UPDATED: The US considers itself a world leader. It isn’t in this case, even as the country’s government is poised officially to ‘pardon’ cholesterol – 40 years after demonising it. In 2013, Sweden became the first country to ditch low-fat dietary guidelines, restoring cholesterol in eggs and bacon to its former glory. Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes has been saying for years that official dietary guidelines on cholesterol are wrong – and been pilloried, ridiculed and demonised as dangerous for it. Cholesterol is, after all, a nutrient your body has to have, because you’d be dead without it. Here’s a look at the price the public has paid for unscientific official dietary advice, and not just on cholesterol. – MS
By Marika Sboros
So it has taken the US 40 years to rehabilitate cholesterol’s reputation. The government is reportedly poised to drop official health warnings on cholesterol because the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says it is no longer “considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption” – a clumsy way of saying you can eat as much cholesterol as you like.
Better late than never you might say, and anyway, what’s a few decades between friends? Quite a lot, actually, when you consider the suffering and preventable, premature deaths of millions of people around the globe as a consequence of wrong dietary advice.
The committee’s report comes at the same time as original research by British obesity specialist Zoe Harcombe published in BMJ Open Heart. Harcombe and her team’s systematic review and meta-analysis conclude that “evidence from randomised controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983”. (Randomised controlled trials are the gold standard of scientific research.)
In other words, official dietary fat guidelines in the US, UK, and all other countries that have followed suit, including South Africa, are without scientific foundation.
Not surprisingly, that conclusion didn’t go down well in the UK, and the backlash and smear campaign came quickly. Experts denounced Harcombe’s study as flawed, even “dangerous” – despite growing science to the contrary. In her latest newsletter, Harcombe notes that Dr Alison Tedstone, Public Health England, “rapidly positioned that the advice may have been premature but was not wrong”. The attacks, she says, are yet another “terrible example of the lengths that public health will go to to protect their current advice”.
The American Advisory Committee report is proof of that: it happily pardons cholesterol, yet still demonises saturated fat, saying it is still “overconsumed” and poses the most risk to people aged over 50 – precisely a target group that strongly shows the toll bad dietary guidelines take on health in body and mind. Clearly, some dogmas die hard.
But I suppose we should be grateful for small nutritional mercies governments dish out. This mercy isn’t that small all on its own, but would have been huge if the Advisory Committee had acknowledged the vast body of reliable science proving that saturated fat is not a health demon.
It’s really annoying, though, that experts internationally have been warning governments for years that official dietary guidelines on cholesterol and saturated fat are not just wrong, but dangerous.
In 2013, top British interventional cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, wrote in an opinion piece in the BMJ, headlined: “Saturated fat is not the major issue – let’s bust the myth of its role in heart disease”. He said:
“Scientists universally accept that trans fats — found in many fast foods, bakery products, and margarines — increase the risk of cardiovascular disease through inflammatory processes. But ‘saturated fat’ is another story.
“The mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades. Yet scientific evidence shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks.”
And it isn’t just cholesterol guidelines that leave a very sour taste in Malhotra’s mouth, and other LCHF proponents. Sugar’s another big one.
Conflicts of interest
In a report in the Financial Times, Malhotra calls on leading public health scientists who advise the UK government on nutrition, and who have received millions of pounds in research funding from food and drinks companies, to stand down.
So should public health scientists who do the same thing everywhere, including in South Africa, where the sugar, food and industries are equally active in influencing dietary guidelines. Look at the list of sponsors of the ADSA (Association of Dietetics of South Africa), to which conventional registered dietitians belong. They include companies like Hulletts, Kellogg’s and the Sugar association, for heaven’s sake.
But back to cholesterol, a nutrient so essential to your body, without it you’d die quickly without it.
Dr Ann Childers, a US paediatric and adult psychiatric physician, pulls no punches in defence of cholesterol and saturated fat in her blog:
“Once pronounced bad, cholesterol is safe again. After decades of egg-white omelettes, the US government corrected its false alarm,” says Childers who has a passion for helping patients regain physical and mental health through nutrition and sleep.
“You no longer need to be concerned about over-consumption of cholesterol-rich foods. Eat as much as like. Your government has kept (them) from you long enough.”
Childers joins Malhotra and Harcombe on the panel of international low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) expert speakers at the Old Mutual Health Convention in Cape Town from February 19 to 22, hosted by sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes, and organied by Karen Thomson, granddaughter of the later pioneering heart surgeon Prof Chris Barnard.
Harcombe, who is currently doing her Ph D on obesity, will give “nutritional nuggets to overcome conventional dietary guidelines”, and demolish the many health myths that keep people fat.
The convention is billed as a world-first gathering of international LCHF experts. In her latest newsletter, Harcombe says she doesn’t think of how she eats what she would advise others to eat as LCHF. She calls it simply eating “real food”.
However, she says she likes the term LCHF because:
- “It’s an equal and opposite statement to the Low Fat High Carb (LFHC) dietary advice that we currently have; and
- “That’s how people will end up eating if they adopt the real food approach.”
Another speaker at the LCHF conference is US scientist and physician Dr Stephen Phinney, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California. With colleague Dr Jeff Volek, Phinney has done seminal research effectively demolishing the diet-heart hypothesis, and will speak on the “art and science of low-carbohydrate living and performance”.
Noakes credits Phinney and Volek’s work with precipitating the spectacular about-turn he made on carbohydrates and saturated fat in the diet four years ago – and the ongoing backlash by critics who continue to claim he and his LCHF diet are a public danger.
Noakes is ever vocal in his support for LCHF and criticisms of official dietary guidelines and the diet-heart hypothesis:
“No one has ever proven saturated fat and cholesterol in the blood cause heart disease,” he says.
It’s “an unproven hypothesis, an assumption based on epidemiology”, says Noakes. It has been destroyed by top scientists internationally and US investigative journalists Nina Teicholz in The Big Fat Surprise” and another speaker at the Cape Town conference, Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat.
“Oxidised cholesterol is the problem,” says Noakes, “but it isn’t measured when patients are advised on diet.”
And the US move on cholesterol, while positive, does not acknowledge consequences of decades of flawed dietary guidelines. One consequence is effective brainwashing of doctors and dietitians who in turn brainwashed patients into avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol, significantly damaging their health and lifespan along the way, and contributing to global epidemics of NCDs (non-communicable diseases such as obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes).
Official dietary guidelines have also spawned the lucrative statin industry – blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drugs that have become the most prescribed drug on the planet.
Overmedication of millions
Noakes calls statins “the most ineffective drugs ever invented”. They come with over 900 studies pointing to a litany of serious side effects including muscle spasm, nausea, and worse: increased risk of diabetes and cancer.
Malhotra, in his BMJ report, says, “the (UK) government’s obsession with levels of total cholesterol, which has led to the overmedication of millions of people with statins, has diverted our attention from the more egregious risk factor of atherogenic dyslipidaemia”. That’s the medical term for abnormal cholesterol implicated in damaging coronary arteries characterised by low HDL, high triglycerides, driven by trans fats and refined carbs.
Top cardiologists around the globe still embrace statins with messianic zeal, and prescribe them to more and younger people, even children. These doctors and conventional dietitians who follow their lead, act as if heart disease were the consequence of a deficiency of statins in the diet, not saturated fat and cholesterol, as science proves is far more likely the case.
The reality is doctors, dietitians and all other health professionals who happily swallowed conventional wisdom on cholesterol and saturated fat did so without checking the science behind it.
Turns out, there wasn’t any, and they should say sorry for that.