The Hard Case of Saturated Fat

The American Heart Association recently doubled down on claims that saturated fats cause heart disease, suggesting we should avoid foods like coconut oil altogether. Karin Michels, a professor at Harvard’s school of public health, has even gone as far as to call it “pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat”.

Business Insider reports:

“There’s no study showing significant health benefits to coconut-oil consumption. And, according to Michels, coconut oil is more dangerous than lard because it almost exclusively contains saturated fatty acids, ones that can clog the coronary arteries.” A Harvard professor just busted the myth that coconut oil is good for you, calling it ‘pure poison’

I’m not surprised. This kind of sensationalism is exactly what we would expect from a medical and journalistic establishment that is losing control over public opinion. As the truth about cholesterol and saturated fat comes to light, the lies will only get louder.

Let’s start with the Business Insider headline:

A Harvard professor just busted the myth that coconut oil is good for you.

But did they? The old “clogging the arteries” canard has been debunked so many times I’m not going to waste much space doing it here (see here and here). Beyond this, the article provides no evidence for the negative health effects. It just asserts that “[t]here’s no study showing significant health benefits to coconut-oil consumption.” Take just this one article loaded with peer-reviewed studies showing health benefits of coconut oil. These include the infection-blocking lauric acid (50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil), and high amounts of “good” HDL cholesterol and Medium Chain Triglycerides, which increase energy consumption and are proven to help the obese lose weight. No mention is made of coconut oil’s impressive performance under heat, making it a better cooking oil than the true poison the article recommends — rapeseed oil (aka Canola).

Coconut may not be a superfood, but it is one of my trademark Good Fats™. Fat is a vital nutrient, efficient energy source, and building block for our bodies, and most of America is deficient. Even experts in the medical profession have stopped arguing against fat, focusing on the “bad cholesterol,” which saturated fat does indeed elevate. These low density lipids (LDLs) are like big fluffy fat globules that can clog arteries when they interact with free radicals, which causes them to oxidize. Atherosclerosis, the depositing of plaques of fat on the artery walls, is a product of inflammation and oxidative stress, which has many sources — pollution, smoking, etc. — and occurs when the body processes sugar. High density lipids (HDLs) don’t build up as plaque and are inversely associated with atherosclerosis risk. Coconut oil increases both.

There are good reasons to reduce inflammation, but again, in a dietary context the culprit is excess sugar, not fat. Even the Business Insider piece can’t keep a straight face about saturated fat:

While the scientific world is still debating whether saturated fatty acids really are the work of the devil, others say with certainty that that’s the case. However, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that people who routinely consume cheese, whole milk, and other high-fat dairy products — in essence, products high in saturated fatty acids — are at no higher risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke, or other illness than those who avoid such products.

Another study using data from 135,000 people in 18 countries and published in The Lancet, found that high fat and low carbohydrate consumption were associated with a 23% lower risk of death. And, even more exciting, the positive effect still stands, regardless of whether saturated or unsaturated fatty acids are being consumed.

When the facts reported in the articles go directly against the status quo that the AHA is trying to uphold, I’m left wondering how we end up with headlines like the one that Business Insider uses. There are many levels in the journalism hierarchy of malfeasance. The average cub reporter is low on the totem pole. Science reporters who allow themselves to be duped into publicizing the latest sensational claims are somewhere in the middle. Editors who come up with flashy but false headlines are at the top — totally corrupt.

The source of confusion and debate is actually fairly straightforward. Saturated fat is dangerous if it’s coupled with an otherwise unhealthy “Standard American Diet” and sedentary lifestyle. If you are active —eating fat and burning it — and avoiding the sources of inflammation, then you have nothing to fear. However, if you are giving up on taking responsibility of your own health, the technocratic public health recommendation of low-fat might still apply. You will still get atherosclerosis eventually, but there are a suite of new technologies that can keep your blood pressure low so that you won’t die a sudden death from a heart attack. Instead, it will be a slow and painful death with increasingly costly interventions to stave off the inevitable.

Heart Nemesis

Americans spend $1 billion per day treating heart disease and stroke. Open heart surgeries, stents, and blood-pressure lowering drugs are some of the most advanced technologies ever invented. They work, but they come with serious side effects and huge costs. For one, taking statins is like paying an annuity of up to $600 per month to the drug companies that make them.

This spending is driven by the prestige of the medical profession. But not all doctors are healers, and not all healers are benevolent. The urge to suppress pain and suffering paradoxically makes it worse. To understand how a boring lecture like Karin Michel’s could go viral, we have to see how medical practice and public health professionals foster the very conditions which Ivan Illich says “industrially [preserve] its defectives” and “breed the therapist’s client in a cybernetic way.” [emphasis added] Illich uses the term “medical civilization” to describe the cluster of make-sickening institutions and stresses that lead us to surrender to an elite caste of biological technicians, who manage the human condition for us.The cybernetic component is the key to avoiding recourse to conspiratorial explanations. Suffice it to say that there are profit-driven feedback loops within industrial society that systematically reward habits that make us sick in order that we should need the cure.

Illich needed to borrow a story from Greek mythology to accurately describe the tragedy of the modern reliance on technical cures for technologically-induced illness. Poor Prometheus brought Nemesis upon himself after attempting to steal fire from the gods. After trespassing the limitations of his humanity, the hero became the victim of the gods’ vengeance at the hands a vulture who eats his innards. But the real cruelty comes from the healing powers of the gods, though, who restore Prometheus’ liver every day such that the excruciating ordeal repeats itself forever. Nemesis is the goddess of retribution — the backlash of progress. He writes:

Most man-made misery is now the byproduct of enterprises which were originally designed to protect the common man in his struggle with the inclemency of the environment and against wanton injustices inflicted by the elite. The main source of pain, disability, and death is now an engineered — albeit non-intentional — harassment. The prevailing ailments, helplessness and injustice, are now the side-effects of strategies for progress.

Medical Nemesis, published in Lancet, 1974

Although I am a proponent of a high-fat diet, including saturated fat, I don’t downplay the miracle of a steady food supply, first achieved through the cultivation of grains and later augmented by industrial refinement. It surely came as a relief — tremendous progress — when early humans discovered a way to produce a source of nutrition (albeit inferior) without having to hunt or husband those pesky animals. However, these agricultural products are the chief source of sustenance for a world economic system built on unhealth.

Today, coconuts are also a part of this same food supply chain and I do not want to suggest that they are a health panacea. The ecological problems with coconut farming are well-known as well. Saturated fat is just one front in a larger battle that extends to the whole narrative around our food systems. Animal fats like butter, cream, lard, and tallow, are even healthier (and arguably more sustainable) forms of saturated fat. No surprise, negativity towards these modes of food production is even stronger in the media.

I would let stories like these go if it weren’t for the fact that they shame lipid-deficient people into following the herd toward ever greater weight gain and ill health. The sicknesses of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are bad enough, but just wait until it’s time for the cure.



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