Why understanding is important

The paperback version of my book, It’s All About the Food, was published in November, 2015. It was republished on Kindle in 2017. Between 2015 and now scientific research has continued unabated with me doing my best to keep up.

The book is purposely simple, intended to show how our diets have gotten so messed up and how that mess causes chronic illness. And it provides pretty basic nutritional information to help people avoid those conditions and remain healthy. In retrospect there are other things I wish I had included, a subject for another day.

The most depth in the book is in Chapter 10 – Cholesterol and Saturated Fat. I delved deeper for two reasons. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US and cholesterol/fat seemed to be associated with the condition. Medical treatment of “high cholesterol” is very common in the population yet few of us have even a cursory understanding of it.

Understanding and association are not the same.

If an old car speeds down your neighborhood street and runs over your child, we have a crisis. The condition of the road, weather, age and condition of the car, speed limit on the street, presence of children, and the driver are all associated with the crisis, no one of which is necessarily the one cause of the accident.

Something has to be done about this but what should it be? Without understanding the specifics of the accident, any number of steps could be taken with no assurance that life on your street will be significantly improved. We need to understand the problem scientifically.


Science has four parts. Collecting information, understanding the information (the mechanics of how something happens), hypothesizing how the understanding could be used (I wonder?), and testing the hypothesis to find out if it actually works as expected.

Sometimes scientists (and other humans) go straight to wondering without a clear understanding of “how that works.” A hypothesis needs to be tested with a trial to see if the belief can stand up to the test.

The following story shows what can happen when mechanisms aren’t understood, steps are taken without testing, and, in fact, testing after the fact was kept undercover.

The diet-heart hypothesis

In 1956 Ancel Keys directed the collection of information on the relationship between what people ate and the prevalence of coronary heart disease in 22 countries in the world. Of the 22 he selected 7 as the basis for what became known as the diet/heart hypothesis. He published a book called The Seven Countries Study in 1978.

Per the British Medical Journal (BMJ) this hypothesis “predicts that the serum cholesterol lowering effects of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil rich in linoleic acid will diminish deposition of cholesterol in the arterial wall, slow progression of atherosclerosis, reduce coronary heart disease events, and improve survival.”

Take note here that reducing serum cholesterol was presumed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Based on that presumption, saturated fat was hypothesized to be the middle man.

The amount of missing information and consequent misunderstandings here is substantial. At that time blood (serum) cholesterol was not a standard test broken down into LDL, triglycerides, HDL, particle numbers or size, measurements now known to be critical. Blood cholesterol was believed to be dependent on diet. We now know that is not true. Processed vegetable oils were perceived as positive. This is also questionable.

The Minnesota Coronary Experiment

A study was done comparing saturated fat to polyunsaturated corn oil in the diets of people in six Minnesota mental institutions. The Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968-1973). The expectation was that cardiovascular mortality would be lower in the polyunsaturated arm of the study,

Dietary guidelines

In 1976/77, well before study results were actually uncovered and published, Keys went to the McGovern US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs with his hypothesis. Eventually in a convoluted series of events and against the judgement of some scientists, the committee put forth a series of dietary goals.

Those dietary goals advised Americans to restrict their intake of especially saturated fats by eating 8 – 12 grain and cereal servings per day, replacing butter, lard, cheese, eggs, and meat.

Not surprisingly, the obesity crisis is reported to have begun in the 1980’s.

If you are interested in knowing more about this I suggest this link. https://thenoakesfoundation.org/news/ancel-keys-cholesterol-con-part-9-1976-1977

The study was released in 1989, 16 years later. long after the dietary guidelines were released.

Study Results

The initial study conclusions reported that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat did, indeed, reduce total cholesterol but had no impact on cardiovascular mortality. The ultimate disappearance and thus release delay is reported to be because the researchers were “disappointed” with the results.

In 2017 Christopher Ramsden unearthed unpublished information from the study and found other conclusions. “ that lowered cholesterol did not help people live longer. Instead, the lower cholesterol fell, the higher the risk of dying: 22 percent higher for every 30-point fall. Nor did the corn-oil group have less atherosclerosis or fewer heart attacks.”

Saturated fat was on cholesterol’s coattails as the cause of all things bad and is now on its last leg. For ~ 60 years some scientists have been trying, unsuccessfully, to prove the detriments of saturated fat. None the less, while dietary cholesterol guidelines are no longer emphasized, the other guidelines are still largely in place.

The American public went from eggs are good , to eggs are bad, to one egg a week might be okay, to the cholesterol you eat isn’t very important. Among you, my readers, is still someone who thinks they have to limit the number of eggs eaten.

Low Fat

That one little governmental fat admonition drove the commercial shift toward “low fat” products, a move that substituted sugar for fat. I doubt I have to explain why that was a really bad idea.

Trans Fats

That isn’t all. When the commercial food producers had to stop using saturated fat in their products, they turned to hydrogenating polyunsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat wouldn’t stay stable on the shelf and hydrogenation made the fat effectively saturated. Turned out that hydrogenation created trans fat. In 2015, after quite a battle, trans fats were declared unsafe.

Polyunsaturated Fats

The story goes on. As long as saturated fat is bad, they said, the restaurants shouldn’t be frying food in it. Reminding ourselves that saturated fats are very stable but polyunsaturated oils are not. So today most restaurants uses soybean oil, a polyunsaturated fat. Problem (there are several but here is one) with any polyunsaturated fat is that it oxidizes very easily when exposed to air, going rancid.

The fat in the deep fryer at your favorite restaurant might be there for a week. That’s a lot of air exposure along with a lot of heat. The bottle of vegetable oil in your pantry could be there for weeks, rancidity started the minute you opened the bottle.

None of this considers what happens when heat processed, polyunsaturated fats are introduced in the human body

The point here is that consequences can be huge when we make changes that we don’t understand.

Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Her books are available on Amazon, at Bob’s Food City in Mount Ida, and at the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry. Her website is http://www.allaboutthefood.org/ She can be contacted at patsmith2@live.com, 501-605-3902. Her Facebook page is www.facebook.com/patsmithbooks.