Monday, June 19, 2017

Just Another Oil Crisis

This has nothing to do with OPEC and strife in the Mideast.  It’s another press release about oils in our diet.

It started with a headline on the BBC declaring:  “Coconut oil is as unhealthy as beef dripping and butter, say US heart experts.”  As usual, we have to be very wary of headlines, especially ones like this one designed to scare.  It turns out that the information is from the American Heart Association (AHA).  They are concerned that coconut oil is considered by some to be a health food containing fat that “may be better for us than other saturated fats.”  The AHA says there are no good studies backing up this claim.  According to them, all saturated fat is bad.

But all the differing opinions about good fat and bad fat can be very confusing.  Generally animal fat is considered unhealthier than vegetable fat, but not everyone agrees with that distinction either.  I wrote about this just five months ago when the story came out that Nutella contains palm oil which has recently been placed on the bad list.  In that piece I reviewed a number of different sources showing how they ranked the oils in different orders of healthiness.

Another article (coincidentally also) from the BBC but a year earlier, “Diet debate: Is butter back and is sat fat good?” gives a balanced explanation.  At one time the experts felt that all cholesterol is bad, but now everyone knows about HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol).  The oil and fat debate is equally subtle, making the comparison to butter in that latest headline questionable.  Furthermore, any research is difficult because it depends on many people accurately reporting what they eat over long periods of time.

Back in the 1950s some researchers found evidence that fat was the culprit.  To understand the history in detail an interesting source is the book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz.  It tells of some of the problems with study methods – in one case looking at Italians during Lent to assess their usual eating habits – and of the politics involved – when the US Government commits to a particular diet recommendation, studies with contrary findings are often ignored and scientists risk loss of funding.  Those who thought sugar, not fat, was the problem were marginalized.  As a NY Times Magazine piece from 2002 put it:  While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.”

That Times article also gives a great summary of the history and politics.  At one point they explain it this way:  A huge government study “concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith.”  With virtually no evidence that eating less fat had any health benefits, they assumed that “if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same.”  But the research and the experience over many years could not confirm this conclusion.

With all this conflicting evidence, what’s an eater to do?  The best answer has to do with moderation: in fat, in sugar, and in portion size.  Contradictory news will continue to pour in.  For example, eggs that we were told just a few years ago were "worse than smoking cigarettes" (for the cholesterol) are back on the good-guy list.  Popular Science reported just two weeks ago “An egg a day could help babies grow bigger and taller.”

So the answer is not to take all the headlines too seriously and to practice moderation.  You heard it here first! – Except this is really just common sense.

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