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Fat's not bad for you? Double cheesecake to go, please

For the last twenty years, many Americans have adjusted their diets - or felt guilty for not doing so - to include less fat, especially saturated fat, based on warnings from those supposed to know such things that dietary fat contributes to heart disease and other illnesses. Maybe not . . . John Tierney reports for The New York Times:

Alluding to his office's famous 1964 report on the perils of smoking, Dr. Koop announced that the American diet was a problem of "comparable" magnitude, chiefly because of the high-fat foods that were causing coronary heart disease and other deadly ailments.

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros.

It may seem bizarre that a surgeon general could go so wrong. After all, wasn't it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal "food pyramid" telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do.

Read the whole article at the link above. This is also the weakness of "consensus-building" generally, because of the peer pressure effect, which apparently exists at every level of academic and scientific pursuit. Add membership in a bureaucratic structure, and truth swiftly becomes a secondary goal.


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Comments (21)

A cautionary tale for the w... (Below threshold)

A cautionary tale for the warmers.

Bumpersticker for you.... (Below threshold)

Bumpersticker for you.

"What's next, Fat?"

Fat or no fat? Whatever hap... (Below threshold)

Fat or no fat? Whatever happened to moderation?

It seems that in our have-it-now, make-it-easy, avoid-the-pain culture we forget that a bit of balance and a dose of self-control can go a long way in our quest for optimum health.

High trans-fat diets increa... (Below threshold)

High trans-fat diets increase the risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer.

That has been shown by epidemiological study.

Joe beat me to it. My phil... (Below threshold)

Joe beat me to it. My philosopy has always been "all things in moderation". I eat when I'm hungry and stop when I'm not. I eat what I want, but not the same thing day-in and day-out and not until I'm 'stuffed to the gills'.

Little by little we are totally depriving ourselves of things due to guilt, warnings and fear all based on unsettled scientific assumptions; things that are indeed not so bad for us and in some cases even good for us if we only practice moderation.

After all, wasn't it his... (Below threshold)

After all, wasn't it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal "food pyramid" telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

Hmmm. Wonder what happens when this is applied to man-made global warming, I mean.. man-made global climate change, I mean.. man-made Gaia PMS. Or whatever those religious nuts are calling it these days.

Wonder if we'll see anyone from the NYT try to apply this to AGW, or if they'll remain intellectually incurious on this subject.

Cheesecake?! Make that a c... (Below threshold)

Cheesecake?! Make that a cheeseburger!

C. Everate Koop was america... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

C. Everate Koop was americas former crack-pot surgion general i mean he is still as cracked as he was and still as redicuclous as he always was

A cautionary statement: ba... (Below threshold)

A cautionary statement: basing an argument on a book review in the NYT is a perilous foundation to stand upon.

I figure as long as it's a ... (Below threshold)

I figure as long as it's a food that doesn't generate any adverse or allergic reactions, it's not bad for you. If I put too much concern into fat content, there would be no home made fudge at Christmas. That would suck.

Ahh, that "study" is obviou... (Below threshold)

Ahh, that "study" is obviously done by people in the pay of Big Fat.

I think Tierney's review ov... (Below threshold)
sean nyc/aa:

I think Tierney's review oversimplifies the low-fat diet argument. After all, we hear frequently that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, olive oil, and nuts are all good for you (in moderation as stated above). So I don't think leading scientists or nutritionists are saying you shouldn't eat food that has fat, but that there are better sources of fat, which is probably why the book is titled "Good Calories, Bad Calories", but Tierney doesn't explain this well at all.

Something not mentioned once in the NYT article which I think is a severe oversight - processed foods, which often contain higher amounts of fat and salt than caloric equivalent natural and raw foods. Those and fast food (also very high in fat and salt) are unquestionably bad for your health in high quantities. That is one of the reasons why Koop encouraged Americans to eat a low fat diet because we as a nation eat a disproportionally high amount of these types of foods as evidenced by the ever increasing obesity rates. Europeans in general get much more of their fat from cooking oils and fish which explains why they may have "high fat" diets, but not the same problems with obesity and heart disease.

Basic Advice on Losing Weig... (Below threshold)

Basic Advice on Losing Weight: Eat Less Calories and Burn More Calories.

Fat is most concentrated calorie holder of carb/protein/fat sources.

Therefore to lose weight, decreasing fat intake (without increasing intake of other sources) is most economical approach - from the viewpoint of making the least change to overall diet. Order a Whopper minus the Mayo and you cut your intake of calories almost in half. But you still eat a Whopper.

Free triglycerides in the blood are the source of fat that is deposited into growing atherosclerotic lesions. Reducing triglycerides is, gasp, founded upon decreasing total fat intake and increasing aerobic exercise. Especially in folks with family history of early cardiovascular events, hypertension and diabetes, paying attention to this matter is important.

Too many folks go way beyond this reasoning in demonizing fat as a food source. This book attacks those folks. But from the excerpts I've seen it goes a little too far the other way, and uses questionably the term "scientific controversy" to make a scandal where there is none. [Buffoonery is not necessarily scandalous, just stupid and silly.]

epador: exackery. I was g... (Below threshold)

epador: exackery. I was gaining weight, so, since I'm allergic to exercise :) - I simply took in less food and have lost 20 of the 25 pounds I had gained over the last five years. It's taken me 9 months, but I have stuck with it.

Five pounds to go!

Imagine if I had exercized. *shudder*

As someone who had a heart ... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

As someone who had a heart attack at 33 in 2000, stent placement in 2005, diagnosed as having familial hyperlipidemia in 2002, is currently in a program at a lipid clinic and have been battling this diseasesince age 19, I feel compelled to offer my real-world take on all of this.

In the years since when I first discovered I had high cholesterol levels at age 19 (300+ total chol.), I was put on numerous diets. (FYI: at 5'11/175, I ain't fat.) In one particular instance my doctor had me go on a strict no more than 10g of fat a day diet for 30 days. (Try doing THAT sometime! Not fun...). Anyway, guess what? My chol. dropped from 298 to....drum roll, please...289. 9 points. And no, I never cheated with a cheeseburger. In short, squawdoosh of a difference.

It wasn't until 1997 when my total chol. was measured at 410 that I was put on Lipitor and 1000mg of niacin. In just 3 months, it dropped from 410 to...drum roll, please...190. And no zero change to my low-fat diet. A massive difference.

However, and to keep this as short as possible, when I have gone off my 'cholesterol cocktail' as I call it, or I forget to take my meds for even just few nights or I forget to refill them, my numbers go wild. Case in point, this past August, my numbers stood at exactly 251 total/168 LDL/42 HDL/185 triglyceride. Terrible for a heart patient. Then I remembered something: I had been lazy with my meds, missing refills, etc. In a matter of 6 weeks in consistently taking my meds as I should and not changing my diet (which, yes, includes eggs, and a steak once a week maybe, but is still largel low fat with fruits and grains, etc.), the numbers were as follows: 144 total/83 LDL/48 HDL/85 tris. And just two weeks ago they were virtually the same.

My point is this: I have watched my dietary fat and sugar intake for years and it has made little difference in affecting my cholesterol levels. I have always argued this to my doctors who've in return tried to still say "well, having a low-fat diet doesn't hurt." Well, of course it doesn't hurt. But for millions of people like me, drugs, not diet, are the answer. (Exercise definitely helps in reducing my tris, that much is proven. I work out 3-4 times a week.) So, in my experience, I think there's quite a bit of credibility to Mr. Taubes hypothesis.

Of course my view of this is in no way scientific and only anecdotal, but I'm glad to hear someone question the dogma surrounding the demonizing of 'fat as the culprit'.

Finally, in a few weeks I'll be undergoing some extensive blood work that will help identify the nasty bad-ass thing (this is scientific term for it as I can't remember what exactly it's called! lol) that is responsible for carrying the gross amounts of cholesterol my body produces and deposits it in my arteries. I believe it's called a Berkeley blood and liver workup, or something to that affect. I'll follow up (if allowed) with my technical terms as to what exactly my doctor and I are looking for and trying to combat.

Oh, and read epador's entry at #13. He/she makes some very, very good points--especially regarding free radicals in the blood like tris.

Pardon the long entry...

I know this is press releas... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

I know this is press release, but for info on the Berkeley Lab Test and what it is they are trying to isolate, go about halfway down the article to the bullet points, and this is the "bad-ass thingy" I was talking about:

Lp(a) -- Lp(a) is an LDL particle with an abnormal protein called (a) attached. Elevated Lp(a) levels increase the risk of heart disease three-fold and are not detected in routine blood work.


If we identify that I have this particle we can narrow down just what kind of drug therapy is best for me, and maybe for others, too.

Excellent comments - thank ... (Below threshold)

Excellent comments - thank you all.

Peter F. ~ I have my own cholesterol to deal with, and diet only does so much. My late Mother never could get hers below 300, even with medication, so there's a genetic link as well, of course.

Having cut down on fats for years, and attempted to eliminate "trans fats" completely, I will never go back - not to say I don't enjoy the few times a year I do treat myself.

Moderation in all things (except perhaps politics) . . .

Thanks for posting the arti... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

Thanks for posting the article, Jim.

A quick point I wanted to mention about drugs. For me, they work. BUT, it took a few trial and error attempts to find what really worked consistently and without side effects. I'd been on Lipitor for years as it was a source of muscle aches and memory loss for me. Not good. So we switched over to Vytorin about 3 years ago (along with 2000mg of niacin at night) with zero side effects. Within the past month, my doctor at the lipid clinic has switched me to a combination of Zetia and Crestor, which will be a little less harsh on my liver than the Vytorin but, hopefully, achieve the same effect. We shall see. However, the niacin really plays a big factor in raising HDL while lowering LDL; in combo with statins like Vytorin the results are very good--and other than "flushing" at night I've never experienced side effects.

I would, however, recommend that since you do seem to have a family history to consult your doctor about possibly taking meds to help bring down your numbers more--if, of course, you're having trouble doing so via diet/exercise.

Good health to you, my friend.

PCRM has connections with P... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

PCRM has connections with PETA they are not real doctors and the CSPI are not real scienetists and neather is the Union of Conceerned Scienetists their just a bunch or wackos using their own crazy ideas

Peter The niacin "... (Below threshold)


The niacin "flushing" can be avoided by taking 1 or 2 Aspirin about 30 minutes before the niacin.

The niacin flush is like a sunburn inside the body!

It has to be aspirin, not tylenol.

Imhotep:I do take ... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:


I do take aspirin before; learned that little trick a while ago. Just forgot to mention it.

P.S. Guess what I'm for lunch as I write this? That's right, a cheeseburger.







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