‘High-Fat’ Diets: Of Mice and Men

Take a look at these headlines from reports of a study that recently made a splash in the media.

From Science Daily:

Eating a High-Fat Diet May Rapidly Injure Brain Cells That Control Body Weight

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Fat affects brain’s ability to control weight: study

From Stuff (New Zealand):

Fatty foods may damage brain

Pretty scary, huh?  There you are, trying to lose weight on a low-carb/ high-fat diet, and now media headlines are warning that you may be damaging the part of your brain that controls weight.  Two of the articles were also accompanied by photos to represent the brain-damaging high-fat diets.  Here they are:

A cheeseburger, fish and chips.  Just keep those images in mind.

If you actually read the articles, you’ll quickly discover that the subjects of the study were mice and rats, not humans:

Thaler and his colleagues studied the brains of rodents for the short-term and long-term effects of eating a high-fat diet. After giving groups of six to 10 rats and mice a high-fat diet for periods from one day to eight months, the researchers performed detailed biochemical, imaging and cell sorting analyses on the animals’ brains.

If you keep reading, you’ll also discover that the brain-banging diet wasn’t exactly what you or I would consider high-fat:

Researchers studied rats and mice fed a high-fat diet – that is, one with a similar fat content to the average American diet – for periods varying between one day and eight months

Within the first three days of consuming a diet that had a similar fat content to the typical American diet, rats consumed nearly double their usual daily amount of calories, Thaler reported. Rats and mice fed the high-fat diet gained weight throughout the study. These rodents developed inflammation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain containing neurons that control body weight.

So “high fat” in this case means “similar fat content to the typical American diet.”  That would put it somewhere around 40%, which also happens to be around the same percentage of fat in many traditional diets around the world — diets that somehow failed to induce obesity or brain damage among the populations consuming them.

When readers began sending me links to articles about this study, I remembered that somewhere in my folders of downloads and bookmarks, I had a PDF document listing the ingredients in the “typical American diet” fed to laboratory rodents.  Took some time, but I located it.  The lab-animal diets are produced by TestDiet.com.  This description is from their own literature:

Western Diet For Rodents

A “Western” diet for rodents based on AIN-93G, providing 30% of fat from lard, 30% from butterfat, 30% from Crisco (hydrogenated vegetable oil), and for EFA, 7% from soybean oil and 3% from corn oil.  Approximate energy from fat 40%, carbohydrate 44%, protein 16%.

That’s not a high-fat diet by my standards — I probably get 60% of my calories from fat– but it’s certainly a high horrible-fat diet.  Of the fat calories, 40% come from hydrogenated oil, corn oil, and soybean oil.  In other words, oils that wouldn’t exist without the wonders of industrial extraction.  That may indeed represent the fat content of a typical American diet, but it sure doesn’t represent anything close to what typical low-carbers or paleo dieters would consume.  Nor does it represent the fat content of a cheeseburger.  (I don’t know about the fish and chips in Australia.  One of you down-under types can fill me in.)

The protein in this “typical American diet” comes almost entirely from casein.  That’s the isolated dairy protein T. Colin Campbell fed to rats to induce cancer, which inspired him to take an extreme leap in logic and declare that animal proteins (all of them, mind you) are bad for human health.  Rats, of course, don’t naturally consume dairy products … and they certainly don’t isolate one dairy protein and eat it.  They’re too lazy.

The carbohydrate in the lab-rat diet is nearly all corn starch, with the remainder consisting of sugar.  Other than that poor soul featured on Freaky Eaters who’s addicted to corn starch, I don’t believe this in any way represents a typical American diet.

So the headlines warn us a “high-fat diet” injures the brain cells that control weight.  In reality, it’s a diet in which nearly half of the calories come from sugar or corn starch, the protein is nearly all a single isolated dairy protein already known to cause cancer in rats, and 40% of the fat is industrial-grade vegetable sludge, most of it hydrogenated.

Sounds just like a cheeseburger, doesn’t it?

p.s. — I looked up the ingredients for the “Atkins diet” the company produces for rodent experiments as well.  The breakdown on the fats is the same:  30% lard, 30% butterfat, 30% Crisco, 7% soybean oil, 3% corn oil.  The protein is nearly all casein, all the carbohydrate is nearly all corn starch.  Same junk, different proportions.


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136 thoughts on “‘High-Fat’ Diets: Of Mice and Men

  1. Ricardo

    I found this interesting section of a article i was reading on Wikipedia for anyone interested. Basically saying fat is not linked to disease i guess. I wouldn’t suggest anyone go eat sausages and bacon though…

    A few studies have suggested that total dietary fat intake is linked to an increased risk of obesity[80][81] and diabetes.[82][83] However, a number of very large studies, including the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial, an eight year study of 49,000 women, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, revealed no such links.[84][85][86] None of these studies suggested any connection between percentage of calories from fat and risk of cancer, heart disease or weight gain. The Nutrition Source, a website maintained by the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, summarizes the current evidence on the impact of dietary fat: “Detailed research—much of it done at Harvard—shows that the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease.”[87]

    I would definitely tell people to go eat bacon and sausage.

  2. Beowulf

    So what these experiments really show us is that when an animal eats a diet they didn’t evolve to consume, there are detrimental effects. Thank you science, I’ll go enjoy my steak now.

    Exactly, and the same principle applies to humans. We weren’t meant to consume grains and canola oil.

  3. Levi

    Campbell’s casein study is even more dubious than you surmise. He fed isolated casein to rats in conjunction with aflatoxin, a known carcinogen produced by fungi that contaminate plant products (!). What he discovered was that if you added casein to the diet of rats already poisoned with a cancer causing agent instances of cancer increased further. In other words, isolated casein may bind with aflatoxin to increase it’s already carcinogenic effects. Therefore all meat causes cancer, obviously.

    He never mentions the fact that whey (also found in milk) has been shown to have a protective effect against cancer. This has been shown in isolation, not combined with, oh, I don’t know, let’s say chemotherapy.

    A case of proving what he wanted to prove.

  4. Quinlan

    Sometimes I have to wonder if when researchers/journalists say “fatty foods” when what they really mean is “Foods that fatties eat” aka the SAD. 😀

    They think anything over the government-recommended 30% makes for a high-fat diet.

  5. Keoni Galt

    Another great expose of the media misinformation juggernaut and the role it plays in getting people to believe lies about nutrition and health.

    If anything, studies like this show that a diet high in MAN-MADE Fats can be quite dangerous to human health.

    Indeed. The higher the fat content, the more Crisco. No wonder mice and rats have so many ailments on that diet.

  6. Princess Dieter

    The entrenchment of bias is amazing. How can educated, intelligent folks not even have the sense to look at these things more comprehensively? I mean, it’s enough to make one a conspiracy theorist….except that the ability of humans to be incredible doofuses keeps me from roaming into tin-foil hat territory….Geesh.

    I bang my head on my desk to keep from wearing a tin hat.

  7. gallier2

    A propos the casein effect of Colon Campbell you should read the latest post of Peter Dobromylskyj, hilarious.

    http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com/2011/06/mice-and-breast-cancer.html?showComment=1308386170742#c6442854080356339551

    They used isolated casein to prevent cancer and it worked, ha ha.

    To remember, Chris Masterjohn deconstructed Campbell’s rat studies last year, casein is not carcinogenic, aflatoxin is. The Campbell studies are fraudulent, he induced cancer in rodents with aflatoxin, his control were undernourished (deficient in proteins) and the one that got casein had twice as much protein as the control, allowing the cancer to thrive (because cancer cell need protein too to grow).
    The cancer free rats died of malnutrition before their cancer go them.

  8. Greg

    This is probably how it went, but we don’t really know that this particular study was done with the ingredients mentioned by that specific company from the PDF, it sounds like…I would hope that buried in the study somewhere is what they actually fed the rats.

    From what I’ve read, most of the lab-animal experiments use pre-formulated lab chow.

  9. Ricardo

    I found this interesting section of a article i was reading on Wikipedia for anyone interested. Basically saying fat is not linked to disease i guess. I wouldn’t suggest anyone go eat sausages and bacon though…

    A few studies have suggested that total dietary fat intake is linked to an increased risk of obesity[80][81] and diabetes.[82][83] However, a number of very large studies, including the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial, an eight year study of 49,000 women, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, revealed no such links.[84][85][86] None of these studies suggested any connection between percentage of calories from fat and risk of cancer, heart disease or weight gain. The Nutrition Source, a website maintained by the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, summarizes the current evidence on the impact of dietary fat: “Detailed research—much of it done at Harvard—shows that the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease.”[87]

    I would definitely tell people to go eat bacon and sausage.

  10. Beowulf

    So what these experiments really show us is that when an animal eats a diet they didn’t evolve to consume, there are detrimental effects. Thank you science, I’ll go enjoy my steak now.

    Exactly, and the same principle applies to humans. We weren’t meant to consume grains and canola oil.

  11. Levi

    Campbell’s casein study is even more dubious than you surmise. He fed isolated casein to rats in conjunction with aflatoxin, a known carcinogen produced by fungi that contaminate plant products (!). What he discovered was that if you added casein to the diet of rats already poisoned with a cancer causing agent instances of cancer increased further. In other words, isolated casein may bind with aflatoxin to increase it’s already carcinogenic effects. Therefore all meat causes cancer, obviously.

    He never mentions the fact that whey (also found in milk) has been shown to have a protective effect against cancer. This has been shown in isolation, not combined with, oh, I don’t know, let’s say chemotherapy.

    A case of proving what he wanted to prove.

  12. Quinlan

    Sometimes I have to wonder if when researchers/journalists say “fatty foods” when what they really mean is “Foods that fatties eat” aka the SAD. 😀

    They think anything over the government-recommended 30% makes for a high-fat diet.

  13. Keoni Galt

    Another great expose of the media misinformation juggernaut and the role it plays in getting people to believe lies about nutrition and health.

    If anything, studies like this show that a diet high in MAN-MADE Fats can be quite dangerous to human health.

    Indeed. The higher the fat content, the more Crisco. No wonder mice and rats have so many ailments on that diet.

  14. xtrocious

    Most people are like sheep, or rather, they rather be like sheep, with the government (or anyone in authority) telling them what to eat, what to do and basically leave the “heavy” thinking to others…

    And when things do inevitably go wrong, they also have a nice big fat target (pun intended) i.e. someone else to blame but themselves…

  15. Princess Dieter

    The entrenchment of bias is amazing. How can educated, intelligent folks not even have the sense to look at these things more comprehensively? I mean, it’s enough to make one a conspiracy theorist….except that the ability of humans to be incredible doofuses keeps me from roaming into tin-foil hat territory….Geesh.

    I bang my head on my desk to keep from wearing a tin hat.

  16. gallier2

    A propos the casein effect of Colon Campbell you should read the latest post of Peter Dobromylskyj, hilarious.

    http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com/2011/06/mice-and-breast-cancer.html?showComment=1308386170742#c6442854080356339551

    They used isolated casein to prevent cancer and it worked, ha ha.

    To remember, Chris Masterjohn deconstructed Campbell’s rat studies last year, casein is not carcinogenic, aflatoxin is. The Campbell studies are fraudulent, he induced cancer in rodents with aflatoxin, his control were undernourished (deficient in proteins) and the one that got casein had twice as much protein as the control, allowing the cancer to thrive (because cancer cell need protein too to grow).
    The cancer free rats died of malnutrition before their cancer go them.

  17. Be

    I’m very glad to see you getting some advertising support and hope you make a killing but I am amused with the Jillian Michaels ad. I’ll pass on her plan and keep reading you instead. Thanks for breaking down another set of flawed conclusions.

    We have those spots reserved for whatever Google decides to put there. They make some strange choices.

  18. Greg

    This is probably how it went, but we don’t really know that this particular study was done with the ingredients mentioned by that specific company from the PDF, it sounds like…I would hope that buried in the study somewhere is what they actually fed the rats.

    From what I’ve read, most of the lab-animal experiments use pre-formulated lab chow.

  19. David

    Hi Tom, “Down-under-type” here…we generally don’t have a lot of soybean or corn oil down here. We don’t grow a lot of either so they are not big in our food supply (unless in imported products). Hydrogenated oils aren’t popular here either, at least now – while they haven’t been legally outlawed as far as i know, they have been phased out in favor of other oils.

    Our oils-of-death “du jour” tend to be canola and cottonseed oils. In my state you can drive in the country and see miles and miles of golden little flowers patch-worked together with miles and miles of wheat…

    So anything deep fried (like fish & chips) are generally cooked in canola or cottonseed oils. What really irks me, is that I occasionally see cooking oil recycling trucks driving around. They have signs emblazoned on their sides claiming to “refresh your cooking oil and cut costs”. Geez! Let’s just make a unhealthy “food” even deadlier!

    Ugh … recycled canola oil. I think I just lost my appetite.

  20. Nina

    During a recent mouse infestation I noticed the mice avoided normal carbs and sugars but prised open a box of Splenda and dug in.

    They’re probably dieting.

  21. xtrocious

    Most people are like sheep, or rather, they rather be like sheep, with the government (or anyone in authority) telling them what to eat, what to do and basically leave the “heavy” thinking to others…

    And when things do inevitably go wrong, they also have a nice big fat target (pun intended) i.e. someone else to blame but themselves…

  22. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat Pe

    Oh come on, Tom, you’re being unreasonable and you know it. Doing a legitimate controlled study of humans, comparing the effects of various whole foods in different proportions, would be really, really hard. They have to simplify things a little so they can get publishable results within one day to eight months.

    Wait … was that one day to eight months? Are they freaking kidding? So it’s not humans, it’s not a remotely realistic diet, it’s not actually high fat, and it’s not long-term. But I’m supposed to believe it proves anything about me and what I eat. Okay, got it. I’ll just turn off my brain and listen to the people in the white coats.

    These are very useful studies. After reading this one, I stopped frying corn starch in Crisco for breakfast.

  23. Ricardo

    I dont know i think its misleading to say sausages and bacon and red meat are a health food. Especially for people with heart troubles… Dr. Barry Sears says we should replace saturated fat with omega 3 and monounsaturated fat. Because saturated fat can cause cellular inflammation and can induce insulin resistance and while Monounsaturated fats and Omega 3s lead to higher insulin sensitivity.

    Lots of people say we should avoid saturated fats. The only problem is that the evidence doesn’t back them up.

  24. Amy Dungan

    For the love of pete, crisco? And that diet, while high in man-made fats, was also still high in carbohydrates (44%). Excuse me while I go get my helmet…

    My helmet’s developing cracks. Time for a new one.

  25. Milton

    I suppose the irony is that misleading articles like that one will encourage people to eat even less natural fat and more vegetable oil, which will probably do more damage to their brains and nervous system (including an elevated risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s and possibly Parkinson’s) than a diet rich in natural fats.

    Good thing you eat a diet rich in the nutrients that your brain needs, Tom. Otherwise you’d be in pretty rough shape from banging your head against the desk.

    It’s the bacon and steaks that are saving me, no doubt.

  26. Elizabeth

    The same thing happened with infant formula. Man thought they could make something better than what nature already had. My grandmother was told NOT to nurse her babies because it was “barbaric”. Interesting though now that they are finally saying nursing is best for baby. Too bad there has already been a huge amount of damage done. (BTW I am NOT bashing formula users as I used it myself and I know many mothers need it. BUT if I had it to do over again…)

    Barbaric?! Oh my … my wife is a savage.

  27. Lori

    As Chris Masterjohn has pointed out, the rat diet you mention is also pretty much void of micronutrients.
    http://blog.cholesterol-and-health.com/2011/01/widely-publicized-studies-show-purified.html

    If I remember right, this is how some “studies” showing the benefits of various wonder foods come about: one group of rodents is fed the low-nutrient diet, another group is fed the low-nutrient diet plus something with nutrients in it and does better.

    Another case of designing a study to produce the results you want.

  28. Be

    I’m very glad to see you getting some advertising support and hope you make a killing but I am amused with the Jillian Michaels ad. I’ll pass on her plan and keep reading you instead. Thanks for breaking down another set of flawed conclusions.

    We have those spots reserved for whatever Google decides to put there. They make some strange choices.

  29. Nowhereman

    “For the love of pete, crisco? And that diet, while high in man-made fats, was also still high in carbohydrates (44%). Excuse me while I go get my helmet…”

    “My helmet’s developing cracks. Time for a new one.”

    Heh. Maybe you two should invest in a desk with a built-in air bag and sensor system for times like this. 😀

  30. David

    Hi Tom, “Down-under-type” here…we generally don’t have a lot of soybean or corn oil down here. We don’t grow a lot of either so they are not big in our food supply (unless in imported products). Hydrogenated oils aren’t popular here either, at least now – while they haven’t been legally outlawed as far as i know, they have been phased out in favor of other oils.

    Our oils-of-death “du jour” tend to be canola and cottonseed oils. In my state you can drive in the country and see miles and miles of golden little flowers patch-worked together with miles and miles of wheat…

    So anything deep fried (like fish & chips) are generally cooked in canola or cottonseed oils. What really irks me, is that I occasionally see cooking oil recycling trucks driving around. They have signs emblazoned on their sides claiming to “refresh your cooking oil and cut costs”. Geez! Let’s just make a unhealthy “food” even deadlier!

    Ugh … recycled canola oil. I think I just lost my appetite.

  31. Chris Wiz

    They should call this what it really is – and industrialized processed food diet. Which I think we would agree IS immensely unhealthy.

    Is there a single item of natural, whole food on the list that represents what a mouse actually would prefer to eat?

    The lard and butter are natural, but I doubt mice living outside a lab consume much of either.

  32. Nina

    During a recent mouse infestation I noticed the mice avoided normal carbs and sugars but prised open a box of Splenda and dug in.

    They’re probably dieting.

  33. Ricardo

    So if i person said they were just gonna eat Monounsaturated and Omega 3 and Polyunsaturated and mostly vegetables with little to no saturated fat would that be a bad thing?

    I don’t believe that would be ideal. Saturated fat is an important nutrient, and too many polyunsaturated fats (depending on the source) can cause inflammation.

  34. Erica

    Geez! The low-fat people are REALLY clinging to their paradigm, aren’t they? It’s time to get with the truth that saturated fats are our friends. Over on your fb page, we’re discussing Meaty Mondays, T-bone Tuesdays, & Fat Fridays to combat the Meatless Mondays people.

    Here in Ireland, many people look at me like I have 2 heads when I say I’m not eating any grains (no bread, no cakes, no ‘biscuits’) and eat butter as a snack. The local butcher, however, grins from ear to ear when I ask for the fatty pork chops and the free pork fat so I can make my own lard and cracklin’s. (Of course, he’s terribly overweight, probably from all the bread, cakes, and biscuits he eats with his protein and fat).

    Excellent. Don’t forget the Sausage Sundays.

  35. Brad C. Hodson

    Completely off topic, but I read the passage below earlier and thought it was yet another nail in the coffin for the “calories in – calories out” theory. As a preface HIIT is high-intensity interval training (say doing four to six 30 sec sprints and resting for 2 minutes in between rather than jogging for half an hour). Most researchers believe the results from HIIT come from its effect on the body’s hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin) – much like a high fat diet. Hmmm…. Anyway, passage below – note how many more calories the people who lost less weight shed.

    “One of the first studies to discover that HIIT was more effective for fat loss was done in 1994 study by researchers at Laval University (Ste-Foy, Quebec, Canada). They reported that young men and women who followed a 15-week HIIT program lost significantly more body fat than those following a 20-week continuous steady-state endurance program. This, despite the fact that the steady-state program burned about 15,000 calories more than the HIIT program.”

    Bingo. It’s about the hormones.

  36. Andy

    Tom, if you started each day with a juicy steak attached to your forehead, it would save you some pain when you smack your head on the desk. As a bonus, it would tenderize the steak.

    I love it. It’s very efficient.

  37. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    Oh come on, Tom, you’re being unreasonable and you know it. Doing a legitimate controlled study of humans, comparing the effects of various whole foods in different proportions, would be really, really hard. They have to simplify things a little so they can get publishable results within one day to eight months.

    Wait … was that one day to eight months? Are they freaking kidding? So it’s not humans, it’s not a remotely realistic diet, it’s not actually high fat, and it’s not long-term. But I’m supposed to believe it proves anything about me and what I eat. Okay, got it. I’ll just turn off my brain and listen to the people in the white coats.

    These are very useful studies. After reading this one, I stopped frying corn starch in Crisco for breakfast.

  38. Ricardo

    I dont know i think its misleading to say sausages and bacon and red meat are a health food. Especially for people with heart troubles… Dr. Barry Sears says we should replace saturated fat with omega 3 and monounsaturated fat. Because saturated fat can cause cellular inflammation and can induce insulin resistance and while Monounsaturated fats and Omega 3s lead to higher insulin sensitivity.

    Lots of people say we should avoid saturated fats. The only problem is that the evidence doesn’t back them up.

  39. Amy Dungan

    For the love of pete, crisco? And that diet, while high in man-made fats, was also still high in carbohydrates (44%). Excuse me while I go get my helmet…

    My helmet’s developing cracks. Time for a new one.

  40. Milton

    I suppose the irony is that misleading articles like that one will encourage people to eat even less natural fat and more vegetable oil, which will probably do more damage to their brains and nervous system (including an elevated risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s and possibly Parkinson’s) than a diet rich in natural fats.

    Good thing you eat a diet rich in the nutrients that your brain needs, Tom. Otherwise you’d be in pretty rough shape from banging your head against the desk.

    It’s the bacon and steaks that are saving me, no doubt.

  41. gallier2

    The cancer free rats died of malnutrition before their cancer go them.

    “The casein free rats” I meant

  42. Mike

    Tom, if you keep blogging this way you should invest in an inflatable desk, so banging your head becomes enjoyable [considering how often it happens] 🙂

    Maybe just move your desk into one of those inflatable jump-houses…

    I’ll have to look into one of those.

  43. SallyMyles

    My Great Aunt used to own a fabulous fish and chip shop. Her batter was legendary and all foods were cooked in lard or tallow, you knew this because the grease on the plate would solidify if left… nowadays she is long gone and our local fish and chip shop clearly use some kind of vegetable oil as it never ‘sets’ at room temperature. There are no shops in my area that use lard or tallow, more’s the pity. I’ve ditched all veg oils apart from olive, I use coconut oil and I save the fat from roasting a chicken, I believe Jewish people call it schmaltz. It sits in a ramekin in the fridge and seems to keep remarkably well without going rancid. Waste not, want not, I think.
    Oh and in the UK, some people buy the leftover oil from chippies to use in their cars instead of diesel as diesel is so expensive. Everyone’s a winner as the chippies don’t have to pay to dispose of their frankenfat.

    I stopped enjoying foods like fish and chips many years ago and assumed it was just my taste buds growing up. Now I believe it may have been that restaurants switching to vegetable oils.

  44. Stacie

    Low HDL is a risk factor for heart disease. I think it really is a health marker. The thing that raises HDL is the thing that is healthy, not necessarily HDL itself. The only thing that raises HDL( besides Niaspan, torcetrapib,etc) is saturated fat. So, it is the saturated fat that is healthy. Chemically raising HDL causes heart attacks and death, so I say “go for the saturated fat.”

  45. Elizabeth

    The same thing happened with infant formula. Man thought they could make something better than what nature already had. My grandmother was told NOT to nurse her babies because it was “barbaric”. Interesting though now that they are finally saying nursing is best for baby. Too bad there has already been a huge amount of damage done. (BTW I am NOT bashing formula users as I used it myself and I know many mothers need it. BUT if I had it to do over again…)

    Barbaric?! Oh my … my wife is a savage.

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