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We Win! TIME Magazine Officially Recants (“Eat Butter…Don’t Blame Fat”), And Quotes Me

It’s been 30 years and three months since TIME Magazine’s infamous “Cholesterol…And Now The Bad News” cover featured the bacon-and-eggs frowny face—the arresting image which firmly institutionalized fat and cholesterol-phobia in America:

Cholesterol: And Now The Bad News...

The face that launched a million failed diets.

Meanwhile, my parents recently visited something even rarer than a paleo-friendly doctor—they visited a doctor whose office features current magazines in the waiting room. In it, they spotted the June 23, 2014 issue of TIME magazine, featuring the following cover story:

Click to read the cover story (requires TIME online subscription)

Link to cover story (requires TIME online subscription)

Yes, the cover reads:

Eat Butter.
Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong


and the first page of the article is titled
Don’t Blame Fat

The contents of the article won’t be a surprise to anyone in the Paleo community, the low-carb community, the WAPF, or anyone who has taken the time to evaluate the science and statistics on their own: thirty years of low-fat dogma has produced a nation fatter and sicker than ever, and the “science” supporting the dogma wasn’t science at all. What I find interesting are the implications and consequences of the article, so please permit me to discuss a few of them.

This Is The Tipping Point

The message on the cover could not be more stark: “Eat Butter.”

Given that opening salvo, we can expect to see Drs. Westman, Lustig, Phinney and Volek make an appearance…but the article also quotes Drs. David Ludwig, Rajiv Chowdhury, and Dariush Mozaffarian, all lead authors of recent, high-impact research papers questioning different aspects of low-fat dogma. (Several of which I’ve read and previously cited.)

And, despite the predictable grousing from vegans like Dean Ornish (who, predictably, moves the goalposts away from health issues and blames meat-eaters for environmental destruction), it’s clear that the current crop of public policy heavyweights can see that the anti-fat ship has long since crashed into a massive iceberg of scientific evidence, and are scrambling for the lifeboats

—the most comical example of such being Walter Willett, who claims “he was sitting on a piece of contrary evidence that none of the leading American science journals would publish.” Dude, you’ve been the chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health since 1991, at which time you already had your name on over 140 published papers. If you were sitting on data that exonerated saturated fat, it’s because you prioritized advancing your own career over public health.

Again, nothing in this article will be news to any of my readers! What I find interesting is that the mainstream academic establishment, and with it, the mainstream mass media, is finally abandoning low-fat dogma. This is a clear tipping point in the dietary debate.

Don’t Expect Public Policy To Change

Unfortunately, we can expect the US government to be the last to change, for two reasons: governments have zero accountability, and massive agricultural subsidies produce a massive surplus of grains that need to be disposed of somehow. This means several problems will continue to bedevil us:

  • Obesity research, which is mostly NIH-funded, will therefore continue to be mostly useless.
  • The government-issued low-fat dietary recommendations will continue shambling well into the 21st century, like a glassy-eyed horde of zombies. (“GRAAAAAAAAAAAINS!”)
  • Consequently, school lunches will continue to be crypto-vegetarian, protein-deficient piles of birdseed (also known as “hearthealthywholegrains”) and limp steamed vegetables. As I said years ago, long before the new school lunch regulations, “Expect school lunches to become even more disgusting and empty of nutrition. If you want your child to grow up healthy, expect to help them pack a lunch every day. Expect to be grilled by suspicious administrators who think you’re damaging your child by feeding them real food.”
  • Unhealthy packaged foods, made from heavily subsidized corn, soy, and wheat, will remain artifically cheap—while real food like fruit, vegetables, and grass-finished beef (which remains unsubsidized) will remain expensive by comparison. As a result, the health of Americans will continue to suffer.

Who Gets The Blame For Killing Millions Of People Over Three Decades?

Given the millions of dead and the incalculable suffering caused by what Philip Handler correctly called “a vast nutritional experiment”:

“What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”

-Dr. Philip Handler, then-President of the National Academy of Sciences, in Senate testimony to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1977. (Yes, the one that came up with the original low-fat, low-cholesterol Dietary Goals for the United States. Quote via Gary Taubes.)

One might ask “Will there be any accountability for what amounts to mass murder?

As we’ve seen above, the answer is “No”…and the current solution seems to be “We’ll blame it all on Ancel Keys, because he’s dead.” Yet with few exceptions, the academic and professional establishments fell in line rather than risk their own political standing by confronting dogma they suspected (or, in many cases, knew definitively) to be wrong.

Don’t Expect Any Credit

You’ll notice that no one gets quoted in TIME on public health matters without an MD or PhD and a long, mainstream academic or public policy career (the single exception being Nina Teicholz, whose book “The Big Fat Surprise” was just published by a major New York house.) So don’t hold your breath for people like Drs. Mary Enig, Malcolm Kendrick, Uffe Ravnskov, Michael Eades, or John Briffa (let alone John Yudkin or Wolfgang Lutz) to get any credit, even though they all have MDs and/or PhDs.

The article doesn’t even mention Gary Taubes, who single-handedly brought fat back into the public discourse with his 2001 article “What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie?” and his 2007 book “Good Calories, Bad Calories”…so I predict that hell will freeze over before any Paleo source gets any mainstream credit for our work. (I know NPR journalists who tried to get an article on Paleo pubished for years, and failed.) Besides, the press has spent too much time and effort mocking Paleo with “CAVEMAN DIET HURRR DURRRR” to back out now.

This tells you what you should already know: it’s nice to have the support because it makes your eating habits less socially awkward—but the mainstream press is a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator.

J. Stanton Quoted In TIME Magazine! (By Proxy)

I laughed when I saw this quote in the article, and so will many of my readers:

“A bagel is no different than a bag of Skittles to your body,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian.

The analogy is straight out of one of my most popular articles (“Mechanisms of Sugar Addiction: Or, Why You’re Addicted To Bread”), published way back in 2010, and which still gets tens of thousands of page views every month:

At the risk of quoting myself, I'll quote myself.

At the risk of quoting myself, I’ll quote myself.

No, I’m not mad! I’ve cited Dr. Mozaffarian’s work before, I’m proud that he’s among my many readers—and it’s a remarkably sticky analogy that gets an important point across to TIME’s tens of millions of readers worldwide.

Most importantly, I understand the rules of the game: since I have no MD, PhD, or high-level public policy career, my research and information will only reach the mainstream media through an intermediary with such official standing.

PROTIP: Anyone can thank me by slipping me online access to journals via an academic or professional account. Your help will remain confidential.

The Mainstream Authorities Often Aren’t Very Smart

From the TIME article:

“When you replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, you lower LDL cholesterol,” says Dr. Robert Eckel, a past president of the AHA and a co-author of the group’s recent guidelines. “That’s all I need to know.”

Actually, if you’re tasked with recommending dietary guidelines to an entire nation, I’m sure you need to know much more than that—starting with the fact that TG/HDL is a much stronger predictor of heart disease than LDL. For example:

Circulation. 1997 Oct 21;96(8):2520-5.
Fasting triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein, and risk of myocardial infarction.
Gaziano JM, Hennekens CH, O’Donnell CJ, Breslow JL, Buring JE.
(fulltext)

“…The ratio of triglycerides to HDL was a strong predictor of myocardial infarction (RR in the highest compared with the lowest quartile=16.0; 95% CI=7.7 to 33.1; P for trend <.001).      [...] Adjustment for available coronary risk factors did not materially alter the results.      [...] Further adjustment for LDL did not materially alter the results.

No, that isn’t a typo! The highest 25% of TG/HDL ratio carries 16 TIMES GREATER RISK of a heart attack than the lowest 25%. And LDL wasn’t significant.

Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2008 Aug;63(4):427-32.
High ratio of triglycerides to HDL-cholesterol predicts extensive coronary disease.
da Luz PL1, Favarato D, Faria-Neto JR Jr, Lemos P, Chagas AC.
(fulltext)

“The odds ratios for the extent of coronary disease between the fourth and first quartiles were as follows: total cholesterol, 1.08, 95%CI (0.57–2.03), p = 0.87; LDL-c, 1.62, 95%CI (0.86–3.06), p = 0.15; triglycerides, 1.7, 95%CI (0.94–3.08), p = 0.986; HDL-c, 0.25, 95%CI (0.13–0.46), p = 0.0001; and TG/HDL-c, 3.31, 95%CI (1.78–6.14), p = 0.0002 (Figure 1).
     […]
The relationship was not significant between extent of coronary disease and total cholesterol [1.25 (0.82–1.91; p = 0.33)] or LDL-c [1.47 (0.96–2.25; p = 0.0842)].”

So the actual, measured extent of coronary disease is best predicted by TG/HDL—while neither TC or LDL (universally and erroneously known as “bad cholesterol”) is significantly predictive.

Bonus Question: What dietary modification most efficiently reduces triglycerides and increases HDL?

Answer: Replacing dietary carbohydrate with saturated fat. (Extra credit for MCTs.)

The evidence is clear: the paleo community is many years ahead of the “mainstream”, and degrees don’t magically make you smart. Meanwhile, expect to see a great deal of backing-and-filling from the AHA, the ADA, and other alphabet-soup organizations in the future.

It’s also very important to remember that the political skills required to ascend to the level of policy-making don’t usually correlate with the skills required to rationally evaluate existing evidence and determine the best course of action—and even if one is capable of it, that telling the truth is rarely compatible with advancing one’s political standing.

Bonus Section: From the “I’m Right” Files

Mol Metab. 2013 Aug 19;2(4):329-36. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2013.08.003.
The hormonal signature of energy deficit: Increasing the value of food reward.
Lockie SH1, Andrews ZB.
(fulltext)

“As outlined in Section 1, using the catch-all term of ‘reward’ to describe all mesolimbic processes has led to confusion in the literature.”

The attentive reader will note that I made this very point, and dissected this very subject at length, way back in 2011 (index to my article series “Why Are We Hungry?” here), and I summarized and extended my work at AHS 2012 (video, text). For example:

“It is also very important to note that what is colloquially called “reward” is a mashing together of hedonic impact and incentive salience. Both vary independently, and both are subjective properties—so the term “food reward”, which implies a singular property of the food itself, is intrinsically misleading…

““Palatability” and “reward” are not properties of food. Our likes and wants are subjective properties we assign to food based on our past experiences, and our current state of satiation and satiety.”

-J. Stanton, AHS 2012

Moving on:

“Energy deficit serves to alter motivational state by increasing the incentive salience of certain reinforcers. […] This ultimately manifests as increased motivation to work for a reinforcer, and serves to alter the incentive salience of food in line with metabolic need. [Emphasis mine]” -Lockie 2013

Stated simply, hunger makes food more “rewarding.” I think I’ve said that before!

(Further reading: Hopkins 2014, Domingos 2013, my AHS2012 bibliography.)

Important note: I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism or uncredited appropriation! I’m happy to see that my work is beginning to be confirmed by work done within the academic research community.

At the present rate, I predict you’ll start to see people other than myself, Petro at Hyperlipid, Mike T Nelson, and a few exercise physiologists discover the importance of metabolic flexibility somewhere around 2018. Remember: you heard it here first.

Conclusions

  • Paleo and its offshoots (Primal, Perfect Health Diet) are still years ahead of the academic research, and even farther ahead of mainstream dietary advice.
  • The political savvy required to become a Recognized Authority is frequently unaccompanied by the keenest analytical mind or a burning desire to seek truth…and telling the truth is often incompatible with political advancement.
  • The mainstream of academia, politics, and the press will continue to pretend they weren’t simply, devastatingly wrong for decades, causing the deaths of millions and incalculable suffering—and that it was all Ancel Keys’ fault.
  • Don’t count on receiving any credit for having been correct long before it was popular, or even acceptable. Accept that eating like a predator, and living like a predator, is its own reward.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS


Yes, I’ll be writing more articles soon! Meanwhile, there’s much more to read in the index.

Also, I’ve updated and revamped the forum and commenting software. Hopefully comments should still work as they always have: please let me know (through the Contact link above) if you experience problems.

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Bonus Update: Stronger For My Mistakes

An alert reader found an error I made in my deconstruction of the “Fatty domestic meats” section of “Origins and evolution of the Western diet” (Cordain et. al.) So I had to take a deeper look at the numbers…and as a result of what I found, my article has expanded so greatly that it’s practically a new article!

I believe my case is far stronger than it was before. Read the new version here: “When The Conclusions Don’t Match The Data: Even Loren Cordain Whiffs It Sometimes, Because Saturated Fat Is Most Definitely Paleo (Updated)”

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When The Conclusions Don't Match The Data: Even Loren Cordain Whiffs It Sometimes, Because Saturated Fat Is Most Definitely Paleo (Updated)

(Note: This article has been revised, extended, and greatly improved as a result of an error caught by an alert commenter.)

Caution: contains SCIENCE

Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century
Loren Cordain, S Boyd Eaton, Anthony Sebastian, Neil Mann, Staffan Lindeberg, Bruce A Watkins, James H O’Keefe and Janette Brand-Miller.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81, No. 2, 341-354, February 2005

This paper is basically all you need to know about why paleo diets work, and why they are the most healthy diet possible…

…with one exception. The authors make a giant mistake by regurgitating the “saturated fat is bad” dogma, even though their own data refutes it.

First example: in the subsection “Fatty domestic meats”, they claim that wild game is much leaner than feedlot cattle (this is true)—and then claim it is much lower in SFAs (saturated fatty acids), which is false according to their own data!

Click to zoom. Image ©2005 AJCN.

In Fig. 6, showing seasonal variation in caribou body fat, caribou at their leanest (in April) contain 9% saturated, 8% monounsaturated, and 2% polyunsaturated fats—a fat profile of 47% SFA, 42% MUFA, and 11% PUFA. At their fattest (in October), they contain 33% SFA, 29% MUFA, and 5% PUFA, or a fat profile of 49% SFA, 43% MUFA, and 8% PUFA.

Here are their claims:

“Because subcutaneous and abdominal body fat stores are depleted during most of the year in wild animals, PUFAs and MUFAs ordinarily constitute most of the total carcass fat (11). [False: half the carcass is SFA. 47%/53% and 49%/51% equal 1/2 within the precision of their data set.] MUFAs and PUFAs are the dominant fats in the edible carcass of caribou for all 12 mo of the year, as illustrated in Figure 6 (11, 60-65). [False again: as shown above, there is as much SFA as MUFA and PUFA combined.] Because of the seasonal cyclic depletion of SFAs and enrichment of PUFAs and MUFAs, [What seasonal depletion? 49% to 47% is insignificant, being well within the rounding error of the percentages they use in the table] a year-round dietary intake of high amounts of SFAs would have not been possible for preagricultural hominins preying on wild mammals. [False again! The table of fat content Cordain uses assumes that hunters selected an animal purely at random from the herd, which is nonsensical.]

In other words, every claim in this paragraph is factually false according to the authors’ own data!

Hunters Didn’t Choose Random Animals

My last statement clearly requires justification. Let’s look at hunting strategies used by actual Late Pleistocene caribou hunters, to whom Cordain presumably refers. (Hat tip to Peter at Hyperlipid for the reference.)

Subsistence strategies and economy in the Magdalenian of the Paris Basin.
In: R.N.E. Barton, A.J. Roberts and D.A. Roe, eds., The Late Glacial of Northwest Europe: Human Adaptation and Environmental Change at the End of the Pleistocene, pp. 63-71.
Council for British Archaeology Research Reports 77, London.
(alternate location, easier to read but in two parts: part 1, part 2)

The age distribution is dominated by prime adults, suggesting selection of individuals to be killed. At Le Flageolet although males are present, females appear to be more numerous, which is consistent with individual encounter hunting in the winter, due to their superior nutritional state after the rut.

“[At Pincevent and Verberie,] The toothwear for the one and two year old individuals indicates that the kill took place during the autumn at both sites … The large size of the kill and the season point towards a hunt related to the autumn migration (at least at Verberie).”

“The primary use made of reindeer [note: reindeer = caribou] was, of course, nutritional. The autumn hunts indicated by the dental eruption sequences at Pincevent and Verberie would be designed to exploit the prey in its best condition of the entire year. The summer forage would have fattened up the herd to its maximum annual weight, and even more importantly, to its highest fat content. Both meat and marrow are important for the diets of reindeer hunters. Speth and Spielmann’s arguments (1983) about the desirability of fat in the diet are particularly pertinent for cold climate hunter/gatherers in the winter. The fat in marrow can supply twice as many calories per gram as protein can, and can allow efficient metabolism of the protein from meat. There are no whole bones in the faunal assemblages from Pincevent or Verberie. There are abundant impact fractures, systematically placed to open the medullary cavities for the extraction of marrow.” [Note: marrow is very high in fat.]

This behavior is shared by all other known hunting cultures:

Jack Brink, Northern Plains archeologist, from his masterwork “Imagining Head Smashed In”:

“Fat, not meat, was the food source most sought after by all Plains Aboriginal hunting cultures…”

“Assuming that bigger was better, he [George Carlin] aimed at a massive bull and suffered ridicule and laughter from the rest of his party ‘for having aimed at an old bull, whose flesh was not suitable for food.’

“My people killed three bulls … which served for our dogs.”

Click to zoom. Image ©2005 AJCN.

So it is abundantly clear that not only were the healthiest and fattest animals selected by Paleolithic hunters—the hunters also orchestrated mass kills during the season they were fattest in regions where winter cold made meat preservation practical. Yet this behavior is not reflected in Figure 6, which assumes hunters selected randomly each time by using an average value.

Fortunately Figure 5 shows average fat concentrations for mature bulls, young bulls, and mature females. Using the figure of 25% bodyfat (from a mature bull in October) with the cubic regressions Cordain uses, taken from this figure in this paper, yields…

…90% of calories from fat, not 67% as listed in Fig. 6! So if we choose an animal of the healthiest of the three types in Fig. 5, as caribou hunters clearly did, we get the following percentages:

Month % calories from fat,
Fig. 6 claimed
% calories from fat, calculated from
actual bodyfat in Fig. 5 and cubic regression
Jan* 29% 54%
Feb 25% 48%
Mar 22% 44%
Apr 19% 36%
May 22% 42%
Jun 22% 45%
Jul 28% 54%
Aug 41% 64%
Sep 58% 75%
Oct 67% 90%
Nov* 55% 66%
Dec* 49% 59%
Average 36% 56%

(* Most likely animals eaten in these months were from October mass kills, so these percentages are conservative)

Finally, note that caribou hunters didn’t kill an average animal of each type, either: they selected the fattest…usually females who had not borne a fawn that year, a category not shown in the table. And this further assumes that they never threw away lean muscle meat, or gave it to their dogs, as Plains Indians were well-known to do. So these figures are most likely lower bounds of fat consumption.

Thus, we can easily see that fat provides the majority of calories for caribou hunters, even under pessimistic assumptions.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that humans can only metabolize a limited amount of protein each day…approximately 200-250 grams. But an active hunter burning 4000 calories per day, if eating only the claimed 36% of their calories from fat, would average 1260 calories a day of lean protein—or approximately 360 grams! This is nonsensical.

Finally, I note that caribou hunting is a recent adaptation: Homo sapiens didn’t reach Europe or East Asia at all until perhaps 40,000 years ago. Quoting the original paper again, “Larger mammals generally maintain greater body fat percentages by weight than do smaller animals.” Recall that preagricultural hominins preferentially hunted megafauna: mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant tortoises, gomphotheres, chalicotheres, giant hartebeest, giant bison, woolly rhinoceri, and the myriad other megafaunal species that our ancestors drove extinct during the Quaternary period. Even modern American bison (let alone ancestral bison) are many times larger than caribou.

Such animals would have contained a much greater percentage of carcass fat, which would therefore have comprised a much greater percentage of the human diet. Taking caribou as typical representatives of the hunter-gatherer diet is somewhat disingenuous, as humans didn’t even reach the area where caribou lived until perhaps 40,000 years ago. (Compare this to our 2.6 million year history of butchering animal carcasses with stone tools, and the fact that meat-eating most likely dates from before our split with chimpanzees 6-7 million years ago.)

Is Modern Red Meat Higher In Saturated Fat? No.

Now let’s compare the fatty acid profile of…modern feedlot beef.

According to the USDA’s food information database, the fat profile of grain-fed beef is approximately 46% SFA, 50% MUFA, and 4% PUFA.* In other words, grain-fed beef has a slightly lower percentage of saturated fat than wild caribou—and we have disproven another of the authors’ key claims about saturated fat. (“Marbled meat results from excessive triacylglycerol accumulation in muscle interfascicular adipocytes. Such meat has a greatly increased SFA content…” [which we’ve just proven false])

In fact, based on Table 5 of this Cordain paper, the fat of wild game averages approximately 45% SFA (saturated fat).

Finally, the fact remains that hunter-gatherers ate all portions of the animal. Hunters did not trim their steaks—and they ate the fatty parts of the carcass, such as brains and visceral fat, that modern humans throw away! Therefore, the fact that modern muscle meat is fattier is balanced by the fact that we throw away much of the fat which Paleolithic humans consumed with relish.

The rest of the article is indeed correct, including their subsequent conclusions about the PUFA profiles (n-3 vs. n-6) of wild game vs. feedlot beef—but their conclusions about saturated fat are simply a regurgitation of disproved theories which are contradicted by their own data, as well as recently but clearly established science.

Therefore, though it is an excellent paper overall, we can safely discard all its conclusions relating to relative intake of saturated fats.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS

(* I can’t link directly to results in the USDA online database, so I’m forced to link to pages at nutritiondata.self.com, which crawls it. And the composition varies slightly by cut and by individual animal, but is close to those values for the cuts I’ve looked at.)

For far more detail on the subject, you can read this comment.


Postscript: I don’t have time to list all the research showing that saturated fat is, in fact, good for you, because that’s another article by itself—but you can start here:

Am J Clin Nutr 91: 535-546, 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Patty W Siri-Tarino, Qi Sun, Frank B Hu and Ronald M Krauss
“A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”

And here’s the formal refutation of The China Study, the last refuge of the “meat and fat is bad, eat grains and go vegetarian/vegan” dogma since Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries Study was conclusively refuted (most recently by the tremendously entertaining documentary Fat Head) as misleading trash science.

Finally, my purpose is not to trash Dr. Cordain: he’s done a great deal of good over the years, and “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet” is a solid summary of the issues, one to which I’ve referred people many times. But that particular section (“Fatty domestic meats”) is simply wrong, and I hate to see people scared away from eating paleo because they can’t get game meats or grass-fed beef at their local supermarket—or because they’re still afraid of saturated fat.

(Did you like this article? Click here for more articles tagged “data != conclusions”, or here for more articles tagged “paleo”.)

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