In the modern age of technology and constant information sharing, you may not believe that key scientific data could be tucked away in a basement in Minnesota for decades, gathering dust in the corner. But, that is exactly what happened with the data from a cardiovascular health study conducted by Dr. Ivan Frantz of the University of Minnesota. And the discovery could influence nutritional guidelines and mainstream ideas of health as we know it.
The Traditional Advice: Unsaturated Fats vs. Saturated Fats
Nutritional advice of the last four decades has largely centered on one thing: fats. Specifically, a heavy emphasis has been placed on the types of fats we eat and how they impact our health. In general the advice has pointed to unsaturated fats as the key to good health and shunned saturated fats as harmful for cardiovascular health. But, the studies that got us to this point may not have been as reliable as they were initially taken to be.
One of the first studies touting the benefits of a diet low in saturated fats and higher in unsaturated fats as a means of improving health outcomes was an epidemiological study known as The Seven Countries Study. Initially published in the journal Circulation, Dr. Ansel Keys’ groundbreaking study followed cohorts from seven different countries to see how their various diets impacted heart health.
Dr. Keys found that people from countries where the standard diet was high in unsaturated fats from sources such as fish and olive oil lived longer and had lower rates of heart attacks than the groups from countries where people ate more saturated fat. This conclusion had huge implications for the future of nutritional guidelines in America.
Published in 1970, Dr. Keys’ study sparked a wave congressional hearings that went on to develop the guidelines that eating high amounts of polyunsaturated fats, such as linoleic acid, is good for health, while saturated fats were bad for cardiovascular health and related to premature death.
However, the study did have some flaws. By nature, epidemiological prospective cohort studies (the model of The Seven Countries Study) are not reliable to prove causation. They can certainly show correlation, but in order to point towards causation the study needs to be a controlled clinical trial in which researchers are closely monitoring study participants and have a control group.
Another issue is the countries Dr. Keys chose. Seven countries is a solid choice to compare the effects that different diets may have on health. However, the results from only seven countries should not have been taken as fact and used to shape the American dietary guidelines.
The countries Dr. Keys chose for his study were the United States, Finland, Italy, Greece, Japan, Yugoslavia, and the Netherlands; a diverse group that is good for comparison. But, it was not widespread enough to definitively prove the results. For example, Dr. Keys did not include a population from France, where people consume vast amounts of saturated fats from cheese and butter.
This is not to say that the results would have been different with this population included, but there is no way to say what the results from France would have been and how they would have influenced the overall study results. The same can be said for any country where people eat a diet different than those included in the study.
This is the problem with using epidemiological studies as sources of proof rather than controlled clinical trials. A recent journal article published in Circulation confirmed that linoleic acid, a source of unsaturated fats at the center of many of these hypotheses, is good for heart health. But, again, the evidence used in this article was from observational studies, not controlled clinical trials.
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The Mediterranean Diet
Today, many people choose to eat a diet similar to The Mediterranean Diet. And, it makes sense why. The Mediterranean diet is a healthy way to eat; there is no denying that. A diet that centers on vegetables and fatty fish as a protein source is high in many important nutrients and low in harmful processed foods. Although the grounds by which people began promoting a diet high in unsaturated fats may have been flawed, the Mediterranean diet promoted by the Seven Countries Studies is undoubtedly a healthy way to eat. The point is not that unsaturated fats are unhealthy, but that saturated fats were wrongly demonized. Compare the mediterranean diet to a Ketogenic Diet.
And, despite what the dietary recommendations of the previous decades may have been, it is hard to align the standard American diet of today with any healthy diet. Though people have reduced their intake of saturated fats, chronic diseases abound, and more Americans suffer from obesity than ever before. This is because a reduction in saturated fat intake did not mean that people began eating a healthy Mediterranean diet.
Rather, people began to eat more heavily processed foods. Just because these foods contain unsaturated fats rather than saturated does not mean they are healthy. No matter what your beliefs are regarding fats, everyone can agree that eating a highly processed diet is not good for health.
The Minnesota Coronary Experiment
Dr. Frantz conducted a rigorous clinical trial from 1968-1973 comparing the effects of unsaturated fats and saturated fats on coronary heart disease and mortality. Dr. Frantz’s experiment can be considered very reliable for a variety of reasons.
First, clinical trials are more reliable than epidemiological studies in general due to a higher degree of control and the fact that clinical trials include a control group, which is important to use as a comparison for all study results.
Dr. Frantz, always meticulous, went a step further than previous studies on the same topic by ensuring that study participants were undoubtedly sticking to the diet they were assigned to. To do so, Dr. Frantz studied populations living in institutions throughout Minnesota where their diet could be strictly regulated and monitored.
This key piece makes Dr. Frantz’s study, the Minnesota Coronary Experiment more reliable than many of the other nutrition studies of his day, in which participants’ diets were not closely monitored and thus results could be unknowingly augmented.
The results of the study showed that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats did indeed reduce cholesterol levels. However, it did not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease or mortality. These findings were published in a journal in 1989, but many statistical measures and quantitative data elements were left out, as were components of the initial research question as proposed initially to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As explained by Dr. Frantz’s son, Robert Frantz, his father was a big believer in the danger of saturated fats. It is possible, Robert explained, that his father was disillusioned by the results of the study. He says that when they could not find an explanation for why lowered cholesterol lowers mortality rates, “everything else became less compelling.” The majority of the statistical data of the study was left out when it was eventually published. Keep in mind that the right kinds of fat are perfect for a ketogenic diet to increase weight loss and reduce cholesterol levels.
The Minnesota Coronary Experiment was recently brought to light again by Christopher Ramsden, who works for the NIH. He discovered the original publication of the study, but knew there had to be more data somewhere. He reached out to Dr. Frantz’s sons to help him find this more detailed data. What he found has the potential to alter the dogma relating to saturated fats as a source of heart disease and death. Ramsden published his conclusions in the medical journal BMJ, with the conclusion that saturated fats are likely not as unhealthy as we have thought for decades.
Ramsden is not suggesting that people begin eating mountains of butter with each meal. He is simply pointing out that traditional claims demonizing saturated fat may be exaggerated, and that it does not have the negative health effects that people have believed and shaped their diets by for decades.
Saturated Fats and Your Health
It does seem as though nutritional advice is constantly changing; the barrage of conflicting evidence that comes out is aptly referred to as the “nutrition wars.” However, there are some standard ideas that you can implement into your ketogenic diet to live a healthier life, regardless of the current claims coming out about various dietary advice.
One of the key problems with the original demonization of saturated fats is that people replaced these natural sources of fat with processed foods. When fat was taken out of foods, oftentimes it was replaced with refined sugar or other processed chemicals. Thus, people were eating less fat, but more processed carbohydrates and sugars. This is never a good idea.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to nutrition is to eat as many unprocessed foods as possible. A diet rich in vegetables, low sugar fruit such as berries, and protein will be the best choice, every time. Vegetables contain many essential nutrients for the body to function optimally, feeding cells so that they can perform their best. Foods such as broccoli, kale, and other low-starch vegetables are always a great choice.
Though it goes against traditional advice, you can feel comfortable eating saturated fats as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Some saturated fats are actually very healthy. One example of a great source of fat is medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. MCT is component of coconut oil, which has been on the rise as a healthy choice for oils, despite containing high amounts of saturated fats. MCT oils are the fat burning component of coconut oils, so they help your body efficiently burn fat while also helping you stay fuller longer, making you less likely to give in to cravings and eat unhealthy, refined foods. MCT oil also has benefits for the mind, and can improve brain performance.
In general, fats are good for brain health. This applies to certain foods containing monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fats. The important thing is to eat a balance of these types of fats, and get them from the right sources. Just like what you eat is important for your physical body and outward appearance, foods also have a big impact on your brain. Again, whole natural foods are always a better choice than very refined and processed foods, many of which contain the true “bad” fats like vegetable shortening or microwaved popcorn.
It is unfortunate that misinformation shaped the American diet for so long regarding unsaturated and saturated fats. The most important thing is to eat whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible and remain physically active. If you do not have time to grocery shop and prepare healthy foods, a supplement is a good choice, especially over grabbing fast food or a bag of chips in a pinch. Nootropic supplements are a great choice because they benefit both the body and mind.
Be sure to do your research and only use supplements that are clear about their ingredients and only include natural ingredients with ample health benefits, such as Momental’s MIND and MEND blends.
What you put into your body certainly has an impact on long term health and longevity; Momental can help you stay on track with a healthy lifestyle to maintain both mental and physical health. If you ignore all of the health trends and fads and simply focus on this, you will never have to wonder whether you are treating your body well.