Survey, which began in 1968.  The vegetable oil intervention reduced saturated fat intake by about half and cholesterol consumption by about two-thirds, while nearly tripling the intake of polyunsaturated fat. Surprise, surprise–they found that although the vegetable oil intervention reduced cholesterol levels, the intervention also led to more heart attacks and increased risk of death. [The press release on the study is here; the study itself is here.]

Let me just add that the original study outcomes–which did not support the diet-heart hypothesis even then–were not published until many years after the study ended, in fact, after its primary investigator retired.

So, we’ve seen something like this with a red-meat-causes-cancer publication, a low-carb-more-calories-more-weight-loss one, and one of Zamora’s earlier studies, which she had to move mountains to get published.

Zamora and her team’s previous trip in the wayback machine turned up some interesting findings then too, which suggested that vegetable oils, far from being the “healthy” alternative to butter, might actually be contributing to increased risk of death from heart disease.

Zamora and her co-investigators politely refer to these sort of anomalies as “incomplete publication,” as in:

“… incomplete publication of important data has
contributed to the overestimation of benefits – and the underestimation of potential risks – of replacing
saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.”

All I want to say, before going back and burying my head once again in my books, is that

1) Daisy Zamora and Christopher Ramsden are rockstars, and

2) “incomplete publication” of results from diet-heart trials is part of the reason that the folks at the USDA and DHHS have published guidelines where “oils” get to have their own category.

They aren’t trying to kill us on purpose.  Really.

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Update:  You know you’ve increased the amount of sunshine in the world when your work gets Walter Willett to offer up yet another snotty comment (see here for previous peevishness) about any research that doesn’t align with his: “Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, called the research ‘irrelevant to current dietary recommendations’ that emphasize replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat.”

He’s right of course. Any science that doesn’t uphold the orthodoxy really is irrelevant to current dietary recommendations.

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The slick “new” Dietary Guidelines

Because never changing the recommendations means never having to say you’re sorry for 35 years of crappy advice, the 2015 (really 2016, but who’s counting?) Dietary Guidelines repeat the same old-same old “whole grains, fruitsandvegetables, low-fat/fat-free dairy, fish, nuts, and (if you must) lean meat” guidance from years past. Only difference: The new Guidelines are now oozing with vegetable oil.

In the list of recommended foods to include in “a healthy eating pattern,” “oils” now have their own category.
Oil its own food group
For the most part, we are talking Big Oil: canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils that have been chemically extracted, de-gummed, bleached, and deodorized (y’know, stuff you do to dirty diapers). And good luck finding them at your local farmers market.

Big Oil is big business for the U.S. agricultural economy and for the nutrition science academic industry. Alice Lichtenstein, of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, has found more creative ways to feed all kinds of oil to hamsters, rats, and people than probably anybody on earth. Corn, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, margarine and shortening, even rice bran oil–you name the oily food substance and Alice Slicktenstein has built her career on getting funding for studying it. Most of her work is done at–and funded through–the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, which is supported by money from, you guessed it, the USDA.  Her research is also supported by numerous grants from the NIH branch of HHS. However, this has nothing to do with the shiny new prominence of oily stuff in the USDA’s and HHS’s new Dietary Guidelines.

To be sure, oil oil everywhere is not the only thing slick about the new Guidelines. The language is pretty slippery too. There’s been a lot of cheering from the press about the “new” direction of the Guidelines, and indeed, some of the things being reported are actually in the Guidelines: The Guidelines have gotten rid of the ridiculous (and possibly dangerous) “1/2 teaspoon of salt a day” limits on sodium for some subpopulations–although the no-more-than 2300 mg (yes, a Whole Teaspoon!) limit should still be–wait for it–taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all arguments otherwise, nutrition–the politics and the science of it–is complicated. In a number of cases, trying to make the ugly stepsister foot of a “consistent public health message” squeeze into the glass slipper of inadequate and contradictory science has the Guidelines talking out of both sides of its oleaginous mouth. Here’s a closer look at what is going on:

1. Limits on cholesterol are gone.
Eh. Sorta kinda not really. It would appropriate to say “numerical” limits on cholesterol are gone, but the language of the DGA is still pretty limiting. As in:

“individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible”

What’s fun about this is that the Vegamanics are celebrating this as “cholesterol still sucks” while the SatFat Redeemers are all about “Eat them eggs, y’all.” They’re both right.  Or wrong.  Hey, this is nutrition! You don’t really expect a straight answer now, do you?

2. Red meat gets a pass.

It’s true that [lean] meat has not disappeared altogether, and that language about a “sustainable diet” (whatever that means) is not in the Guidelines. At the same time, the Guidelines recommend “lower intakes of meats, including processed meats,” lumping them in the same category as sugar-sweetened food and refined grains. So like the cholesterol issue above, this is getting played as “Evil meat lobby wins” on one side of the debate, and “Meat justice prevails” on the other.

The meat industry is happy to proclaim its support the Guidelines–as long as its product is still in them. If I were the meat folks though, I’d be working to shut the whole process down. If meat is still in the Guidelines, it is not for lack of 35 years of trying to get it out.

3. Limits on fat are gone.
Nope. Limits on “fat” are still there. If you’ve been hearing rumors that we are at the end of the “low-fat” era, and you thought that meant that the Guidelines were going to give the green light to fats–natural fats, fats that you could find at your local farmers market–you would be sadly, profoundly mistaken.

Just like all squares are rectangles, but only some rectangles are squares, all oils are fats, but only some fats are oils. The new Guidelines have been credited with saying, “Hey we’re okay with rectangles” but they are only okay with those rectangles that are squares.  You can eat fat, but only if it’s oil.

Evil fats

So: Fat–as in “saturated fat”– is still evil. But lower limits on “oil” are eased–with the exception of a few oils that the DGA folks still don’t like because their fatty acids are mostly saturated. Lower limits on oils in the diet have shifted from no less than 20% of calories to no less than 25%. But make no mistake: The upper limit on dietary “oil” as a macronutrient remains at 35% of calories, as it has been since 2005. Only by keeping limits on “oil” low can we manage to cram in the Guidelines’ requisite 45%-65% of calories of carbohydrate into our diets and still have room for protein.

In other words, the USDA hasn’t discarded the “low-fat” diet. They’ve discarded the “low oil” diet and actually, not even that. Now you are allowed a whopping 27 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of highly processed and refined, probably not local or within your foodshed, oily oil. Cheers!crisco oil
4. The DGA limits sugar intake.
Nope. It limits “added sugar” intake. That means that a bottle of orange juice, which “naturally” has as much sugar as a bottle of soda, is “good,” while soda is “bad.” Yeah yeah yeah. I hear you out there: “But but but. Orange juice has Vitamin C.” So add some Vitamin C to soda–same difference. Puh-leeze. Sugar is sugar. (I’ll save my “starch is sugar too” rant for another day.)

And all this talk about how Americans “typically exceed” recommendations for added sugar intake? Go look through the past 35 years of Dietary Guidelines. This is the first time ever that there has been an official numerical limit on sugar in any form–added or otherwise. I’m not sure how we could “exceed” something that wasn’t defined in the first place. However, the “Americans don’t follow the Guidelines” story is the best way to avoid confronting the fact that the Guidelines have not worked as intended. USDA/HHS can pretend that all would have been well if those fat stupid Americans had just done the stuff they were (actually not) told to do! Secretary Burwell suggested at the hearings in October that without the Guidelines the rapid rise in obesity rates might have been even rapider …

“We are on the wrong trajectory, but would the trajectory have been worse?”

… though it is hard to see how.  Fat lazy Americans can only cram so many Double Whoppers with Cheese down their gullets at a time, and besides Netflix wasn’t even invented until, like, 1997.

For a bit of perspective, although the 10% cap on “added sugars” is being hailed as some nutrition revolution, the USDA says Americans typically consume 13% of their calories from “added sugars” now. The radical new cap on “added sugars” heralds a (potential) whopping 3% decline in their consumption.  To be replaced by “naturally occurring sugars”? Or possibly more artificial sweeteners? Maybe, beer?

One thing is true about the Guidelines, though. Pretty much everyone hates them. Doesn’t matter where on the nutrition dogma spectrum you look–Marion Nestle or Nina Teicholz–everyone’s complaining.

I don’t like them either, but for reasons I don’t hear about in the press:

“All segments of society—individuals, families, communities, businesses and industries, organizations, governments, and others—can and should “align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

What this means:  The Guidelines have not worked as intended in the past and haven’t changed significantly in this edition, but this isn’t because the whole idea of having a single dietary prescription that will reduce risk of virtually every chronic disease in all Americans no matter their race, gender, age, genetics, lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. is patently ludicrous.  The Guidelines haven’t worked because we haven’t “aligned with” them.

As some snarky person once said, this is all about enforcing your right to eat what the folks behind the Guidelines have determined is good for you. 

“Aligning with the Dietary Guidelines by taking these actions is powerful because it can help change social norms and values and ultimately support a new prevention and healthy lifestyle paradigm that will benefit the U.S. population today as well as future generations.”

What this means:  Making certain behaviors the “norm” through public health dictum is a tried-and-true way for privileged classes to impose their values on the less-privileged.  “Aligning with” the Guidelines will help make eating (and exercising) like rich white people the morally superior choice for everyone.

To paraphrase how one brainless “expert” on public consumption put it many years ago, “Let them eat kale!”

For the rest of us, well, Marion Nestle is right when she says that the Guidelines are a “win” for the processed food industries.  She should know.  She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s  Report on Nutrition and Health, which said that processed food created to fit the prevailing definition of “healthy” is exactly what the public needs:

“Food manufacturers can contribute to improving the availability of palatable, easily prepared food products that will help people to follow the [low-fat, high-carbohydrate] dietary principles outlined here.”

The 2015-20120 Dietary Guidelines continue this line of reasoning:

“During the past few decades, food products and menus have notably evolved in response to consumer demands and public health concerns. The food and beverage and food service sectors and settings have a unique opportunity to continue to evolve and better align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

Which means that there is one group that always LUVS the Dietary Guidelines. As Food Navigator-USA puts it:

“The 2015 Guidelines released Jan. 7 create a marketing opportunity for savvy manufacturers and industry stakeholders to promote their products through educational materials that help consumers better understand how to meet the report’s recommendations.”

The Dietary Guidelines have been helping sell “healthy food” to consumers since 1980, just as “healthy food” manufacturers have been helping sell the Guidelines to consumers.  But “healthy food” doesn’t always lead to “healthy people.”  Moronically enough, the new Guidelines recognize that calls for “healthy processed food” might end badly (flashback to CSPI campaigning to add trans fats to food):

“In [developing and reformulating “healthy” products], care should be taken to assess any potential unintended consequences so that as changes are made to better align with the Dietary Guidelines, undesirable changes are not introduced.”

That means when the onslaught of oily, whole-grain, artificially sweetened and flavored food products fails to improve the health of Americans or (heaven forfend!) makes things worse, we know who to blame.

We can blame the American public for not following the Guidelines.  We can blame policymakers for not enforcing them.  And we can blame food manufacturers for introducing “undesirable changes” into the food supply.  But we can’t blame the Guidelines.

They’re too slick for that.

***********************************************************************************

PS.  I do plan on continuing the conversation started by Jennifer Calihan’s guest post “Low Fat, High Maintenance:  How money buys lean and healthy–plus an alternative path to both.”  If you haven’t read it already, you should (and the comments–good stuff there too). But, I just gotta get a couple of Dietary Guidelines rants out of my system.

The 2015 Dietary Advisory Committee Report: A Summary

Last week, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released the report containing its recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.   The report is 572 pages long, more than 100 pages longer than the last report, released 5 years ago.  Longer than one of my blog posts, even. Despite its length, and the tortured governmentalese in which it is written, its message is pretty clear and simple. So for those of you who would like to know what the report says, but don’t want to read the whole damn thing, I present, below, its essence:

Dear America,

You are sick–and fat.  And it’s all your fault. 

Face it.  You screwed up.  Somewhere in the past few decades, you started eating too much food. Too much BAD food.  We don’t know why.  We think it is because you are stupid.

We don’t know why you are stupid.

You used to be smart–at least about food–but somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s, you got stupid. Before then, we didn’t have to tell you what to eat.  Somehow, you just knew. You ate food, and you didn’t get fat and sick.

But NOW, every five years we have to get together and rack our brains to try and figure out a way to tell you how to eat–AGAIN.  Because no matter what we tell you, it doesn’t work. 

The more we tell you how to eat, the worse your eating habits get. And the worse your eating habits get, the fatter and sicker you are.  And the fatter and sicker you are, the more we have to tell you how to eat. 

DGA - Length & Obesity 1980-2010

Look. You know we have no real way to measure your eating habits.  Mostly because fat people lie about what they eat and most of you are now, technically speaking, fat.  But we still know that your eating habits have gotten worse. How?  Because you’re fat.  And, y’know, sick.  And the only real reason people get fat and sick is because they have poor eating habits.  That much we do know for sure.

And because, for decades now,  we have been telling you exactly what to eat so you don’t get fat and sick, we also know the only real reason people have poor eating habits is because they are stupid.  So you must be stupid.

Let’s make this as clear as possible for you:

sick fat stupid people

And though it makes our hearts heavy to say this, unfortunately, and through no fault of their own, people who don’t have much money are particularly stupid.  We know this because they are sicker than people who have money.  Of course, money has nothing to do with whether or not you are sick.  It’s the food, stupid.

We’ll admit that some of the responsibility for this rests on our shoulders.  When we started out telling you how to eat, we didn’t realize how stupid you were.  That was our fault.

In 1977, a bunch of us got together to figure out how to make sure you would not get fat and sick.  You weren’t fat and sick at the time, so we knew you needed our help.

We told you to eat more carbohydrates–a.k.a., sugars and starches–and less sugar.  How simple is that?  But could you follow this advice?  Nooooooo.  You’re too stupid.

We told you to eat food with less fat. We meant for you to buy a copy of the Moosewood Cookbook and eat kale and lentils and quinoa.  But no, you were too stupid for that too.  Instead, you started eating PRODUCTS  that said “low-fat” and “fat-free.”  What were you thinking?

We told you to eat less animal fat. Obviously, we meant JUST DON’T EAT ANIMALS.  But you didn’t get it.  Instead, you quit eating cows and started eating chickens.  Hellooooo?  Chickens are ANIMALS.

After more than three decades of us telling you how to eat, it is obvious you are too stupid to figure out how to eat.  So we are here to make it perfectly clear, once and for all.

FIRST:  Don’t eat food with salt in it.

Even though food with salt in it doesn’t make you fat, it does raise your blood pressure.  Maybe.  Sometimes.  And, yes, we know that your blood pressure has been going down for a few decades now, but it isn’t because you are eating less salt, because you’re not.  And it’s true that we really have no idea whether or not reducing your intake of salt prevents disease. But all of that is beside the point.

Here’s the deal:  Salt makes food taste good.  And when food tastes good, you eat it.  We’re opposed to that.  But since you are too stupid to actually stop eating food, we are going to insist that food manufacturers stop putting salt in their products.  That way, their products will grow weird microorganisms and spoil rapidly–and will taste like poop.

This will force everyone to stop eating food products and get kale from the farmer’s market (NO SALT ADDED) and lentils and quinoa in bulk from the food co-op (NO SALT ADDED).  Got it?

Also, we are working on ways to make salt shakers illegal. 

Ban Salt Shakers

 

NEXT:  Don’t eat animals. At all.  EVER.

We told you not to eat animals because meat has lots of fat, and fat makes you fat.  Then you just started eating skinny animals. So we’re scrapping the whole fat thing.  Eat all the fat you want.  Just don’t eat fat from animals, because that is the same thing as eating animals, stupid.

We told you not to eat animals because meat has lots of cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol makes your blood cholesterol go up.  Now our cardiologist friends who work for pharmaceutical companies and our buds over at the American Heart Association have told us that avoiding dietary cholesterol won’t actually make your blood cholesterol go down.  They say:  If you want your blood cholesterol to go down, take a statin.  Statins, in case you are wondering, are not made from animals, so you can have all you want.  

Eggs? you ask.  We’ve ditched the cholesterol limits, so now you think you can eat eggs?  Helloooo?  Eggs are just baby chickens and baby chickens are animals and you are NOT ALLOWED TO EAT ANIMALS.  Geez.

Yes, we are still hanging onto that “don’t eat animals because of saturated fat” thing, but we know it can’t last forever since we can’t actually prove that saturated fat is the evil dietary villain we’ve been saying it is.  So …

Here’s the deal:  Eating animals doesn’t just kill animals.  It kills the planet.  If you keep killing animals and eating them WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.  And it’s going to be your fault, stupid.

And especially don’t eat red meat.  C’mon.  Do we have to spell this out for you?  RED meat? 

RED meat = COMMUNIST meat.  Does Vladimir Putin look like a vegan?  We thought not. 

 

 If you really must eat dead rotting flesh, we think it is okay to eat dead rotting fish flesh, as long as it is from salmon raised on ecologically sustainable fish farms by friendly people with college educations. 

FINALLY:  Stop eating–and drinking–sugar.

Okay, we know we told you to eat more carbohydrate food.  And, yes, we know sugar is a carbohydrate. But did you really think we were telling you to eat more sugar?  Look, if you must have sugar, eat some starchy grains and cereals. The only difference between sugar and starch is about 15 minutes in your digestive tract.  But …

Here’s the deal:  Sugar makes food taste good.  And when food tastes good, you eat it.  Like we said, we’re opposed to that.  But since you are too stupid to actually stop eating food, we are going to insist that food manufacturers stop putting sugar in their products.  That way, their products will grow weird microorganisms and spoil rapidly–and will taste like poop.

This will force everyone to stop eating food products and get kale from the farmer’s market (NO SUGAR ADDED) and lentils and quinoa in bulk from the food co-op (NO SUGAR ADDED).  Got it?

Ban cupcakes

 

Hey, we know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking “Oh, I’ll just use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.”  Oh NOOOO you don’t.  No sugar-filled soda.  No diet soda.  Water only. Capiche?

 So, to spell it all out for you once and for all:

DO NOT EAT food that has salt or sugar in it, i.e. food that tastes good.  Also don’t eat animals.

DO EAT kale from your local farmers’ market, lentils and quinoa from your local food co-op,  plus salmon. Drink water.  That’s it. 

And, since we graciously recognize the diversity of this great nation, we must remind you that you can adapt the above dietary pattern to meet the your own health needs, dietary preferences and cultural traditions. Just as long as you don’t add salt, sugar, or dead animals.

Because we have absolutely zero faith you are smart enough to follow even this simple advice, we are asking for additional research to be done on your child-raising habits (Do you let your children eat food that tastes good?  BAAAAD parent!) and your sleep habits (Do you dream about cheeseburgers?  We KNOW you do and that must stop!  No DEAD IMAGINARY ANIMALS!)

And–because we recognize your deeply ingrained stupidity when it come to all things food, and because we know that food is the only thing that really matters when it comes to health, we are proposing  America create a national “culture of health” where healthy lifestyles are easier to achieve and normative.

“Normative” is a big fancy word that means if you eat what we tell you to eat, you are a good person and if you eat food that tastes good, you are a bad person. We will know  you are bad person because you will be sick. Or fat. Because that’s what happens to bad people who eat bad food.

We will kick-off this “culture of health” by creating an Office of Dietary Wisdom that will make the healthy choice–kale, lentils, quinoa, salmon, and water–the easy choice for all you stupid Americans.  We will establish a Food Czar to run the Office of Dietary Wisdom, because nothing says “America, home of freedom and democracy” like the title of a 19th century Russian monarch.*

The primary goal of the “culture of health” will be to enforce your right to eat what we’ve determined is good for you. 

This approach will combine the draconian government overreach we all love with the lack of improvements we expect, resulting in a continued demand for our services as the only people smart enough to tell the stupid people how to eat.**

 Look.  We know we’ve been a little unclear in the past.  And we know we’ve reversed our position on a number of things. Hey, our bad.  And when, five years from now, you stupid Americans are as sick and fat as ever, we may have to change up our advice again based, y’know, on whatever evidence we can find that supports the conclusions we’ve already reached.

But rest assured, America.

No matter what the evidence says, we are never ever going to tell you it’s okay to eat salt, sugar, or animals.  And, no matter what the evidence says, we are never ever going to tell you that it’s not okay to eat grains, cereals, or vegetable oils.  And you can take that to the bank.  We did.

Love and kisses,

Committee for Government Approved Information on Nutrition (Code name: G.A.I.N.)

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*Thank you, Steve Wiley.

**Thank you, Jon Stewart, for at least part of this line.

 

Dietary Guidelines for Americans: We don’t need no stinkin’ science

I know, I know. I never post. I never call. I don’t bring you flowers. It’s a wonder we’re still together. I have the usual list of excuses:

1) GRADUATE SCHOOL

But before I disappear off the face of the interwebz once again, I thought I share with you a quickie post on the science behind our current Dietary Guidelines. Even as we speak, the USDA and DHHS are busy working on the creation of the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are shaping up to be the radically conservative documents we count on them to be.

For just this purpose, the USDA has set up a very large and impressive database called the Nutrition Evidence Libbary (NEL), where it conducts “systematic reviews to inform Federal nutrition policy and programs.” NEL staff collaborate with stakeholders and leading scientists using state-of-the-art methodology to objectively review, evaluate, and synthesize research to answer important diet-related questions in a manner that allows them to reach a conclusion that they’ve previous determined is the one they want.

It’s a handy skill to master. Here’s how it’s done.

The NEL question:

What is the effect of saturated fat intake on increased risk of cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes?

In the NEL, they break the evidence up into “cardiovascular” and “diabetes” so I’ll do the same, which means we are really asking: What is the effect of saturated fat (SFA) intake on increased risk of cardiovascular disease?

Spoiler alert–here’s the answer: “Strong evidence” indicates that we should reduce our intake of saturated fat (from whole foods like eggs, meat, whole milk, and butter) in order to reduce risk of heart disease. As Gomer Pyle would say, “SUR-PRIZE, SUR-PRIZE.”

Aaaaaaaand . . . here’s the evidence:

The 8 studies rated “positive quality” are in blue; the 4 “neutral quality” studies are in gray. The NEL ranks the studies as positive and neutral (less than positive?), but treats them all the same in the review. Fine. Whateverz.

According the exclusion criteria for this question, any study with a dropout rate of more than 20% should be eliminated from the review. These 4 studies have dropout rates of more than 20%. They should have been excluded. They weren’t, so we’ll exclude them now.

Also, according to NEL exclusion criteria for this question, any studies that substituted fat with carbohydrate or protein, instead of comparing types of fat, should be excluded. Furtado et al 2008 does not address the question of varying levels of saturated fat in the diet. In fact, saturated fat levels were held constant–at 6% of calories–for each experimental diet group. So, let’s just exclude this study too.

One study–Azadbakht et al 2007–was conducted on teenage subjects with hypercholesterolemia, a hereditary condition that affects about 1% of the population. Since the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are not meant to treat medical conditions and are meant for the entire population, this study should not have been included in the analysis. So let’s take care of that for those NEL folks.

 

In one study–Buonacorso et al 2007–total cholesterol levels did not change when dietary saturated fat was increased: “Plasma TC [total cholesterol] and triacylglycerol levels were NS [not significantly] changed by the diets, by time (basal vs. final test), or period (fasting vs. post-prandial) according to repeated-measures analysis.” This directly contradicts the conclusion of the NEL. Hmmmm. So let’s toss this study and see what’s left.

In these four studies, higher levels of saturated fat in the diet made some heart disease risk factors get worse, but other risk factors got better. So the overall effect on heart disease risk was mixed or neutral. As a result, these studies do not support the NEL conclusion that saturated fat should be reduced in order to reduce risk of heart disease.

 

That leaves one lone study. A meta-analysis of eleven observational studies. Seeing as the whole point of a meta-analysis is to combine studies with weak effects to see if you end up with a strong one, if saturated fat was really strongly associated with heart disease, we should see that, right? Right. What this meta-analysis found was that among women over 60, there is no association between saturated fat and coronary events or deaths. Among adult men of any age, there is no association between saturated fat and coronary events or deaths. Only in women under the age of 60 is there is a small inverse association between risk of coronary events or deaths and the reduction of saturated fat in the diet. That sounds like it might be bad news—at least for women under 60—but this study also found a positive association between monounsaturated fats—you know, the “good fat,” like you would find in olive oil—and risk of heart disease. If you take the results of this study at face value–which I wouldn’t recommend–then olive oil is as bad for you as butter.

So there’s your “strong” evidence for the conclusion that saturated fat increases risk of heart disease.

 

Just recently, Frank Hu of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was asked what we should make of the recent media attention to the idea that saturated fat is not bad for you after all (see this video at 1:06:00). Dr. Hu reassured us that, no, saturated fat still kills. He went on to say that the evidence to prove this, provided primarily by a meta-analysis created by USDA staffers (and we all know how science-y they can be), is MUCH stronger than that used by the 2010 Committee.

Well, all I can say is:  it must be.  Because it certainly couldn’t be any weaker.

 

 

TMAO? LMAO.

Move over saturated fat and cholesterol. There’s a new kid on the heart disease block: TMAO.

TMAO is not, as I first suspected, a new internet acronym that I was going to have to get my kids to decipher for me, while they snickered under their collective breaths. Rather, TMAO stands for Trimethylamine N-oxide, and it is set to become the reigning king of the “why meat is bad for you” argument. Former contenders, cholesterol and saturated fat, have apparently lost their mojo. After years of dominating the heart disease-diet debate, it turns out they were mere poseurs, only pretending to cause heart disease, the whole time distracting us from the true evils of TMAO.

The news is, the cholesterol and saturated fat in red meat can no longer be held responsible for clogging up your arteries. TMAO, which is produced by gut bacteria that digest the carnitine found in meat, is going to gum them up instead. This may be difficult to believe, especially in light of the fact that, while red meat intake has declined precipitously in the past 40 years, prevalence of heart disease has continued to climb. However, this is easily accounted for by the increase in consumption of Red Bull—which also contains carnitine—even though it is not, as some may suspect, made from real bulls (thank you, BW).

Here to explain once again why we should all be afraid of eating a food our ancestors ignorantly consumed in scandalous quantities (see what happened to them?  they are mostly dead!) is the Medical Media Circus! Ringleader for today is the New York Times’ Gina Kolata, who never met a half-baked nutrition theory she didn’t like (apparently Gary Taubes’ theory regarding carbohydrates was not half-baked enough for her).

Step right up folks and meet TMAO, the star of “a surprising new explanation of why red meat may contribute to heart disease” (because, frankly, the old explanations aren’t looking too good these days).

We know that red meat maybe almost probably for sure contributes to heart disease, because that wild bunch at Harvard just keeps cranking out studies like this one, Eat Red Meat and You Will Die Soon.

This study and others just like it definitely prove that if you are a white, well-educated, middle/upper-middle class health professional born between 1920 and 1946 and you smoke and drink, but you don’t exercise, watch your weight, or take a multivitamin, then eating red meat will maybe almost probably for sure increase your risk of heart disease. With evidence like that, who needs evidence?

Flying like the Wallenda family in the face of decades of concrete and well-proven assumptions that the reason we should avoid red meat is because of its saturated fat and cholesterol content, the daring young scientists who discovered the relationship between TMAO and heart disease “suspected that saturated fat and cholesterol made only a minor contribution to the increased amount of heart disease seen in red-meat eaters” [meaning that is, the red-meat eaters that are white, well-educated, middle/upper-middle class health professionals, who smoke and drink and don’t exercise, watch their weight, or take a multivitamin; emphasis mine].

Perhaps their suspicions were alerted by studies such as this one, that found that, in randomized, controlled trials, with over 65 thousand participants, people who reduced or changed their dietary fat intake didn’t actually live any longer than the people who just kept eating and enjoying the same artery-clogging, saturated fat- and cholesterol-laden foods that they always had. (However, this research was able to determine that a steady diet of broiled chicken breasts does in fact make the years crawl by more slowly.)

You can almost ALWAYS catch something on a fishing expedition.

Our brave scientists knew they couldn’t just throw up their hands and say “Let them eat meat!” That would undermine decades of consistent public health nutrition messaging and those poor stupid Americans might get CONFUSED—and we wouldn’t want that! So, instead the scientists went on a “scientific fishing expedition” (Ms. Kolata’s words, not mine) and hauled in a “little-studied chemical called TMAO that gets into the blood and increases the risk of heart disease.” Luckily, TMAO has something to do with meat. [As Chris Masterjohn points out, it also has something to do with fish, peas, and cauliflower, but–as I’m sure these scientists noticed immediately–those things do not contain meat.] Ta-da! Problemo solved.

Exactly how TMAO increases the risk of heart disease, nobody knows. But, good scientists that they are, the scientists have a theory. (Just to clarify, in some situations the word theory means: a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct. This is not one of those situations.) The researcher’s think that TMAO enables cholesterol to “get into” artery walls and prevents the body from excreting “excess” cholesterol. At least that’s how it works in mice. Although mice don’t normally eat red meat, it should be noted that mice are exactly like people except they don’t have Twitter accounts. We know this because earlier mouse studies allowed scientists to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat cause heart disease mice definitely do not have Twitter accounts.

Look, just because the scientists can’t explain how TMAO does all the bad stuff it does, doesn’t mean it’s not in there doing, you know, bad stuff. Remember, we are talking about molecules that are VERY VERY small and really small things can be hard to find–unless of course you are on a scientific fishing expedition.

What will happen to the American Heart Association’s seal of approval now that saturated fat and cholesterol are no longer to be feared?

Frankly, I’m relieved that we FINALLY know exactly what has been causing all this heart disease. Okay, so it’s not the saturated fat and cholesterol that we’ve been avoiding for 35 years. Heck, everybody makes mistakes. Even though Frank Sacks and Robert Eckel, two scientists from the American Heart Association, told us for decades that eating saturated fat and cholesterol was just greasing the rails on the fast track to death-by-clogged-arteries, they have no reason to doubt this new theory. And even though they apparently had no reason to doubt the now-doubtful old theory, at least not until just now—as a nation, we can rest assured that THIS time, they got it right.

Now that saturated fat and cholesterol are no longer Public Enemies Number One and Two, whole milk, cheese, eggs, and butter—which do not contain red meat—MUST BE OKAY! I guess there’s no more need for the AHA’s dietary limits on saturated fat, or for the USDA Guidelines restrictions on cholesterol intake, or for those new Front of Package labels identifying foods with too much saturated fat. Schools can start serving whole milk again, butter will once again be legal in California, and fat-free cheese can go back to being the substance that mouse pads are made out of. Halla-freaking- looyah! A new day has dawned.

But—amidst the rejoicing–don’t forget: Whether we blame saturated fat or cholesterol or TMAO, meat is exactly as bad for you now as it was 50 years ago.

Vegetable Oil and Heart Disease: New news from the way-back machine

Since the 1970’s, we’ve reduced our sugar, salt, and saturated fat intake, and we’ve dramatically reduced our rates of smoking, high serum cholesterol and high blood pressure. At the same time, rates of chronic disease, including coronary heart disease, have increased—in some cases, dramatically.

The best that we can say is that since the 1970s, rates of myocardial infarction have decreased slightly—but only in white folks.

If the current health prescription is valid, then we should see dramatic differences in rates of disease and mortality between those who follow the prescription and those who don’t, and we should see clear and strong associations between “healthy” food choices and good health (because the same people eating a “healthy” diet are also taking care of their health in other ways). Yet this is not what we see.

Is it possible that our low-fat diet has removed some protective factors from our nutritional profile and exposed us to increased levels of nutrients that have negative impacts on health? I think it is, and a recent study in BMJ supports this notion.

I am a long-time admirer of one of the researchers, Daisy Zamora, and she is a good friend of mine. She’d been dropping hints about this great study she was working on for a while now—but was sworn to secrecy and now I know why. What she and her co-investigators have uncovered is data from a long-ago diet study, conducted from 1966-1973. It’s a decently large, well-run, randomized controlled trial that replaces saturated fat with safflower oil, a vegetable oil particularly high in one kind of PUFA—omega-6 (n-6) linoleic acid—and low in another kind of PUFA—omega-3 (n-3) alpha linolenic acid. The idea was that replacing “bad” saturated fat with “healthy” vegetable oil in men with premature coronary heart disease would improve survival. This did not turn out to be the case. For some reason, though, the original study only reported all-cause mortality and not deaths from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.

Daisy and her co-investigators climbed into their way-back machine and this is what they found: Not only did the participants in the intervention group have an increased risk of all-cause mortality, but they had an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.

The blue line is the safflower oil group; the red line is the control group. To put it rather simplistically, the widening gap between the two groups means the intervention group died a lot faster than the controls.

Although the switch to safflower oil did lower total cholesterol, these reductions didn’t help those participants live any longer than those who kept eating saturated fat. In fact, as the authors note, “the increased risk of death in the intervention group presented fairly rapidly and persisted throughout the trial.”  (Hmm. Maybe this whole “cholesterol lowering” thing isn’t as important as we thought.)

Furthermore, the authors go on to point out that the relationship between linoleic acid consumption and increased mortality was particularly robust in smokers and drinkers, “suggesting that diets high in n-6 [linoleic acid] may be particularly detrimental in the context of oxidative stress induced by smoking and alcohol.”

Everyone knows that if you are a smoker you should quit and that alcohol should be used in moderation. But, with this evidence in mind, if you decided to keep on smoking and/or you want to drink immoderately, you may want to consider a breakfast of eggs and bacon rather than whole wheat toast and “heart healthy” margarine before you do.

The entire article is available online. Read it for yourself and see what you think.  Anybody besides me wondering how the American Heart Association will respond to this study?