This year, more than 610,000 Americans will die from heart disease. It’s the leading cause of death for both men and women.
For decades, doctors and nutritionists prescribed low-fat diets to people trying to lower their risk of heart disease. Saturated fats in meats and dairy products were thought to clog our arteries. Grains — especially “whole” ones — were thought to help everything from high cholesterol to digestion.
A growing body of research suggests this advice was wrong. For most people, it’s carbohydrates, not fats, that are the true cause of heart disease.
Consider a report published last year in The Lancet that studied nutrition among more than 135,000 people across 18 different countries — making it the largest-ever observational study of its kind. The researchers found that people who ate the least saturated fat — about the same amount currently recommended for heart patients — had the highest rates of heart disease and mortality. Meanwhile, people who consumed the most saturated fat had the lowest rate of strokes.
Limiting intake of carbohydrates, rather than fats, is a surer way to decrease the risk of heart disease. An analysis of more than a dozen studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that patients on low-carb diets had healthier body weights and cardiovascular systems than those on conventional low-fat diets. I’m a cardiologist in Virginia and my own patients have seen the benefits of a low-carb, high-fat diet firsthand.
Consider Marj. At age 71, she lost more than 100 pounds in a year without medication, meal replacements or surgery — just by cutting out sugars and starches, and eating healthier food.
Denise had out-of-control diabetes. Her blood sugar was frequently over 250 — a level far above normal — despite being on insulin. Then she started a low-carb diet. After only a week, she was off insulin and had near normal blood-sugar levels.
When Jeff started working with me, he had severe lipid abnormalities. Four months later, his HDL cholesterol — commonly known as “good cholesterol” — had increased by 13 points. And his triglyceride level plummeted from 468 to 78 — well below the normal level of 150. All of this was without medication or exercise.
The mistaken belief that fats cause heart disease stems from weak, outdated research. Back in 1961, the American Heart Association published its first report recommending that people limit consumption of animal fats and dietary cholesterol. The report cited several studies that showed a correlation between high-fat diets and heart problems.
But that hypothesis had never been put to the test in a clinical trial. A controlled trial is the only way to prove a cause-effect relationship, rather than a mere correlation that could occur due to random chance or some other unknown variable.
As Dr. Phillip Handler, the former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences stated nearly 20 years later, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so little evidence?”
Eventually, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) started conducting clinical trials. However, these trials were deeply flawed. Additionally, when evidence contradicted the dominant medical narrative, researchers effectively buried it. One NIH study, which found little-to-no relationship between saturated fats and various health problems, was conducted between 1968 and 1973 but wasn’t published for another 16 years.
Despite the flimsy evidence against saturated fats, mainstream nutritionists still advise people to eat lots of carbohydrates and steer clear of fats. The AHA recommends restricting saturated fat consumption to 6 percent of total calories. Federal guidelines encourage people to eat fat-free or low-fat dairy and plenty of grains.
This advice is dooming hundreds of thousands of people to early death and disability. Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. The disease costs Americans $200 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity.
For decades, our public health leaders have dispensed deadly dietary advice. That needs to change. Many doctors, myself included, have seen with our own eyes how low-carb diets help patients lose weight, reverse their diabetes and improve their cholesterol.
• Eric Thorn is a cardiologist affiliated with the Virginia Hospital Center.