It reads like a spy novel. In 2008, the global dairy industry meets in Mexico City, concerned that the public is perceiving dairy and the fats within are unhealthy. Soy milk sales are booming and many other plant-based options are on the horizon. The notes of the meeting are published and call for attempts to neutralize the negative impact of milkfat by “regulators and medical professionals”.
In a very short time, a research paper that performed a meta-analysis of prior studies on saturated fat and heart disease cannot confirm a relationship and gets huge headlines. The fact that the senior author receives funds from the milk industry is downplayed and the fact that the article was severely criticized by a senior researcher in the same edition of the medical journal is ignored. After another study is published in 2014 that was widely criticized but questioned whether saturated fats cause heart disease, TIME magazine placed a stick of butter on the cover with the statement “Butter is Back”. As if the prior 50 years of research were of no value, confusion set it in, books by authors without science degrees appeared praising meat, butter, cheese and dairy, and the “Saturated Fat Wars” were in full gear. The got so intense that there was even a smear campaign falsely altering the Wikipedia entry of an esteemed researcher, Ancel Keys, Ph.D., after his death.
Harvard School of Public Health Studies
An esteemed group of scientists at Harvard gathered data and published a series of studies examining the role of saturated fats, and substituting plant-based polyunsaturated fats in the diet. These studies reported that:
1. In over 115,000 subjects, removing as little as 1% of calories from saturated fat and replacing them with PUFA, plant protein, whole grain carbohydrates (think brown rice), or monounsaturated fats was associated with a reduction in the risk for developing heart disease.
2. In over 130,000 subjects followed for decades, substituting dairy foods rich in saturated fatty acids with monounsaturated or vegetable oil sources was associated with a reduction in developing overall cardiovascular disease including stroke.
3. In over 125,000 subjects followed for decades, dietary saturated fat was associated with an increased risk of dying during the study period. Replacing 5% of calories from saturated fat with PUFA and monounsaturated fat sources like vegetable and olive oils was predicted to drop death rates during the study period by 13-27%.
The New Data: 2020
Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They investigate the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. They also assess the accuracy of a diagnostic test for a given condition in a specific patient group and setting. They are published online in The Cochrane Library.
The Cochrane Library just published an analysis of the relationship between dietary saturated fat and cardiovascular disease (CVD) like heart attacks, strokes and sudden death. They examined 15 high quality randomized controlled trials involved about 59,000 subjects with data on diet and CVD. The trials demonstrated that reducing dietary saturated fat reduced the risk of combined CVD events by 21%. Further statistics showed that the greater the reduction in dietary saturated fat, the greater drop in risk of CVD events. This was true for persons that never had a history of heart events but was even more powerful for those that did have known heart disease. There was no evidence for any harm by reducing saturated fat intake.
The authors concluded that “reducing saturated fat intake for at least 2 years causes a potentially important reduction in combined CVD events”. They went on to say that “greater reduction in saturated fat caused greater reductions in CVD events”.
These conclusions are consistent with the vast majority of studies prior to the dairy industry fought to confuse the public in 2008 and beyond and are also consistent with the conclusions of the Harvard School of Public Health. Dietary saturated fat is found in the greatest amounts in red meat, full-fat dairy and butter, and poultry. It is low or absent in most whole plant foods with the exception of coconut oil and palm oil. Overall, the Cochrane Review ends a decade of confusion. It is Game Over time. Dietary saturated fats are a risk for heart disease and reducing them with whole food plant diets is a benefit in terms of avoiding the number 1 cause of death in the Western world, cardiovascular disease.