Another Big Fat (and old) Fail For The Lipid Hypothesis

Several people posted comments or sent emails with links to articles about a “rediscovered” study from the 1960s. Let’s look at some quotes from the Washington Post article:

It was one of the largest, most rigorous experiments ever conducted on an important diet question: How do fatty foods affect our health? Yet it took more than 40 years — that is, until today — for a clear picture of the results to reach the public.

The fuller results appeared Tuesday in BMJ, a medical journal, featuring some never-before-published data. Collectively, the fuller results undermine the conventional wisdom regarding dietary fat that has persisted for decades and is still enshrined in influential publications such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But the long-belated saga of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment may also make a broader point about how science gets done: it suggests just how difficult it can be for new evidence to see the light of day when it contradicts widely held theories.

The difficulty lies in the fact that scientists are freakin’ liars.

The story begins in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when researchers in Minnesota engaged thousands of institutionalized mental patients to compare the effects of two diets. One group of patients was fed a diet intended to lower blood cholesterol and reduce heart disease. It contained less saturated fat, less cholesterol and more vegetable oil. The other group was fed a more typical American diet.

Just as researchers expected, the special diet reduced blood cholesterol in patients.

Well then, those patients whose cholesterol dropped must have suffered fewer heart attacks and lived longer.

Today, the principles of that special diet — less saturated fat, more vegetable oils — are recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the government’s official diet advice book.

And have been since 1980 – because of all the solid evidence supporting switching from animal fats to vegetables oils, doncha know.

Yet the fuller accounting of the Minnesota data indicates that the advice is, at best, unsupported by the massive trial. In fact, it appears to show just the opposite: Patients who lowered their cholesterol, presumably because of the special diet, actually suffered more heart-related deaths than those who did not.

Woops.

The higher rate of mortality for patients on the special diet was most apparent among patients older than 64.

In other words, within the group most likely to suffer a heart attack in the first place. Hooray for vegetable oils that lower our cholesterol!

It’s not exactly clear why the full set of data from the Minnesota experiment was never published.

Oh, I think I can guess.

“Had this research been published 40 years ago, it might have changed the trajectory of diet-heart research and recommendations” said Daisy Zamora, a researcher at UNC and a lead author of the study.

And that’s why it wasn’t published.

The results of the study were never touted by the investigators. Partial results were presented at an American Heart Association conference in 1975, and it wasn’t until 1989 that some of the results were published, appearing in a medical journal known as Arteriosclerosis.

Amazing. A big, expensive study is conducted to test the hypothesis that switching from saturated fats to vegetable oils will reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol. The results show the opposite – at a time when many Americans were being encouraged to follow exactly that advice. What kind of lousy @#$%ing scientist would bury the results instead of publishing them?

The lead investigators of the trial, noted scientists Ancel Keys and Ivan Frantz, are deceased.

You’ve gotta love Ancel Keys. The guy conducts an observational study by giving two dietary questionnaires to a whopping 30 or so people in seven countries. From this itty bitty dataset, he decides he’s proved that saturated fats cause heart disease. Meanwhile, he tries to destroy the careers of other researchers who question his findings.

Then when his own clinical study – involving thousands of patients – shows that switching to vegetable oil increases heart disease and overall mortality, he clams up and doesn’t publish the results. What an awesome scientist he was.

If this story sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps it’s because a similar study was “rediscovered” back in 2013. I wrote a post about that as well and quoted from an article in Forbes:

In an exceedingly strange turn of events, data from a clinical trial dating from the 1960s, long thought to be lost, has now been resurrected and may contribute important new information to the very contemporary controversy over recommendations about dietary fat composition.

“Exceedingly strange” has now happened twice.

One trial that actually tested the hypothesis was the Sydney Diet Heart Study, which ran from 1966 through 1973. In the trial, 458 men with coronary disease were randomized to a diet rich in linoleic acid (the predominant omega 6 PUFA in most diets) or their usual diet. Although total cholesterol was reduced by 13% in the treatment group during the study, all-cause mortality was higher in the linoleic acid group than in the control group. However, in the original publications, and consistent with the practice at the time, deaths from cardiovascular (CVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths were not published.

Now, in a new paper published in BMJ, Christopher Ramsden and colleagues report that they were able to recover and analyze data from the original magnetic tape of the Sydney Diet Heart Study. The new mortality findings are consistent:

• All cause: 17.6% in the linoleic group versus 11.8% in the control group, HR 1.62, CI 1.00-2.64)
• CV disease: 17.2% versus 11%, HR 1.70, CI 1.03-2.80
• CHD: 16.3% versus 10.1%, HR 1.74, CI 1.04-2.92

People who switched to the vegetable did worse all around: higher all-cause mortality, higher mortality from cardiovascular disease in general, higher mortality from heart disease. But as with the Minnesota study, the results didn’t see the light of day for decades. The explanation offered was that a computer data tape was misplaced and only found 40 years later.

What a strange coincidence. We have two large, well-controlled studies conducted around the same time. Both show that switching from saturated animal fats to vegetable oils actually leads to higher mortality rates (including deaths from heart disease), despite lowering cholesterol significantly. A total poke in the eye for the Lipid Hypothesis.  And somehow, the results of both studies were buried for 40 years.

No wonder the researchers who crunched the “lost” Minnesota data wrote this:

Findings from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.

I interpret “incomplete publication” as a polite version of scientists are freakin’ liars.

Naturally, researchers who’ve spent years promoting the switch from saturated fats to vegetable oils immediately called a press conference to offer their apologies and a promise to re-evaluate their positions.

Kidding! Of course that didn’t happen. Here’s what did happen:

“The bottom line is that this report adds no useful new information and is irrelevant to current dietary recommendations that emphasize replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat,” Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard University, said in a blog post from the school. “Many lines of evidence support this conclusion.”

He characterized the new analysis of the old experiment as “an interesting historical footnote.”

So Willett, like Ancel Keys, considers his observational studies to be rock-solid evidence, but dismisses clinical trials if the results undermine what he already “knows.”

As Max Planck said, science advances one funeral at a time. Ancel Keys is dead. A few more funerals, and we may finally see the Lipid Hypothesis end up on the Scrap Heap of Wrong Ideas, where it clearly belongs.

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40 thoughts on “Another Big Fat (and old) Fail For The Lipid Hypothesis

  1. Bob Niland

    As we contemplate more air being let out of the cholesterol hypothesis balloon, don’t lose sight of what should have been a prominent subtitle of these old trial papers.

    Headline: Dietary cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease
    Subtitle: Omega 6 linoleic acid, umm, errr – uh oh

    Many people who have ditched the “healthy whole grains” and “low fat” nonsense of the USDA’s MyPlateOfMetabolicSyndrome diet, may not yet have cleared the grain- and seed-based industrial PUFA “vegetable” oils out of their pantry. If they have, they may still be consuming more ω6LA than they might suppose. I wrote an article on this last month, linked from my username here.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      That’s why I keep home the message that a better diet starts with three steps: ditch the sugar, ditch the grains, ditch the industrial “vegetable” oils.

      Reply
      1. Walter Bushell

        But fruit oils and nut oils seem to be at least non harmful (if you are careful about which ones you cook with) and they have as much right to be called vegetable oils as industrial grain oils (aka birdseed oils ) do, which is none, of course.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          If you can squeeze the oil from fruits and nuts, the oil is probably okay. Seed oils seem to require chemical extraction.

          Reply
  2. Adolfo Neto

    I love your posts.
    The only thing I do not love is the use of font colors to mark quotations. They don’t work well with apps like Pocket.
    Regards,
    Adolfo

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I used to put quotes in italics, but that made long quotes difficult to read. Not sure what else to try.

      Reply
      1. Jennifer Snow

        Blockquote style where they’re indented from either side usually works pretty well. Either that, or put them in a box with a border.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          The blockquote built into my template indents so much on both sides, I end up with a skinny little strip of text. There’s probably a way to fix that, but I have no desire to learn PHP.

          Reply
          1. Drew

            I already know PHP. If you want to put up a sample post with some blockquoting I’ll take a look at the stylesheet and fix it for you. (I have the same problem with the color not showing in my RSS reader.)

            Reply
            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              You da man, Drew. I put up a quick post with a sample block quote. Much appreciate it.

  3. Barbara

    Do you really expect anything else? Scientist may be “freakin liars” but they ain’t stupid. Congress/Big Pharma/Medical/University Institutes control the money.
    Money = job. Publish something they object to…No money = no job…ever.

    Reply
  4. Bob Weaver

    Haven’t you heard? Exceedingly strange has been recommended as the new normal. Get used to it.

    On a related note, I wonder how many results Mr Willett has determined were not worth the trouble of publishing them. Since it’s obviously okay, I mean.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Well, Dr. Willett does epidemiological studies. You can make those say anything you want to hear.

      Reply
  5. Stacy

    The good news is that we have more data now and more people (like Mr Naughton and many others) publishing and speaking out about it. Let’s keep working and exposing the fraudulent “science” for what it is. No doubt lives are already being saved from these efforts.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      “Yes, we’re aware of this additional proof that we’ve been wrong for decades, but we see no reason to change our minds.” Mistakes were made, but not by me.

      Reply
    2. Walter Bushell

      Well they guidelines weren’t adopted based on evidence so why should evidence be grounds for dropping or changing them!? >;})P(

      (Emoticon for speaker is diabolical, winking, mustached, sticking up tongue and in theater.)

      Was the “scientist” a vegan perhaps?

      Reply
  6. JR62

    This study may have been the best one because the food came from hospital kitchen and (almost) no one could escape it. No need to remember what one ate last year an so on. You had to eat what was served even when it was going to kill you prematurely.

    “A few more funerals, and we may finally see the Lipid Hypothesis end up on the Scrap Heap of Wrong Ideas, where it clearly belongs.”

    I guess I’m not too mean if I hope they do eat as they teach and hastens the process.

    Reply
    1. Bob Weaver

      …and being mental patients, they had other things to think about than their mix of SFAs and PUFAs. Their keepers did all the thinking for them. Let’s face it, some nursing homes and virtually all mental wards are a lot like jails.

      Reply
  7. Tom Welsh

    “Collectively, the fuller results undermine the conventional wisdom regarding dietary fat that has persisted for decades…”

    Yes, just as the brilliant groundbreaking young researchers of the 1960s and 1970s “undermined the conventional wisdom” that meat, eggs and animal fats were good for you and that carbs put on weight. Everyone had known those things for at least a century – arguably, for many thousands of years.

    But there is a powerful mechanism at work in any organized society whereby the younger generation (especially of ambitious young men) long to refute the work of their fathers and demonstrate their own vast superiority. This is now powerfully reinforced by financial rewards – research that supports or elaborates the status quo is not rewarded, whereas research that leads to a “breakthrough” often is. Even if it’s wholly wrong and entirely harmful.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yup, and that desire for the young generation to reject and prove itself superior to the previous generations seems to have been especially strong in the 1960s. Must have been some weird alignment of the stars.

      Reply
      1. gollum

        Wasn’t around at the time, but wasn’t Mr. Keyes well dug in in the 60s already?
        He left his mark with the famous K-rations – I suppose to figure out which foods were energy dense they needed a real expert.
        That was in the early 1940s so I suppose he wasn’t a ‘stick it to the maaan’ freshman in 1967.

        Some people, I guess, just want to watch your arteries burn.

        Reply
          1. Jan Mrra

            There was also a push by tobacco companies to create “science” that proved cigarettes weren’t harmful. The government had nothing to do with that.

            Reply
            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              I believe you’re missing the point. Prosecuting people who produce papers you don’t like or don’t agree with isn’t the answer. Once you open that door, you’ve granted the government the power to stifle science. Do you really want the feds to have the power to prosecute scientists who disagree with the Lipid Hypothesis?

    2. Thomas E.

      The backside to this theory is that there is no money in suggesting people eat better and take fewer drugs.

      When they figure out how to monetize that, we will be better off.

      Reply
      1. Thomas E.

        If I may add, my last sentence there is problematic, how could we be happy enabling the drug company complex and medical establishment to somehow make more money off my family and I eating better, instead of taking drugs.

        arggggggg 😀

        Reply
    3. Alessandro

      “But there is a powerful mechanism at work in any organized society whereby the younger generation (especially of ambitious young men) long to refute the work of their fathers and demonstrate their own vast superiority. This is now powerfully reinforced by financial rewards…”

      This is very true.

      Everyone somewhat understands that the pharmaceutical industry is biased but these people are medical scientists. And when people like these individuals are clearly obscuring data, the collateral damage is far, far greater. This is why climate deniers and political charlatans exist in such high numbers. All they need is something like this to be used against anything that may effect their pocketbooks.

      For example:

      http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2015/s4442720.htm

      Frankly, it is difficult to watch the shear level of data manipulation.

      These people should lose all of their educational achievements including the universities that support them.

      Reply
  8. Dianne

    I can’t help wondering how long CW would have gone unchallenged, and how long these old studies would have stayed buried, if the internet hadn’t come along making it possible for just about anyone to be published, and for just about everyone to access their work. Would the movie Fat Head, or books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain even have seen the light of day? Well, whether the powers that be like it or not, the cat is out of the bag now, and the longer the pushers of hearthealthywholegrains and the crusaders against arterycloggingsaturatedfats dig their heels in, the sillier they look. If they can’t just ‘fess up and say “We wuz wrong” like adults, or at least use the excuse “we were misinformed and here are the facts and the evidence,” the best thing they could do would be to shut up and slink off into the sunset.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      As a journalism major in the 1980s, I learned about the power of the information gatekeepers. The internet came along and blew away the gates. No, I don’t think Fat Head would have gone anywhere while the gatekeepers were still in control.

      Reply
  9. The Older Brother

    It’s time to start using the SJW’s playbook against these %*^&#’s.

    How about we use Professional Moron and Democratic Senator (sorry — redundant) Sheldon Whitehouse’s approach as a blueprint. Here’s his reasoning for jailing Global Whatever heretics under the RICO act, and which Professional Moron and Democratic AG (I know. Can’t help myself) Loretta Lynch has instructed the Justice Department to consider:

    “Fossil fuel companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.

    Their activities are often compared to those of Big Tobacco denying the health dangers of smoking. Big Tobacco’s denial scheme was ultimately found by a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.

    The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.”

    A few minutes with the word processor and we have this:

    Fossil fuel Pharmaceutical, Agricultural, and Chemical companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm severe negative health consequences caused by carbon pollution a carbohydrate-laden diet, industrial food oils, and cholesterol lowering drugs.

    Their activities are often compared to those of Big Tobacco denying the health dangers of smoking. Big Tobacco’s denial scheme was ultimately found by a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.

    The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.”

    See — change out six words and we’re ready to go beat them with their own stick. While we’re at it, there’s no reason not to turn it around on the Global Whatever dogmatists:

    Fossil fuel companies Otherwise unemployable Global Whatever advocates and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.

    Their activities are often compared to those of Big Tobacco denying the health dangers of advertising health benefits for smoking. Big Tobacco’s scheme was ultimately found by a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.

    The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.”

    Could be fun.

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      “Peer review is supposed to be the quality assurance system for science, weeding out the scientifically unreliable and reassuring readers of journals that they can trust what they are reading,” Smith wrote. “In reality, however, it is ineffective, largely a lottery, anti-innovatory, slow, expensive, wasteful of scientific time, inefficient, easily abused, prone to bias, unable to detect fraud and irrelevant.”

      That pretty much says it.

      Reply
  10. Walter Bushell

    I needed to take multiple deep breaths after reading this. High blood pressure is bad for my health.

    Reply
  11. Ed

    I think that the only way the pharmaceutical companies, universities and so called “scientists” can ever admit they were wrong is if they received blanket immunity against all lawsuits and criminal charges that could result from such an admission.

    The research coming to light now, proves they knew they were wrong all along. they acted on ego and desire for profit above peoples welfare. In other words willfully fraudulent.

    Can you imagine the millions of potential lawsuits that would be filed by those harmed by their advice, not to mention being open to criminal charges. How could willingly and knowingly causing harm to others not be considered criminal?

    Reply
  12. Mark

    I love how they always point the finger at Ancel Keyes, completely ignoring their own complicity in the debacle of the lasy forty years. “Uh, nope, wasn’t us. Blame the dead guy”.

    Reply

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