Objections, 2

It is of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration; nay, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.


In the previous post I listed a common objection I hear to eating very-low carb: your brain needs glucose! In this post I deal with another common objection:

But all that saturated fat is very bad for you.

Sadly this one usually comes across as “Everyone knows that saturated fat is bad.

Really? Everyone knows it?

This is a hard post to write because there’s just so much. So I’m going to just come out and state it:

Saturated fat is very good for you. You need it. Your brain, your heart, your hormones, your immune system and your nerves all depend on saturated fat. When you eat only Frankenfats like corn and soybean and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, you change the very makeup of your cells–which can cause them to start acting in unusual ways.

Saturated fat also doesn’t hurt your heart. It raises your HDL and doesn’t affect the others much. It’s carbohydrates that raise your triglycerides. And speaking of cholesterol, total serum cholesterol is basically meaningless as a risk factor for heart disease mortality–particularly for women and men over 50. But low cholesterol has a high association of mortality from all causes.

Now the problem is that in making these statements, I’m flying in the face of what “everyone knows.” I can’t possibly, in one post or even a series of posts, adequately cover all there is to cover. You’re going to have to look into this for yourself if you want to be really convinced.

That will require turning on your brain.

Don’t be offended: I didn’t have my brain turned on for a long time, either.

Besides, the way information is presented to us in news articles isn’t really commensurate with good thinking, anyway.

There’s a lot of history here, too, and lots of people hate history.

If you’re one of those people, you might want to run screaming away, because I’m about to tell you some. In fact, we’ll start with history, and then we’ll get to good thinking in the next post.

Back in the 1960s, the lipid hypothesis–which says that fat is what gives people heart disease–was by no means accepted wisdom. It was hotly debated. But it had two big things going for it.

The first was World War II. Up until that conflict, scientists and doctors in Europe–and particularly in Germany–were actively following up on the carbohydrate hypothesis: excessive carbohydrates (particularly from grains and refined sugars) are what make people fat and sick. Doctors in the US were actively following up on the lipid hypothesis: excessive fat is what makes people fat and sick.

Then everything blew up.


Lots of those European scientists and doctors died. Lots were “relocated.” Lots of their research was lost. Europe was in tatters for a while, and there was an upstart little country that emerged as a superpower. That would be us.

It was our doctors and scientists who were researching the lipid hypothesis, and they didn’t particularly want to know what any evil German scientists might have to say about anything.

The second thing the lipid hypothesis had going for it was a man named Ancel Keys. Ancel Keys has had a profound impact on your life, and you probably have never even heard of him.

Keys was an energetic personality, and he forcibly pushed his hypothesis to the fore. He noted that Europeans during World War II had very low incidence of heart disease, while well-fed Americans had plenty. He believed that was because Americans ate saturated fat, while war-torn Europe was a bit short on fresh pastured beef and free range chickens: and he set out to prove it.

At this point, there was nothing wrong with his hypothesis. That’s what scientists do. They propose a hypothesis and then they test it to see if it holds up.

Only Keys never tested it at all. He didn’t look at any other possibilities or try to rule them out. You see, not only were war-torn Europeans short on butter and steaks; they were also short on flour and sugar. But Keys had already made up his mind.

He published something called the “7 Countries Study”, which showed a nice, neat little rising line of heart disease incidence. At the bottom were countries that ate very little fat, like Japan. At the top were countries that ate tons of fat, like the USA. It was a lovely line: just what scientists want to see.

Just one wee problem: Keys actually had access to data from twenty-two countries–not just seven.

When you plot all twenty-two countries, an odd thing happens. The line starts looking like this:


Some countries with high heart disease rates ate very low fat; and some who ate high fat had very little heart disease.

And with updated modern information you can, if you want, make the line look like this:


When your line won’t hold; when you can flip your line around and make it go the other way, what does that tell you?

Now Keys and others suggested this theory based not only on Europe’s experience in WWII, but also on the reports of doctors, mostly missionary doctors, from third world countries. These doctors–most collecting data in the 1800s and early 1900s–were uniquely positioned to see and record what happened when societies adapted to a Western diet. When these doctors first arrived, there was plenty for them to do: high infant mortality rates, high rates of communicable diseases, high rates of death from accident and infection. But what they didn’t see was cancer, heart disease, obesity, or diabetes. They also didn’t see cavities or appendicitis.

But after the people they worked with were exposed to Western diets, they began developing Western diseases. And what did Western diets do to that changeed their native diets? Well, according to Keys, Western diets introduced a lot more fat and meat.

Which was true.

For some.

The problem is that there were also people groups that already ate tons of fat and meat, and who also had no heart disease, no obesity, no diabetes, no cancer, and no cavities before adopting a Western diet. These would include the nomadic Maasai tribe of Kenya–who ate blood, milk and meat only; the Inuit–who enjoyed almost nothing but fat and meat year round; and the islanders of Tokelau near New Zealand–who ate enormous amounts of saturated fat from coconuts, as well as lots of fish and breadfruit. These people also all developed “diseases of civilization” upon adopting a Western diet.

And what else is the Western diet high in, besides meat and fat?

Flour and sugar.

Higher consumption of saturated fat was only a change for some societies. But higher consumption of refined grains and sugars was a change for every single one.

Which suggests to the thinking person….what?

Well to you and me, hopefully, it suggest that perhaps the lipid hypothesis is wrong. Perhaps something else is at work if the data doesn’t hold in so many cases. To any reputable scientist it means the hypothesis probably needs to be reworked.

But to Keys and those who hold the lipid hypothesis dear, the answer has far too often been to simply throw out any data that doesn’t fit, or to interpret results as if your hypothesis has been proven to be fact. Which it hasn’t. Ever. Been.

That’s why we have the “French Paradox.” What they mean when they say that is: These people eat tons of saturated fat, but they’re not dropping dead like we hoped they would. We know our hypothesis is a fact, so we can’t change that. It must be a paradox. It must be something else, like wine or lucky genes. It can’t be that we’re wrong. It can’t be that the French eat far less refined flour and sugar than we do, or that saturated fat might even have a protective influence on the heart and immune system. It’s a paradox. It’s like that woman in Texas who eats bacon every day and is 105. She’s just got lucky genes. We shouldn’t pay any attention to what she eats or what she says. But that man in Florida who’s 107 and says exercise is what keeps him healthy? Why that’s gospel, brother.

Which is of course why the Scientific and Industrial Revolution was such a rousing success: because every time a scientist happened upon something that didn’t fit his hypothesis, he declared it an unknowable paradox and ignored it.


(If you want more information on the historical factors–which I’ve hardly touched on here–I highly recommend Gary Taubes’ excellently researched book: Good Calories, Bad Calories.)


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