How to Design Saturated Fat Studies to Hide the Truth

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Where do the international consensus guidelines to dramatically lower saturated fat consumption come from? (I show the list in my video, The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public). They came from literally hundreds of metabolic ward experiments, which means you don't just ask people to change their diets, you essentially lock them in a room--for weeks if necessary--and have total control over their diet. You can then experimentally change the level of saturated fat consumed by subjects however you want to, and see the corresponding change in their cholesterol levels. And the results are so consistent that you can create an equation, the famous Hegsted Equation, where you can predict how much their cholesterol will go up based on how much saturated fat you give them. So if you want your LDL cholesterol to go up 50 points, all you have to do is eat something like 30% of your calories in saturated fat. When you plug the numbers in, the change in cholesterol shoots up as predicted. The experiments match the predictions. You can do it at home with one of those home cholesterol testing kits, eat a stick of butter every day, and watch your cholesterol climb.

These ward experiments were done in 1965; meaning we've known for 50 years that even if you keep calorie intake the same, increases in saturated fat intake are associated with highly significant increases in LDL bad cholesterol. Your good cholesterol goes up a bit too, but that increase is smaller than the increase in bad, which would translate into increased heart disease risk.

So if you feed vegetarians meat even just once a day, their cholesterol jumps nearly 20% within a month. To prevent heart disease, we need a total cholesterol under 150, which these vegetarians were, but then even just eating meat once a day, and their cholesterol shot up 19%. The good news is that within just two weeks of returning to their meat-free diet, their cholesterol dropped back down into the safe range. Note that their HDL good cholesterol hardly moved at all, so their ratio went from low risk of heart attack to high risk in a matter of weeks with just one meat-containing meal a day. And indeed randomized clinical trials show that dietary saturated fat reduction doesn't just appear to reduce cholesterol levels, but also reduces the risk of subsequent cardiovascular events like heart attacks.

So we have randomized clinical trials, controlled interventional experiments--our most robust forms of evidence--no wonder there's a scientific consensus to decrease saturated fat intake! You'll note, though, that the Y-axis in these studies seen in my video The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail is not cholesterol, but change in cholesterol. That's because everyone's set-point is different. Two people eating the same diet with the same amount of saturated fat can have very different cholesterol levels. One person can eat ten chicken nuggets a day and have an LDL cholesterol of 90; another person eating ten a day could start out with an LDL of 120. It depends on your genes. But while our genetics may be different, our biology is the same, meaning the rise and drop in cholesterol is the same for everyone. So if both folks cut out the nuggets, the 90 might drop to 85, whereas the 120 would drop to 115. Wherever we start, we can lower our cholesterol by eating less saturated fat, but if I just know your saturated fat intake--how many nuggets you eat, I can't tell you what your starting cholesterol is. All I can say with certainty is that if you eat less, your cholesterol will likely improve.

But because of this extreme "interindividual variation"--this wide variability in baseline cholesterol levels for any given saturated fat intake--if you take a cross-section of the population, you can find no statistical correlation between saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels, because it's not like everyone who eats a certain set amount of saturated fat is going to have over a certain cholesterol. So there are three ways you could study diet and cholesterol levels: controlled feeding experiments, free-living dietary change experiments, or cross-sectional observations of large populations. As we know, there is a clear and strong relationship between change in diet and change in serum cholesterol in the interventional designs, but because of that individual variability, in cross-sectional designs, you can get zero correlation. In fact, if you do the math, that's what you'd expect you'd get. In statistical parlance, one would say that a cross-sectional study doesn't have the power for detecting such a relationship. Thus because of that variability, these kinds of observational studies would seem an inappropriate method to study this particular relationship. So since diet and serum cholesterol have a zero correlation cross-sectionally, an observational study of the relationship between diet and coronary heart disease incidence will suffer from the same difficulties. So again, if you do the math, observational studies would unavoidably show nearly no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. These prospective studies can be valuable for other diseases, but the appropriate design demonstrating or refuting the role of diet and coronary heart disease is a dietary change experiment.

And those dietary change experiments have been done; they implicate saturated fat, hence the lower saturated guidelines from basically every major medical authority. In fact, if we lower saturated fat enough, we may be able to reverse heart disease, opening up arteries without drugs or surgery. So with this knowledge, how would the meat and dairy industry prove otherwise? They use the observational studies that mathematically would be unable to show any correlation.

All they need now is a friendly researcher, such as Ronald M. Krauss, who has been funded by the National Dairy Council since 1989, also the National Cattleman's Beef Association, as well as the Atkins Foundation. Then they just combine all the observational studies that don't have the power to provide significant evidence, and not surprisingly, as published in their 2010 meta-analysis, no significant evidence was found.

The 2010 meta-analysis was basically just repackaged for 2014, using the same and similar studies. As the Chair of Harvard's nutrition department put it, their conclusions regarding the type of fat being unimportant are seriously misleading and should be disregarded, going as far as suggesting the paper be retracted, even after the authors corrected a half dozen different errors.

It's not as though they falsified or fabricated data--they didn't have to. They knew beforehand the limitations of observational studies, they knew they'd get the "right" result and so they published it, helping to "neutralize the negative impact of milk and meat fat by regulators and medical professionals." And it's working, according to the dairy industry, as perceptions about saturated fat in the scientific community are changing. They even go so far to say this is a welcome message to consumers, who may be tired of hearing what they shouldn't eat. They don't need to convince consumers, just confuse them. Confusion can easily be misused by the food industry to promote their interests.

It's like that infamous tobacco industry memo that read, "Doubt is our product since it's the best means of competing with the body of fact that exist in the mind of the general public." They don't have to convince the public that smoking is healthy to get people to keep consuming their products. They just need to establish a controversy. Conflicting messages in nutrition cause people to become so frustrated and confused they may just throw their hands up in the air and eat whatever is put in front of them, which is exactly what saturated fat suppliers want, but at what cost to the public's health?


If that "Doubt is our product" memo sounded familiar, I also featured it in my Food Industry Funded Research Bias video. More on how industries can design deceptive studies in BOLD Indeed: Beef Lowers Cholesterol? and How the Egg Board Designs Misleading Studies.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Paleo Diet May Undermine Benefit of CrossFit Exercise

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Much of the low-carb and paleo reasoning revolves around insulin. To quote a paleo blogger, "carbohydrates increase insulin, the root of all evil when it comes to dieting and health." So the logic follows that because carbs increase insulin, we should stick mostly to meat, which is fat and protein with no carbs, so no increase in insulin, right?

Wrong.

We've known for half a century that if you give someone just a steak: no carbs, no sugar, no starch; their insulin goes up. Carbs make our insulin go up, but so does protein.

In 1997 an insulin index of foods was published, ranking 38 foods to determine which stimulates higher insulin levels. Researchers compared a large apple and all its sugar, a cup of oatmeal packed with carbs, a cup and a half of white flour pasta, a big bun-less burger with no carbs at all, to half of a salmon fillet. As you can see in the graph in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise, the meat produced the highest insulin levels.

Researchers only looked at beef and fish, but subsequent data showed that that there's no significant difference between the insulin spike from beef, chicken, or pork--they're all just as high. Thus, protein and fat rich foods may induce substantial insulin secretion. In fact, meat protein causes as much insulin release as pure sugar.

So, based on the insulin logic, if low-carbers and paleo folks really believed insulin to be the root of all evil, then they would be eating big bowls of spaghetti day in and day out before they would ever consume meat.

They are correct in believing that having hyperinsulinemia, high levels of insulin in the blood like type 2 diabetics have, is not a good thing, and may increase cancer risk. But if low-carb and paleo dieters stuck to their own insulin theory, then they would be out telling everyone to start eating plant-based. Vegetarians have significantly lower insulin levels even at the same weight as omnivores. This is true for ovo-lacto-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians, and vegans. Meat-eaters have up to 50% higher insulin levels.

Researchers from the University of Memphis put a variety of people on a vegan diet (men, women, younger folks, older folks, skinny and fat) and their insulin levels dropped significantly within just three weeks. And then, just by adding egg whites back to their diet, their insulin production rose 60% within four days.

In a study out of MIT, researchers doubled participants' carbohydrate intake, and their insulin levels went down. Why? Because the researchers weren't feeding people jellybeans and sugar cookies, they were feeding people whole, plant foods, lots of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

What if we put someone on a very-low carb diet, like an Atkins diet? Low carb advocates such as Dr. Westman assumed that it would lower insulin levels. Dr. Westman is the author of the new Atkins books, after Dr. Atkins died obese with, according to the medical examiner, a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. But, Dr. Westman was wrong in his assumption. There are no significant drop in insulin levels on very low-carb diets. Instead, there is a significant rise in LDL cholesterol levels, the number one risk factor for our number one killer, heart disease.

Atkins is an easy target though. No matter how many "new" Atkins diets that come out, it's still old news. What about the paleo diet? The paleo movement gets a lot of things right. They tell people to ditch dairy and doughnuts, eat lots of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and cut out a lot of processed junk food. But a new study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science is pretty concerning. Researchers took young healthy people, put them on a Paleolithic diet along with a CrossFit-based, high-intensity circuit training exercise program.

If you lose enough weight exercising, you can temporarily drop our cholesterol levels no matter what you eat. You can see that with stomach stapling surgery, tuberculosis, chemotherapy, a cocaine habit, etc. Just losing weight by any means can lower cholesterol, which makes the results of the Paleo/Crossfit study all the more troubling. After ten weeks of hardcore workouts and weight loss, the participants' LDL cholesterol still went up. And it was even worse for those who started out the healthiest. Those starting out with excellent LDL's (under 70), had a 20% elevation in LDL cholesterol, and their HDL dropped. Exercise is supposed to boost our good cholesterol, not lower it.

The paleo diet's deleterious impact on blood fats was not only significant, but substantial enough to counteract the improvements commonly seen with improved fitness and body composition. Exercise is supposed to make things better.

On the other hand, if we put people instead on a plant-based diet and a modest exercise program, mostly just walking-based; within three weeks their bad cholesterol can drop 20% and their insulin levels 30%, despite a 75-80% carbohydrate diet, whereas the paleo diets appeared to "negate the positive effects of exercise."

I touched on paleo diets before in Paleolithic Lessons, and I featured a guest blog on the subject: Will The Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?

but my favorite paleo videos are probably The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument and Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.

I wrote a book on low carb diets in general (now available free full-text online) and touched on it in Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping It Up and Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.

And if you're thinking, but what about the size of the cholesterol, small and dense versus large and fluffy? Please see my video Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Blood Type Diet Perceived as "Crass Fraud"

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It was Adolf Hitler who coined a propaganda technique he called, "The Big Lie," arguing that people may be more likely to believe colossal untruths, because they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously, so in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility.

Dr. Peter D'Adamo's book Eat Right for Your Type makes the astounding claim that people with different blood types should eat different foods. Type O's, for example, are supposed to be like the hunter and eat a lot of meat, whereas type A's are supposed to eat less. A 2013 systematic review of the evidence supporting blood type diets was published in one of the world's most prestigious nutrition journals. The researchers didn't find any.

The researchers sifted through over a thousand papers that might shed some light on the issue, and none of the studies showed an association between blood type diets and health-related outcomes. They conclude that "there is currently no evidence that an adherence to blood type diets will provide health benefits, despite the substantial presence and perseverance of blood type diets within the health industry."

Ten years earlier, the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association released a number of papers that came out of a day-long scientific seminar held by the Norwegian Society for Nutrition. 40,000 copies of the Eat Right for Your Type had been sold in Norway, and so the researchers sought to determine whether blood type diets were visionary science or nonsense. They also concluded that they are nonsense.

The author of the blood type diet book responded to the review on his website, saying that "there is good science behind the blood type diet, just like there was good science behind Einstein's mathematical calculations." He says that if blood type diets were just tested in the right way, like Einstein's E=MC2, he would be vindicated. The reason we don't see any studies on blood types and nutrition, he complains, is "because of little interest and available money." But he's sold more than seven million books. Why doesn't he fund his own studies? That's what the Atkins Corporation did.

In fact, he has! In 1996, he wrote, "I am beginning the eighth year of a ten year trial on reproductive cancers, using the Blood Type Diets ... By the time I release the results in another 2 years, I expect to make it scientifically demonstrable that the Blood Type Diet plays a role in cancer remission." OK, so that would be 1998. The results? Still not released, sixteen years later.

Good tactic, though, saying you're just about to publish a study and banking that nobody would actually follow up. So in his sequel, he said he was currently conducting a "twelve-week randomized, double-blind, controlled trial implementing the Blood Type Diet, to determine its effects on the outcomes of patients with rheumatoid arthritis." (See my video Blood Type Diet Debunked). That was ten years ago.

As my Norwegian colleague bemoaned, "it is difficult not to perceive the whole thing as a crass fraud."

So rarely are popular press diet books afforded such fact-checking. Kudos to these researchers. If only we had this 13 years ago when the book was on the bestseller list!

I have a few videos on popular diets, such as:

I also wrote a book about low-carb diets, which is now available free online full-text at AtkinsFacts.org.

Unfortunately, nutrition illiteracy is not just a problem among the public, but among the medical profession:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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Low Carb Diets Found to Feed Heart Disease

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People going on low carb diets may not see a rise in their cholesterol levels. How is that possible? Because weight loss by any means can drop our cholesterol. We could go on an all-Twinkie diet and lower our cholesterol as long as we didn't eat too many. A good cocaine habit could do it. Anything that drops our weight can drop our cholesterol, but the goal isn't to fit into a skinnier casket; the reason we care about cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol is because we care about cardiovascular risk, the health of our arteries.

Now we have studies that measure the impact of low carb diets on arteries directly, and a review of all the best studies to date found that low-carb diets impair arterial function, as evidenced by a decrease in flow-mediated dilation, meaning low-carb diets effectively stiffen people's arteries. And since that meta-analysis was published, a new study found the same thing: "A dietary pattern characterized by high protein and fat, but low carbohydrate was associated with poorer peripheral small artery function," again measuring blood flow into people's limbs. But peripheral circulation is not as important as the circulation in the coronary arteries that feed our heart.

There has only been one study ever done measuring actual blood flow to the heart muscles of people eating low-carb diets. Dr. Richard Fleming, an accomplished nuclear cardiologist, enrolled 26 people into a comprehensive study of the effects of diet on cardiac function using the latest in nuclear imaging technology-so-called SPECT scans, enabling him to actually directly measure the blood flow within the coronary arteries.

He then put them all on a healthy vegetarian diet, and a year later the scans were repeated. By that time, however, ten of the patients had jumped ship onto the low carb bandwagon. At first I bet he was disappointed, but surely soon realized he had an unparalleled research opportunity dropped into his lap. Here he had extensive imaging of ten people before and after following a low carb diet and 16 following a high carb diet. What would their hearts look like at the end of the year? We can talk about risk factors all we want, but compared to the veg group, did the coronary heart disease of the patients following the Atkins-like diets improve, worsen, or stay the same?

Those sticking to the vegetarian diet showed a reversal of their heart disease as expected. Their partially clogged arteries literally got cleaned out. They had 20% less atherosclerotic plaque in their arteries at the end of the year than at the beginning. What happened to those who abandoned the treatment diet, and switched over to the low-carb diet? Their condition significantly worsened. 40% to 50% more artery clogging at the end of the year. In heart scans of the patients, as seen in my video, Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow, the yellow and particularly red areas represent blood flow through the coronary arteries to the heart muscle. The scan of one of the patients who went on a plant-based diet, shows how their arteries opened right up increasing the blood flow. Another person, however, started out with good flow, but after a year on a low-carb diet, they significantly clogged down their arterial blood flow.

So this is the best science we have, demonstrating the threat of low-carb diets, not just measuring risk factors, but actual blood flow in people's hearts on different diets. Of course the reason we care about cardiac blood flow, is we don't want to die. Another meta-analysis was recently published that finally went ahead and measured the ultimate end-point, death, and low-carb diets were associated with a significantly higher risk of all-cause mortality, meaning living a significantly shorter lifespan.

The reason I have so few videos about low-carb diets is that I already wrote a book about it. Carbophobia is now available free online full-text at AtkinsFacts.org. Atkins' lawyers threatened to sue, leading to a heated exchange you're sure to enjoy that I reprint in the book. I did touch on it Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping it Up, though low carb diets don't necessarily have to be that unhealthy (see my video Plant-Based Atkins Diet).

Here are some videos I've done on conquering our #1 killer:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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How Eggs Can Impact Body Odor

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I previously lampooned the egg industry PR campaign that tried to promote eggs as a source of eyesight-saving nutrients such as lutein, by noting that a single spoonful of spinach had as much as nine eggs (see Egg Industry Blind Spot). The reason we'll only hear that egg industry claim on websites and TV shows, and never in an ad or on an egg carton, is because there are laws against false and misleading advertising that don't allow the industry to say eggs contain lutein because there's such an insignificant amount.

In an email I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act (you can see the email in my video Eggs and Choline: Something Fishy), the head of the USDA's poultry research and promotion programs reminded the egg industry that they can't mention lutein in an egg ad. They can't say it helps people with macular degeneration, and can't even talk about how good lutein is for us since "eggs have such a wee amount, and given eggs' fat and cholesterol content this is a nonstarter for anything but PR." So for public relations, companies can lie through your teeth, but there are laws covering truthfulness in ads.

The industry can't say eggs are a source of omega 3s, iron, or folate either. They can't even honestly call eggs a rich source of protein. The USDA Agriculture Marketing Service suggested that the egg industry instead boast about the choline content of eggs, one of only two nutrients that eggs are actually rich in, besides cholesterol.

So the egg industry switched gears. A priority objective of the American Egg Board became "to make choline out to be an urgent problem and eggs the solution." They outlined how they could partner with a physician's group and write an "advertorial." They developed a number of them for nutrition journals. An advertorial is an advertisement parading as an objective editorial. They sent letters out to doctors arguing that "inadequate intake of choline has tremendous public health implications." So forget about the cholesterol--the "elephant-in-the-room," as the industry calls it--and focus on this conjured epidemic of choline deficiency.

People actually get about twice the choline they need and, in fact, too much choline can be the real problem. For one thing, too much choline can give breath, urine, sweat, saliva, and vaginal secretions an odor resembling rotten fish. Millions of Americans have a genetic defect that causes a fishy body odor and might benefit from a low-choline diet, since choline is converted in our gut into the fishy compound trimethylamine (TMA). Individuals oozing trimethylamine often become vegans because reducing the ingestion of dietary animal products rich in lipids decreases TMA production and the associated noxious odor. The other 99 percent of us, though, can turn the fishy choline compound into trimethylamine oxide, which is 100 times less stinky. We used to think extra choline was harmless for the 99 percent, but not anymore.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found that dietary choline (after it is converted in our gut to trimethylamine and oxidized in our liver to form trimethylamine oxide) may contribute to plaque build-up in people's arteries. This may set us up for heart disease, stroke, and death. Which foods is choline predominantly found in? Eggs, milk, liver, red meat, poultry and fish.

The good news is that this may mean a new approach to prevent or treat heart disease, the most obvious of which would be to limit dietary choline intake. But if that means decreasing egg, meat and dairy consumption, then the new approach sounds an awful lot like the old approach - adopting a plant-based diet.

Choline may be one of the reasons people following the Atkins diet are at increased risk of heart disease whereas a more plant-based diet like Ornish's can instead reverse our number one killer (see Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow). This new research adds choline to the list of dietary culprits with the potential to increase the risk of heart disease, making eggs a double whammy--the most concentrated common source of both choline and cholesterol.

I previously did a more in depth dive into the choline issue in Carnitine, Choline, Cancer and Cholesterol: The TMAO Connection.

More on eggs and cholesterol in Egg Cholesterol in the Diet and Avoiding Cholesterol Is a No Brainer.

More Freedom of Information Act finds in Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims, Eggs vs. Cigarettes in Atherosclerosis, and probably my favorite, Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe?

What else might make one smell fishy? See Bacterial Vaginosis and Diet.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my 2012-2013 live year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

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