Reply to Dr. Andrew Weil’s Article on Saturated Fats

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Reply to Dr. Andrew Weil’s Article on Saturated Fats

By David Gerow Irving, author of The Protein Myth: Significantly Reducing the Risk of cancer, Heart Disease, Stroke and Diabetes while Saving the Animals and the Planet

A person of Dr. Weil’s stature and influence cannot be allowed to get away with minimizing the dangers of meat consumption without a serious confrontation. While he would like to pound his square pegs into round holes, they don’t fit, and, as we shall see, his argument ignores the “better science” that he purports to follow.

Dr. Andrew Weil attempts to turn the debate on nutrition and cardiovascular disease upside down in his July 2, 2010 Huffington Post blog “Fat or Carbs: Which is Worse?” According to his article, we’ve all been brain washed into believing the false dogma that saturated fat is a significant contributor to heart attacks and strokes. The villain responsible for our indoctrination is one Ancel Keys who, Weil notes, started it all off way back in 1970 with his Seven Countries study showing that “animal fat consumption strongly predicted heart attack.” Since then the healthcare profession led by agencies such as the American Heart Association and the College of Cardiology have turned Keys’ theory into near orthodoxy.

The rest of the healthcare establishment, the science community, and the public have rolled over in benign subservience to the fearless leadership of Keys and various locksteppers following in his wake.

Enter a few heretics in the medical profession, fortunately, to save the day for the high cholesterol = heart disease skeptics including, besides those selected out by Dr. Weil, some who pointed out conflicts in the data such as that the Spaniards and the Swiss have an LDL (bad) cholesterol level equal to or greater than Americans but only half the rate of heart disease. At the same time, researchers noted that Australian aborigines have a lower cholesterol, but a higher rate of heart disease. (More on this data further below.)

For his part, Weil informs us that it has been left to science writer Gary Taubes to “deconstruct the Keys mythos and replace it with a more sensible view, informed by better science.” And one senses Weil’s euphoria on learning of the publication of Dr. Ronald Krauss’ study in the March 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which proposes the theory that there is “no difference in the risk of heart disease or stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.”

Ah! At last the proof has arrived, or so Dr. Weil seem to think. With this new nutritionally enlightened perspective, not only must we not fear the consumption of saturated fats, they’re downright good for us when compared to processed carbohydrates and sugars. The comparison is justified, says Weil, because carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the true cause of heart disease resulting from their effects on insulin and blood. Weil insists that they are also the most “likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic diseases of modern civilization.” This is the more sensible view and the better science for which he has been longing.

The present article will make no attempt to engage Dr. Weil insofar as the issue of refined carbohydrates and sugar is concerned. It is concerned only with the subject of saturated fats vs. carbohydrates, the topic of Dr. Weil’s article.

A person of Dr. Weil’s stature and influence cannot be allowed to get away with minimizing the dangers of meat consumption without a serious confrontation. While he would like to pound his square pegs into round holes, they don’t fit, and, as we shall see, his argument ignores the “better science” that he purports to follow. More importantly, his theory represents nutritional advice that could be dangerous to people’s health. Certainly it does not benefit the animals that will be killed and consumed by anyone who follows his advice to stick “to a ‘saturated fat budget’ which can be ‘spent’ on an occasional steak,” his assurances that he is not promoting the consumption of meat, plus his ostensible disapproval of factory farming notwithstanding. But multiplying an occasional (say one per week?) steak times the millions of people in America and the world who eat meat offers a sense of how many cows would need to be slaughtered to meet Weil’s objective. (And this does not include the cows that would need to be employed in the manufacture of butter consumption plus cheese several times a week, if one were to follow’s Weil’s example.)

Dr. Weil’s source that serves as the basis for lumping together the past 40 years of scientific research (good and bad) on heart disease and negating it so unceremoniously, is a single study organized by one man. This is the March 2010 Krauss study referred to above and according to Weil it is a “significant exoneration” of saturated fat as a factor in heart disease. In contradistinction, science shows unequivocally that meat is a dangerous product, the consumption of which puts people at high risk of developing one of the killer diseases including heart disease.

The facts are simple enough. Atherosclerotic plaque can build up and block the arteries leading to a heart attack. The disease named atherosclerosis is produced by factors like high blood pressure, smoking, and LDL (bad) cholesterol which damages the cellular lining of blood vessels which can lead to a buildup of plaque. Plaque, according to Richard Stein of the American Heart Association, consists of a “jumble of lipids, or cholesterol, cells, and debris.” The consumption of meat also plays a major role in developing the high blood pressure that helps create atherosclerosis by thickening the blood which leads to an increase in blood pressure. Vegans and vegetarians, consequently, by virtue of avoiding blood-thickening saturated fat, have a far lower incidence of high blood pressure than meat eaters. Though this has been evidenced in more than one scientific study, the Kraus/Weil hypothesis ignores factors like these.

Dr. Weil states that Dr. Krauss’ study is not a “true study” but a “big analysis.” If it is not a true study, however, why should it be accorded the weight of truth? What it really is, is a study of 21 other studies. Nothing more. But what if some of those other studies are flawed as, it turns out, some of them indeed are? Krauss takes into account, for example, and includes in his conclusions results from the famous and flawed Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the equally famous and flawed Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) which involved 120,000 nurses and 49,000 women respectively. Together they comprise nearly half of the 348,000 “aggregated” participants that Dr. Weil tells us make up the Krauss study. These figures are important because if these studies were flawed that means at least one-half of Krauss’ study is flawed. And this does not preclude other studies upon which Krauss relies from being flawed.

The NHS and the WHI studies were initiated to try to measure, among other purposes, the effects of fat in the creation of disease. As reported by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, whose research team undertook the most comprehensive epidemiological study on nutrition and disease ever conducted by anyone anywhere in the world, these studies had some big problems. Campbell noted that “because of [their] very serious flaws, [these studies] have been a virtual disaster for discovering the really significant effects of diet on these diseases [heart disease, cancer, and other diseases of affluence].”

Chief among their flaws is that they permitted low-fat diets to include low-fat manufactured animal products so that a comparison of the role of animal products in the diet was not measured. For example, one can reduce the fat content in the diet with low-fat animal products, but the cholesterol levels, which come from animal products, remain the same. Dr. John McDougall, one of the nation’s top experts on nutrition, reported that “the women in the WHI trial “continued to eat nearly the same amounts of fiber, protein, red meat, chicken, fish, and grains” [as they normally did.] If they acquired a disease during the course of the trial the resulting data could yield a false result showing that a reduction in fat is not a factor in reducing disease. When people reduce their fat intake by actually reducing their consumption of animal protein, on the other hand, the incidence of disease is also reduced, as shown in many studies, including Campbell’s. That is not a false result and strongly implicates the saturated fat in animal products as a disease-producing agent. However, neither Krauss nor Weil have taken this into account.

In fact, in comparing the incidence of fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease between saturated fat intake and polyunsaturated (nonanimal) fat intake, Krauss included the WHI report as an example of reports that showed “no differences” between the two fat groups. Given the flaw in the WHI report, results like these must be considered suspect, and allowing for the flawed nature of both the NHS and WHI reports, Krauss’ entire study in regard to saturated fat does not really merit scientific validation.

The extent to which Dr. Krauss did not include data which did show that a reduction of animal fats resulted in a reduction of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and cancer, is also a cause for concern. For example, Dr. Krauss did not use any of the data obtained by the well-known and highly respected Campbell study which presents an abundance of evidence showing the connection between animal protein and disease. And while Dr. Krauss included both the Nurses’ Health Study and the Framingham Heart Study to show that there was no significant association of “dietary saturated fat intake with CHD [Coronary Heart Disease],” which is the crux of his entire argument, it must be noted that Dr. William Castelli, the Director of the Framingham Heart Study, said: “We’ve never had a heart attack in Framingham in 35 years in anyone who had a cholesterol level under 150.

Three-quarters of the people who live on the face of this Earth never have a heart attack. They live in Asia, Africa, and South America, and their cholesterols are all around 150.” The kind of cholesterol that keeps the cholesterol count above 150 is the saturated fat found most notably in meat and dairy products. Vegans have an average cholesterol count of 133. From this it should be obvious enough that anyone who wants to live largely free from heart disease (including heart attacks) and strokes has only to reduce their total cholesterol count to 150 or lower. As to the cholesterol counts of the Spaniards, Swiss, and Australian aborigines noted above, while the inconsistencies are fascinating in and of themselves, they do not negate the epidemiological evidence that shows rather convincingly that saturated fat is a factor in cardiovascular disease formation. Quite clearly, if one takes note of the full range of evidence from both sides, the link between the consumption of meat to heart disease is difficult to deny.

In closing, it would be remiss not to point out that the risk of breast cancer can be significantly reduced by reducing estrogen hormone levels in the blood. Anyone want to guess how that is accomplished? By not eating animal protein. Think the same applies to diabetes? Much evidence indicates it does. So long as Dr. Weil and other medical professionals and nutritionists continue to advocate eating meat and dairy products, they are just helping to perpetuate the unhealthy dietary habits that are undermining the health of the nation and the world. To represent that animal fats are harmless and may even be good for us — this is not only dangerous, it is unscientific. And certainly animals would not be very happy to know about it whether they are the unfortunate victims being abused and tortured on factory farms or "grass-fed" animals unaware that human beings have taken over their destiny and will soon cut their lives short at slaughter.


David Irving is the author of The Protein Myth: Significantly Reducing the Risk of Getting Cancer, Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes While Saving the Animals and Building a Better World (forthcoming 2011). He has written poetry, fairy tales, plays, short stories, essays, newspaper articles, and a novel, The Voice in the Stone, about the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart. Two other novels are in progress one of which is about vivisection. His articles have appeared on Cyrano’s Journal, Thomas Paine’s Corner, All-Creatures.org, Press Action, Radical Noesis, Dandelion Salad, The Animals Voice, and other blogs and journals. An accomplished musician, he has played French horn with ensembles like the San Francisco Ballet and the Marlboro Festival and was a member of the Oakland Symphony and the Graz Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra (Austria). He attended the New England Conservatory of Music, the Vienna Academy of Music, and graduated Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University from which he also earned an M.A. in music composition.