If Saturated Fat Is Back, We’ll Need More Cardiologists

By Joel Kahn, MD

While reading one of many recent articles declaring saturated fat is back, I practically choked on my oil-free hummus wrap and had to shake my head. Have we all lost our minds? I understand that newspaper articles and trade magazines, along with two meta-analyses, have announced that over 50 years of research was all wrong, but is there no contrarian opinion? As a university professor, interventional cardiologist, and medical director of one of the country’s largest plant-based support groups for disease reversal, I urge us not to ignore the other side of the story.

One of the reasons the pendulum has swung widely in favor of saturated fat is a meta-analysis published in 2010. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that a subsequent editorial found some notable flaws in that study. Similarly, the more recent pro-fat meta-analysis on the same topic by Chowdury et al. was criticized by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. In other words, unquestioningly calling butter, cheese, and meats health food heroes would be ignoring some very strong and reputable research to the contrary.

So why, then, has there been such a dramatic enthusiasm for saturated fats in the public mind, among health experts, and in selected research publications? One explanation might be funding. When industry groups back studies they invite a certain bias, as these stakeholders tend to gravitate to those most aligned with their goals, thereby flooding the literature with one perspective. Some years ago, for instance, the dairy industry made a goalto neutralize the negative impact of milkfat by regulators and medical professionals. One wonders if these industry professionals have been successful far beyond their expectations.

Regardless of where the public opinion force originates, it’s important to take into account what’s happening in the trenches. In 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology published updated guidelines, well after fat came back into fashion. Yet they actually tightened the recommendation for daily percentage of calories from saturated fats from seven percent to between five and six percent for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Further, concurrent to these pro-fat studies, there’s been compelling data from Dr. Dean Ornish and his co-workers on the reversal of heart disease using plant based diets with less than ten percent of calories from fats. At the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn found similar outcomes in heart patients. And anecdotally, I myself have been able to reverse diabetes in my patients by prescribing diets restricted in fats and oils. My patients feel great, lose weight, have excellent cognitive function, and maintain good hormone and vitamin D levels.

Michael Pollan famously said, “eat food, not too much, mainly plants.” Research supports this, too. As we work with our patients to not just treat, but also prevent disease, I would urge all of us to keep a balanced view of the data.

Dr. Joel Kahn practices interventional and preventive cardiology in Detroit. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, he lectures widely on the role of nutrition in health and medicine. He writes for Readers Digest Magazine as the Holistic Heart Doc, and is a frequent contributor to The Doctor Blog. His new book, Dead Execs Don’t Get Bonuses: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Your Career With a Healthy Heart, was just released on Kindle. Find Dr. Kahn at www.drjoelkahn.com and on Twitter:@drjkahn.