By Allan Barber
For at least the last 40 years international health guidelines have recommended minimising intake of saturated fats contained in red meat, dairy, cocoa and palm oil in a mistaken attempt to improve public health, particularly in first world countries. Heart disease skyrocketed to become the leading cause of death by 1950 and scientists hypothesised the cause to be dietary fat, particularly the saturated variety.
Although there have been sceptics who did not believe this apparently irrefutable scientific conclusion, they have been unable to inspire a rational debate of the facts, because the hypothesis was adopted by public health institutions (WHO, FDA, American Heart Association and others) before it had been properly tested. Any attempt to challenge them resulted in public reactions of anger and accusations of sacrilege, remembering this was many years before the internet and social media enabled the instant spread of online vitriol. As is the case today, the problem was compounded by the media taking a position and refusing to present the counterargument.
I have been interested in this topic for quite some time because I believe red meat and dairy are unfairly vilified, while personally I have neither an increase in cholesterol nor a heightened risk of heart disease. Suddenly last week I received an article from The Australian entitled “How dairy and fat could save your life” and I was also lent The Big Fat Surprise - Why butter, meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet, an authoritative book based on thousands of scientific studies and hundreds of interviews by New York author and journalist Nina Teicholz.
These two publications confirmed what I had always believed intuitively – what our ancestors have been eating for centuries can’t be all bad for us, while the true damage is much more likely to be caused by high carbohydrate foods, sugar-laden snacks and fizzy drinks. Equally to be fair I must accept the detrimental impact on my waistline of persisting with bread, pasta, wine and beer.
Less than a month ago the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a scientific review based on the most recent trials, concluding there was no evidence cutting saturated fats from the diet would help people live longer, while eating more meat and dairy could help avoid strokes. In July Dr James Muecke, 2020 Australian of the Year, wrote in the Canberra Times “A flawed dietary guideline, which we have obediently and blindly followed for 40 years, is literally killing us. We’ve been encouraged to eat less fat and consume more carbs and yet we’ve never been fatter, our teeth never more rotten, and type 2 diabetes and its complications never more prevalent.”
The JACC review specifically references the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiological study of 135,000 people across 18 high, medium and low income countries on five continents which conclusively demonstrates the lower risk of death from a high unsaturated fat diet, as well as a neutral likelihood of heart disease.
Another relevant trial was the Sydney Diet Heart Study published in 1978 which was conducted because of an epidemic of deaths from heart disease in Australia in the late 60s and early 70s, peaking at 55% of all deaths compared with 27% today. Preliminary figures showed a 50% higher mortality rate for people on a diet using vegetable oil and margarine than those on a butter, meat and three vegetable diet, but funds dried up before deaths from heart disease could be separated from total deaths. It was another 30 years before a full analysis of the data was to prove deaths from heart disease showed an identical pattern. Also when the control or high fat group changed of their own accord to the low fat diet, their chances of dying increased.
According to Teicholz, red meat, butter, whole milk, creamy cheeses, sausages and bacon have not been found to cause obesity, diabetes, or heart disease, nor are genetics to blame. The single biggest factor is increased intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. In 1993 the Women’s Health Initiative trial enrolled 49,000 women to validate the benefits of the low fat diet, but after a decade of eating more grains, fruit and vegetables while reducing meat and fat intake, the women failed to lose weight or see any reduction in their risk for heart disease and cancer. This was the largest ever trial of the low-fat diet and it failed to prove any benefit at all.
Nevertheless government institutions appear cautious or unwilling to reconsider their long-held positions on dietary guidelines. The USA is in the process of updating its guidelines, but apparently will not consider the JACC paper or any other controlled studies on saturated fats, so it has already made its mind up. Australia’s Federal Health Minister has provided A$2.5 million to review the guidelines, but the National Medical Health Research Council has not stated which of the relevant studies will be considered; however the recommendations will be based on the body of evidence, not on individual trials.
In New Zealand the Ministry of Health guidelines, last reviewed in 2016, specify a healthy diet as consisting of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products and a catch-all category that includes legumes, fish, eggs, poultry and lastly red meat with the fat removed. The evidence suggests low-fat dairy contains more carbohydrates than whole fat, while a certain amount of fat on red meat is beneficial.
Given the many years of health institutions espousing the benefits of the low fat diet, I won’t hold my breath for a major change in the official stance.
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