The Cholesterol and Fat Myth Exploded

You have probably heard of the controversy surrounding cholesterol and saturated fat’s role in heart disease. This is an excellent summary with 13 facts on the myths of these supposedly twin evils. After watching the original Catalyst program it brought home to me just how wrong the general consensus could be about the relationship between these two substances and health. It really is quite extraordinary. One fact states that after the age of 47, higher cholesterol is probably protective against heart disease, especially for women and it made no difference what type of cholesterol it was – high density or low density.

The Cholesterol Myth Exploded

The original program produced by the ABCs Catalyst team was taken off the ABC iView website. Here is the explanation

4 replies

  1. Thanks for the reply. Yes I agree a plant based diet is best. Since this post I have read a lot about the conflicting science out there – whether or not cholesterol or saturated fat causes heart disease – as this is the question Keys looked at. He found a correlation with his Seven Countries study in 1958 – the lipid hypothesis was born. He went on to heavily promote this hypothesis as fact. I just read a New Scientist article (“Fat – did we really get 40 years of scientific advice wrong” – 2nd Aug 2014) and the conclusion: we still don’t really know for sure. The voices of doubt have actually been growing for some time.
    Note these studies: 2010 – scientists pooled results of 21 studies that had followed 348,000 people. The meta-analysis found “no significant evidence” in support that saturated fat raises the risk of HD (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Vol 91).
    Another meta-analysis revisited the results of 72 studies involving 640,000 people in 18 countries – the surprising conclusion – “Current evidence does not support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats” (Annals of Internal Medicine Vol 160). These studies have been criticised by some.
    I understand the science, but it’s too complicated for me to draw conclusions. The problem for society is that in demonising cholesterol and saturated fat we have replaced this with too much polyunsaturated fats and refined carbohydrates ie sugar. The theory is that this leads to increased inflammation – the real cause of heart disease (and a host of other maladies).
    Interestingly – feed a rat saturated fat only and it won’t put on much weight. Feed a rat sugar – the same. But it you feed a rat sugar with the fat – it can’t stop gorging and gets obese.
    So much is to do with other factors – not just fat and cholesterol. I plan to do an in depth article on this topic sometime – should be fun
    (PS: Not sure about the protective effect of high cholesterol. Need to do more study on that one).

    • Hi James,

      I pleased that we have agreed (along with Ancel Keys) that a plant-based is best. If we both agree that a plant-based diet is best, we have a lot in common with Ancel Keys.

      Professor Dixon, a professor of nutrition, wrote a biography of Ancel and Margaret Keys after discovering that his preconceptions of Ancel Keys were wrong. It is a fascinating book.

      The Plant Positive website is devoted to the science of a whole-food, plant-based diet which addresses the arguments in the papers that you mentioned (
      I also have a website that addresses the same issues with links listed below.

      You mentioned that Keys found a correlation with his Seven Countries Study regarding saturated fat in 1958. However, this study was commenced in 1958. It was not published until 1980. The title of his paper – “Seven Countries – A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease”. Keys was well aware that heart disease involves a number of factors and he even stated that there was possibly other factors that were not considered.

      He promoted the Mediterranean Diet – an unprocessed, whole food, largely plant based diet.

      Inflammation is only a moderate marker of heart disease. The inflammation is caused by oxidised cholesterol entering the arterial wall. So you need cholesterol to be present before it can enter the arterial wall and become oxidised.

      Some reasons for dismissing the association of sugar consumption with heart disease include:
      • Sucrose does not ordinarily raise plasma cholesterol.
      • If starch is replaced in the diet with sucrose then plasma triglycerides are not increased.
      • There is no mechanism where sucrose could lead to heart disease.
      • Countries such as Costa Rica, Cuba, and Venezuela have high sugar consumption but low rates of heart disease.
      • Keys’ Seven Countries Study did show a strong correlation with the percentage of dietary calories supplied by sucrose and heart disease. However, the correlation of percentage of calories supplied by saturated fatty acids and heart disease was greater. There was a strong correlation between sucrose and saturated fat consumption.
      • The consumption of sugar was much greater in Sweden than in neighbouring Finland, but the age-specific cardiovascular death rate in Sweden is not much more than half that in Finland. Finland had the world’s highest heart disease deaths and saturated fats consumption until the implementation of the North Karelia Project.

      Keys wrote (in 1971) that he disapproved of the common high level of sucrose in many diets. He stated that “there are plenty of good arguments to reduce the flood of dietary sucrose but causing heart disease was not one of them.”

      You refer to a 2014 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine by Chowdhury. Professor Truswell wrote in Medical Journal of Australia (May 2014) about the errors in the study and the other study you mentioned by Siri-Tarino (2010). Professor Truswell wrote “In all, Chowdhury et al (2014) omitted or incorrectly reported 25 studies of omega-6 PUFAs and CHD. The protective effect of PUFAs would have been clear if all published studies had been included in their meta-analysis. Changes to established public health guidelines should not be advocated unless all the relevant evidence has been reviewed.”

      Professor Truswell wrote an extensive review of the errors of both of these papers.

      There was a 2009 article, by Jakobsen and colleagues, that reported that reducing saturated fat in the diet and replacing it with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) was associated with a significantly reduced risk of CHD. This was a much larger study than the other two mentioned but conveniently ignored by the world’s press.

      People want confirmation to continue their poor eating habits. (Although, I believe that you should not be adding any fats to anything that we eat.)

      I hope you find this of interest. If you look a little further, I think you will discover that the popular press and internet websites completely misrepresent Keys’ views.

      A whole-food, plant-based diet is low in fat, saturated fat, protein and simple sugars and is high in carbohydrates, fibre, phytonutrients and unprocessed foods.

      Richard Harding

  2. Dear James

    The Catalyst program was full of deceptions, misinformation and lies. Ancel Keys did not manipulate his data. The assertion that high cholesterol is protective over 47 is wrong. The Catalyst program did state the Familial hypercholesterolemia is a genetic disease that causes high cholesterol and early deaths for children. Why is high cholesterol caused by a genetic disease different to high cholesterol caused by diet?

    I can send information that explain in detail the errors in the Catalyst program and other popular books and websites.

    Ancel Keys and his wife Margaret advocated a Mediterranean style diet (they coined the term) that was high in fruit and vegetables and whole grains and low in animal products. They spent the last 26 years of their lives living in a small village south of Naples, growing their own fruit and vegetables. Ancel Keys lived to be 100 and Margaret 97.

    The healthiest societies on the planet eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables and whole grains. If you eat this kind of diet, it is automatically going to be low-fat, low-protein and low cholesterol.

    I advocate a whole-food, plant-based diet which is best for our own health, the health of our animals and the planet that we all live on.

    The “experts” on the Catalyst program advocate a high protein, high fat diet.

    Hopefully you are interested in the truth in this matter and I would love the opportunity to explain in detail what the true situation is. I feel very uncomfortable that Keys continues to be demonised based on such misinformation.

    Richard Harding

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