Are High Saturated Fat Meals Dangerous?

A Classic Example of Mumbo Jumbo Science

By Bruce Fife, ND

“One High-Saturated Fat Meal Can Be Bad,” “Saturated Fat Blocks Beneficial Effect of HDL,” “Saturated Fat Bad for Arteries”—these are just a few of the hundreds of headlines that rocked the world after the publication of a new study published in the August 15th, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. This study received instant international attention and created quite a stir around the world. The media reported that the study provided positive proof that saturated fat contributed to the development of heart disease, indicating that even a single meal containing saturated fat was harmful. To make matters worse the saturated fat used in the study was coconut oil.

People were frightened. Many of them had been eating coconut oil by the spoonful faithfully for some time. Now the media was abuzz with the dangers of saturated fat and coconut oil. Anti-saturated fat promoters proudly announced, “See we told you so.”

As soon as the news reports were broadcast I was swarmed with inquiries. People wanted to know if there was any truth to this study. Most felt there was something wrong with it, but many were worried that they were damaging their health by eating coconut oil. I had to get to the bottom of it. And I did. This is the result of my investigation.

The study generated numerous articles blasting saturated fats and coconut oil as harmful and dangerous. If by chance you missed all of the fanfare, below is a typical article published in response to this study.

A small but apparently significant study, published in the August 15th, 2006 Journal of the American College of Cardiology, shows that eating just one high-saturated fat meal can hinder the ability of HDL or “good” cholesterol from protecting against clogged arteries.

Fourteen healthy Australian volunteers between the ages of 18 and 40 were fed two special meals one month apart. One of the meals was high in saturated fat while the other was high in polyunsaturated fat.

Three hours after eating the saturated fat meal, the artery linings were unable to expand sufficiently to increase blood flow to the body’s tissues and organs. The arteries showed some reduced ability after the polyunsaturated meal, but these results were deemed not statistically significant.

After six hours, researchers noted that the anti-inflammatory qualities of HDL cholesterol were reduced after eating the saturated fat meal, whereas they improved after eating the polyunsaturated meal.

Its long been thought that diets high in saturated fat tend to clog our arteries with plaque, putting us at increased risk of heart attack and stroke. If this is what one meal can do in a few hours, imagine what a lifelong diet of high-saturated fat food will do. This study seems to show not only that the negative effects of eating certain fats is more immediate than we thought, but also that the positive effects of HDL cholesterol in our bodies is dependent on other factors. And for those who promote coconut oil as a healthier kind saturate fat, since it’s a plant —based saturated fat, this study may be a setback.

Sounds pretty convincing doesn’t it? No wonder people were frightened. If you believed the media, this study provided the “proof” that saturated fat promotes heart disease and that even a single meal containing coconut oil causes great harm. Now, you must keep in mind that reporters like to sensationalize everything. In so doing they jump to conclusions that may not be even remotely accurate. I had to get a copy of the study to see what it was really saying. What I found was that the news stories were blown way out of proportion. The study in no way showed that saturated fat (i.e., coconut oil) caused or contributed or promoted heart disease.

What happened is a classic example of biased research and media hype. I learned long ago to question the results of any study reported in the media. Reporters try to sensationalize everything. They love to take information out of context or even twist it a bit to create a startling headline. After all, shocking stories sell papers and interest listeners. Drug companies don’t help the matter any. They feed reporters news releases that are carefully written to bring out everything in these studies that favors or encourages the use of their products. Drug companies work hard at perpetuating the myth that saturated fats cause heart disease so they can sell more cholesterol-lowering drugs.

It is interesting to note that one of the sponsors of this study was the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor, the most widely used cholesterol-lowering drug. Hmmm…I wonder if this influenced the authors’ research?

I don’t have to wonder, I know it did. From the very start the authors’ displayed their anti-saturated fat bias. The study was not set up to fairly evaluate polyunsaturated and saturated fat meals. It was designed to throw more criticism on saturated fat and promote the cholesterol theory of heart disease, and thus encourage sales of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

The purpose of the study, as stated by the authors, was to investigate the influence of saturated fat on the anti-inflammatory status of HDL cholesterol and vascular function. The study involved 14 subjects. The subjects were fed two special meals which were eaten one month apart. Each meal consisted of a slice of carrot cake and a milkshake. The two meals were identical except for the fat content. One meal was high in saturated fat (made with coconut oil) while the other was high in polyunsaturated fat (using safflower oil).

The first measurements recorded involved arterial blood flow. The concept here is that any decrease in blood flow would be detrimental as it reduces the transport of oxygen to vial organs such as the heart. The methods used to take these measurements are complicated to explain and those not familiar with this type of analysis (i.e., reporters) would have no idea what is going on. So they must rely on the authors’ summarizing remarks.

The differences in blood flow between the saturated and polyunsaturated fat meals were so small that they were statistically insignificant. In other words, the difference could have been caused entirely by chance.

The authors admit that technically there was no significant difference in blood flow between the two groups. However, in their summary of the study, which is what most people (including reporters) read, they suggested that saturated fat had a less favorable effect on blood flow even though the tiny difference was statically meaningless. They were basically expressing their opinion. If the facts can’t back up a cherished belief then a strong opinion is the next best option. Consequently, some news reporters made an issue out of it giving the impression that the subjects’ arteries were struggling to maintain blood flow after eating the saturated fat meal. Why ruin a good story with facts? Right?

The second part of the study reported on the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL cholesterol after each meal. Here is where a lot of rather meaningless mumbo jumbo comes in which the authors use as “proof” of the evils of saturated fat.

HDL is often referred to the “good” cholesterol because it has anti-inflammatory properties and carries cholesterol to the liver where it reprocessed and flushed out of the body. The authors extracted blood from the subjects and isolated and incubated HDL samples. They found a higher level of pro-inflammatory ICAM-1 and VCAM-1 molecules in the cells incubated with the HDL from the saturated fat diet than from the polyunsaturated fat diet. This difference might indicate that there may be a decrease in anti-inflammatory potential in molecules by the HDL from the saturated fat diet. But nobody really knows for sure. And we don’t know, outside of a test tube, if it makes any difference. What really goes on inside the body? We don’t know. Nobody can really tell from this data what it means, if anything. What we have here is mumbo jumbo science—questionable or meaningless results interpreted to fit the beliefs of the authors.

Based on the blood flow measurements, which were insignificant, and the meaningless difference in anti-inflammatory potential of HDL the authors flat out state that consumption of saturated fat promotes heart disease. This is clearly evident in the title of their article “Consumption of Saturated Fat Impairs the Anti-Inflammatory Properties of High-Density Lipoproteins and Endothelial Function.” That pretty clearly states that saturated fats promote heart disease. Yet, when you examine the data, this study doesn’t provide a shred of evidence to support that conclusion.

What’s really interesting about this study is that it can be interpreted in two different ways. We’ve just seen the authors’ interpretation, but you can also interpret it as proving that saturated fat (coconut oil) is more protective against heart disease than polyunsaturated fat (safflower oil). Let me show you.

The blood flow measurements showed that the percent of change in the polyunsaturated fat group was slightly better than that of the saturated group. This point was stressed by the authors to suggest the polyunsaturated meal was superior, even though the difference was insignificant. However, blood flow measurements were actually greater in the saturated fat group at every measured point during the study. Using the same biased logic as the authors, we can say that the saturated fat group had better blood flow readings thus indicating that it is more protective against heart disease.

The measurement of the anti-inflammatory potential of the HDL can also be viewed in a pro-saturated fat context. HDL is the cholesterol that is returning to the liver. Since HDL is bringing cholesterol back to the liver for reprocessing and elimination wouldn’t that mean this cholesterol will be processed out of the body? In other words, the saturated fat diet has caused HDL to clean up or gather up more pro-inflammatory cholesterol and remove it from the body than polyunsaturated fat. To illustrate my point, let’s say two garbage trucks, truck A and truck B, go out onto the city streets to pick up trash. At the end of the day truck A has twice as much trash as truck B. Which one did a better job of cleaning up the city? Obviously truck A because it picked up and removed more trash. Now according to cholesterol theory advocates HDL is like these dump trucks, picking up cholesterol and pulling it out of the arteries and dumping it in the liver for removal. The saturated fat meal represents truck A, the one that gathered the most garbage. Therefore, the saturated fat meal reduced the potential for clogged arteries better than the polyunsaturated fat meal.

There is one more item which the authors of the study conveniently forgot to mention. And this is really interesting. According to the data supplied in the article the subjects who ate the polyunsaturated fat meal had higher total cholesterol and higher LDL (bad) cholesterol than those who ate the saturated fat meal. Now according to low cholesterol advocates elevated total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol are the most important factors influencing heart disease. Yet the saturated fat meal lowered both in comparison to the polyunsaturated fat meal. What’s going on here? It seems the data is showing that saturated fat protects against heart disease. I can see why the authors didn’t dare mention this fact. It would have destroyed their entire argument.

So as you see, you can interpret this study to prove or disprove that saturated fat protects against heart disease. Although most of the evidence seems to indicate that saturated fat is more protective than polyunsaturated fat, the authors twisted the data to support their bias. The media, with help from the pharmaceutical industry marketing muscle, picked up on this and blew the study way out of proportion.

It is interesting that most everyone already believes that saturated fat promotes heart disease. The media reports “news,” meaning information that is “new.” A study suggesting that saturated fat promotes heart disease isn’t new and, therefore, isn’t newsworthy. So why did this little insignificant study, using only 14 subjects with questionable results achieve international attention? The reason is simple, because it supports the agenda of the pharmaceutical industry. Big brother gave this meaningless little study significance by broadcasting it loud and clear. Other studies which aren’t backed by mega-industries or that show conflicting evidence don’t get near the publicity and we rarely hear about them.

Now go back and reread the news story at the beginning of this article and see how distorted it is. Notice how the reporter twisted the research data regarding the blood flow measurements? The news article indicated that saturated fat prevented the artery linings from expanding properly. It goes on to say that the polyunsaturated fat meal “showed some reduced ability…but these results were deemed not statistically significant.” In other words, the reporter is saying the negative effects caused by the polyunsaturated fat were insignificant, but those of the saturated fat were breathtaking news! What the study really said was that there was no significant difference between the two types of fat. What a huge difference a little creative reporting can make!

The article also points out that “the anti-inflammatory qualities of HDL cholesterol were reduced after eating the saturated fat meal, whereas they improved after eating the polyunsaturated meal.” What? The reporter must have been looking at a different study. Nowhere did the study say that the polyunsaturated fat meal improved the anti-inflammatory qualities of HDL. Talk about journalist license in reporting, this reporter’s license should be revoked.

The last paragraph in the story sums up the entire focus of the article as well as the study—saturated fats, including coconut oil, cause heart disease.

With reporting like this it’s no wonder why so many people are confused about fats.  This is why you should be very careful about the results of any study reported by the media. Since saturated fat, and particularly coconut oil, is gaining more respectability I suspect the anti-saturated fat industry will beat their drums even louder in opposition. So don’t be surprised to see more meaningless studies trumpeted in the news in the future.


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Copyright © Coconut Research Center, 2006