by Bob Kaplan

“If you eat too much [saturated fat], then over time fatty deposits can build up in your arteries, and this increases your risk of heart disease,” says an advertisement by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom.

Sound familiar? If it does, then you have heard yet another nutrition fallacy!

This one is particularly pervasive, and the FSA goes so far as to use the visual link between the fat we eat and the blocking of arteries:

Wow. This advertisement literally interprets our digestive system as little more than a pipe, when in fact there is much more at work inside our bodies. This oversimplification endangers our understanding of how we actually process fat that we eat with an elementary visual effect, yet this juvenile interpretation is generally accepted as fact.

The Six (or seven, or 22!) Countries Study

Where did we go so wrong? In the 1950s, a researcher named Ancel Keys published a study comparing heart disease and fat consumption in six countries, showing a positive association between fat and death from heart disease. The data was clear: the more fat the country ate, the more death from heart disease.

Well, that settles it. Looks like fat gives us heart disease. But hold on a second. The problem was that Keys admittedly left out existing data of countries that ate a lot of fat and had little heart disease, like Norway and Holland. Countries that didn’t eat much fat, but had high levels of heart disease, such as Chile, were also ignored by Keys.

Oops. In all, Keys had reliable data from 22 countries with results all over the map in terms of implicating fat and heart disease. Keys discarded the data that didn’t fit his preconceptions and published the results as conclusive.

Out of the Keys’ study spawned the lipid hypothesis, which states:

1.   Saturated fat raises cholesterol.
2.   Cholesterol causes heart disease.

Both of these notions are almost assuredly wrong and there are copious studies that show saturated fat consumption has nothing to do with heart disease. But this contradictory data is often thrown onto the trash heap of inconvenient truths in nutrition.

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