Healthy Heart – How you can have a Healthy Heart
For our better health, a healthy heart is most important for our healthy body. Today we’re armed with a much deeper understanding of vascular health than we’d been in the past, but unfortunately, many doctors still dole out outdated advice. We don’t know everything, but it has become increasingly clear that if there is a dietary super-villain out there, it is not saturated fat.
The Diet-Heart Debacle
In 2010, Dr. Ronald Krauss, a top nutrition expert in the United States who was involved in coauthoring many of the early dietary guidelines, concluded in a meta analysis that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease].
Still, the “diet-heart hypothesis”—or the idea that cholesterol in and of itself causes heart disease—persists. This hypothesis originates from initial studies on atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up to create a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. In these studies, plaques from dissected cadavers were found to be filled with cholesterol.
In fact, this is the basis for the catchy, oft-cited idea that “eating fatty foods clogs your arteries,” which likens our complex biology to what happens when you pour grease down a cold drain. Because saturated fat does raise cholesterol, and cholesterol-rich foods, you know, have cholesterol in them for healthy heart, reducing intake of both became the focus of efforts for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. But biology is seldom simple. As it turns out, cholesterol is often the innocent bystander present at the scene of the crime, but rarely the villain itself.
Many nutrition scientists, including Ancel Keys, the father of the diet-heart hypothesis, try to reduce whole foods them? The discovery of vitamin C cured scurvy. Vitamin D prevents rickets. These were big wins with simple solutions. So when scientists turned their focus to heart disease, it was seductive to buy into the simplistic reductionism:
“Cholesterol is found in the arteries of heart attack victims.
Eating more saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels.
Therefore saturated fat causes heart disease by increasing
blood cholesterol levels.”
To be plausible
Just complex enough to be plausible to doctors, and just simple enough to neatly package the story for the public. But as computer programmers like to say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The enormous complexity and interplay between food and biology often defies our ability to model it, let alone tinker with it by introducing purified or synthetic foodstuffs. Statistician Nassim Taleb, who focuses on randomness, probability, and uncertainty, and who predicted the 2008 financial crisis, makes no bones about it:
Much of the local research in experimental biology, in Spite of its seemingly “scientific” and evidentiary attributes. A healthy heart fails a simple test of mathematical rigor. This means we need to be careful of what conclusions we can and cannot make about what we see, no matter how locally robust it seems. It is impossible, because of the curse of dimensionality, to produce information about a complex system. From the reduction of conventional experimental methods in science impossible.
In other words, given the incredible complexity of our bodies and our relatively limited scientific tools, we should be intensely skeptical of any rapid, engineered change to our food supply. When the US government stepped in and skimmed the fat off the American diet, our leaders fell into precisely this trap: prematurely applying flawed scientific observations to policy.
Hoping to put the final nail in the coffin for saturated fat, Ancel Keys set up what appeared to be a gold-standard study: a large, long-term, double-blind randomized, controlled trial called the Minnesota Coronary Survey. If you recall from Keys was an epidemiologist. The studied associations in health and disease among large groups of people. This experiment, which involved more than nine thousand institutionalized mental patients, was his chance to prove that the link between saturated fat and heart disease was a causal one, with an ironclad, rock-solid study design.
Keys and colleagues put subjects on one of two diets. The control diet mimicked the Standard American Diet, with 18 percent of calories coming from saturated fat. The “intervention” diet contained only half that healthy heart. An amount that was in line with the nutritional recommendations made by the American Heart Association. Even corn-oil-“filled” beef, milk, and cheeses.
Max Planck, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, once remarked that “science advances one funeral at a time,”. Referring to the obstinacy of overbearing and fiercely territorial scientific personalities. This was borne out when, almost thirty years after the initial publication date of the Minnesota Coronary Survey. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina discovered unpublished data packed in boxes. In the basement of one of the study’s now-deceased coauthors—a close colleague of Ancel Keys.
What did the researchers find in this long-buried data? Upon reanalysis, it seemed the corn oil did have an effect on the healthy heart of participants. But it wasn’t a good one: there was an overall 22 percent higher risk of death for every 30 mg/dl drop in serum cholesterol. The corn oil group also had two times. As many heart attacks over the five-year period compared to the saturated fat group.
Even though the corn oil lowered their cholesterol, they were actually having much worse health outcomes!. The takeaway from this shocking data is that corn. Other processed oils (and sugar) are likely much more damaging to your blood vessels than saturated fat. How damaging? Just picture taking a microscopic crème burley torch to your arteries, and you’ll get the idea.
The end result of atherosclerosis looks exactly like fried chicken skin. As physician Cate Shanahan vividly describes in her insightful book Deep Nutrition. You’ll be dead, but, you’ll have lower cholesterol.