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Medical Contrarian: A Most Interesting Story About Fats and Science

Posted Dec 17 2013 9:48am

by Barbara Berkeley, MD


I couldn't get enough of  this article  on Dr. Fred Kummerow, 99 year old researcher who has spent his life studying dietary fats.  As you know, I can be accused of science geekery.  Essentially this means that I find articles on the neurochemical pathways in the appetite centers of the brain and studies on LDL particle number as compelling as most people find CSI Miami.   But for me, this article on Kummerow held all the twists, turns and surprises of a really good movie.  A little strange, I know.

In order to understand this post, you'll have to devote a few minutes to the article itself.  So please go to the link above and read.  

Here is what I found so interesting:

1. Despite the fact that Kummerow's early research was so new and important (finding trans fats in arterial plaques), we continued to push margarines and other trans fats for 30 years.  These years directly impacted the health of my own family.  As I've detailed in these pages before, my father had a heart attack in 1963.  After that, our family threw out all butter and started eating gobs of "heart healthy" margarine.  Despite quitting cigarettes and cleaning up his health act in every way, my dad's arterial disease progressed over a lifetime requiring bypass surgery, stents and a graft to his aorta.  

Moral: Common wisdom about diet, even when offered by "experts" can be very, very wrong.

2. Kummerow has now turned his attention to the allegedly negative effects of corn and soybean oils.  As a primal eating enthusiast, I stopped eating these oils many years ago.  Apart from the issue of oxidation, these oils add extra omega 6 fatty acids to our diet, and we know that the original human diet had far more omega 3 acids than omega 6.  The omega 6 fats tend to stimulate inflammation in the body.  While it's important to be able to mount an inflammatory response to injury and illness, it's not desirable to be in a constantly inflammed state.  When we look at the basis for a great many of our modern illnessses, inflammation is lurking as a cause.  

Moral:  The question of which fats are safe remains in debate.  It is not a settled issue, as mainstream science might make you believe.  (Common wisdom: saturated fat and trans fats are bad, polyunsaturated fats are good).

3. Kummerow likes eggs.  Here's a quote:

"He calls eggs one of nature’s most perfect foods, something he has been preaching since the 1970s, when the consumption of cholesterol-laden eggs was thought to be a one-way ticket to heart disease.

'Eggs have all of the nine amino acids you need to build cells, plus important vitamins and minerals,” he said. “It’s crazy to just eat egg whites. Not a good practice at all'.”

Eggs have gotten a bad rap in the past and have more recently received better press.  Primal eaters don't have a problem with eggs as they are among the oldest foods.   In the context of a more ancient diet, they would seem to be just fine.

Moral:  According to Kummerow (and I concur as of today) it's not the cholesterol you eat, but what your body does with it.

4. I love the comment from the President of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (how would you like to have that title?).   As the article itself points out, oxidation is a process that occurs inside the body and also as the result of oils cooked at high temperatures.  Therefore the claim from industry that  "oil manufacturers...take precautions against oxidation" has nothing whatever to do with what happens to the oil after we cook it and eat it.

Moral: One of the largest barriers to changing our health for the better is the financial interest of companies that profit from processed foods.

5. Why was Dr. Kummerow's research trivialized? According to Harvard School of Health's Walter Willett ,  “He had great difficulty getting funding because the heart disease prevention world strongly resisted the idea that trans fats were the problem.  In their view, saturated fats were the big culprit in heart disease. Anything else was a distraction from that.”

Moral: Nothing has changed.  We are still having an enormous problem with entrenched beliefs about diet.  And we are still, by and large, telling people that fat is the enemy.  Science can't move on when we are unwilling to look at alternative hypotheses.  Remember that it was the very heart disease prevention world, the ones that should have the most vested in discovering the truth, that put up barriers to Kummerow's new theory. 

6. MOST FASCINATING.  Dr. Kummerow is in the "saturated fat is fine for you" camp.  His research is sponsored by the Weston Price Foundation , which is an organization that believes that we are healthiest when we eat whole foods, but does not go back to pre-agricultural diet in its recommendations.  As a result, the Price food list includes whole milk, cheeses and red meat.  (By the way,Weston Price was a Cleveland dentist who traveled the world examining the teeth and general health of those eating traditional whole food diets.  He found these people to be vastly more healthy than those eating modern diet.)   

Here is where I pause and step back.  While older, more traditional diets are clearly healthier (Mediterranean for example), there are a few things that continue to bother me.  I don't know if these are legitimate or not, but they are my concerns:

  • Our current versions of red meat, milk, cheese and other saturated fats are not the same as the original versions.  Animals are fed differently and the composition of fatty acids is not what our ancestors would have eated.  (This is a problem for ancient-style eaters too).
  • Our underlying physiology may have changed due to exposure to chemicals, environmental toxins or an altered microbiome (gut bacteria).  In other words, not only are our food sources different, WE--the eaters--- may be different. Therefore, we may no longer be able to eat as we did without peril.  How should we eat in this potentially new biological environment?  No one is sure.
  • The issue of vascular disease and saturated fats is still out there and has not entirely been put to rest.  For me personally, I would rather eat lower fat and stick with the omega 3 oils from fish and the mono-unsaturates from olive oil when I do eat fat. 

Having said this, the article then drops its little bombshell.  While Dr. Kummerow has clearly done extraordinarily well with his health, he nevertheless required cardiac bypass for an arterial blockage late in his life.  The author brushes this off with a brisk little disclaimer:  "His most significant health problem, appropriately enough, was an artery blockage at age 89 — probably a result of the inevitable effects of aging, not diet."  

Oh yeah?  Who says so?   This little gem reminds me of the offhand protestation of the Oil and Shortening guy. My mother is 95 and many of her friends are over 90.  My aunt lived to be 101 and my uncle to 100.  None of these people required a cardiac bypass.   So what's going on?

The moral:  The healthiest diet for human beings remains a fascinating mystery.  Each of us has to figure it out for him or herself based on reading, considering,. and testing out what works in our own case.  In doing this, don't be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom and be wary of slavishly following the advice of experts.  As I am fond of saying, that includes me. 



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