But although new research exonerates the consumption of saturated fats in meat and dairy, the self-styled nutritional gurus at Harvard just can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the obvious.
It started out so promising.
The self-appointed nutritional authorities at the Harvard University School of Public Health led off a lengthy article titled “Is Butter Really Back? Clarifying the Facts on Fat” with an admission that a March 2104 article in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine reported what the HSPH science writer characterized as “a seemingly stunning result: eating less saturated fat doesn’t actually lower a person’s risk for heart disease.”
It’s about time the public health community acknowledged that fact. Anyone who’s even skimmed such deeply researched book as “The Big Fat Surprise,” by Nina Teicholz, or “The Obesity Epidemic,” by Zoe Harcombe, is aware that 50 years ago, a fatally flawed study known as the Seven Countries Study, an epidemiological analysis by then University of Minnesota researcher Ancel Keys, wrongly postulated that the mid-20th century epidemic of heart attacks was due to consumption of saturated fat.
Which only occurs in animal foods.
Indeed, the HSPH article referenced a New York Times analysis of the Annals study, noting that industry critic and “plant food” proponent Mark Bittman “rhapsodized that ‘butter is back’ and Julia Child, goddess of fat, is beaming somewhere.”
The HSPH article noted the emergence of “a national conversation about dietary fat” and a “debate within the scientific community over . . . certain types of dietary fat” and the university’s Department of Nutrition stated that there are “broad areas of continuing agreement around what constitutes a healthy diet.”
“The fact is,” the article noted, “not all fats are bad, and concentrating too much on eliminating ‘fat’ from our diets has, in many cases, led us to replace even healthy fats with sugars and other simple carbohydrate foods that may actually be worse for our health.”
Now, the food industry, to be sure, addressed the “stop eating fat” frenzy in the 1980s with a vengeance, serving up a plethora of fat-free salad dressings, ice cream, cookies — even processed meats — with carbohydrates, sweeteners, and binders added to replace the fat we were being urged to avoid.
Indeed, the HSPH article labeled it “one big, happy, fat-free feeding frenzy — and a public health disaster.”
Understandably, at this point I was poised for the gurus drawing their hefty paychecks from Harvard University to declare a cease fire in the ongoing war on meat and dairy products, seeing as how the saturated fat and cholesterol in those products that was supposed to be killing us might not be the unmitigated culprit we’ve been led to believe.
I shouldn’t have bothered holding my breath.
A factor never considered
Walter Willett, an M.D. long affiliated with HSPH’s anti-meat-eating crusade, emphatically responded by saying, “Butter is not back. Long-term health will be better with olive and other oils.”
Apparently, the advice about dietary fat is “complicated,” according to HSPH. Even though saturated fat turns out to be neutral from a heart health perspective, they insist that the media “distorted” the message.
Isn’t the always the case when reporters don’t phrase things the way advocates prefer?
Emanuele Di Angelantonio, the senior author on the Annals of Internal Medicine study and a university lecturer in the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, expressed surprise at how the media characterized the report.
“It was reported as ‘butter and burgers,’ and that’s not what our paper said,” Di Angelantonio was quoted in the HSPH article. “What the paper said was that the story on saturated fat is slightly more complicated than we thought.”
Allow me to simplify that “slight complication.”
There is no health reason whatsoever to avoid saturated fat, whether it’s derived from meat or from dairy products. To suggest otherwise is to slap Mother Nature in the face, implying that the natural foods with which human physiology developed are now, in our modern era, somehow unfit to eat. Several hundred thousand years of evolution should be disregarded, because a bunch of researchers — who are using dietary associations, not cause-and-effect double blind comparison studies — think that people should switch to olive oil.
That recommendation ignores another factor not one scientist I’ve ever interviewed seems to even understand, much less acknowledge. Before the very recent advent of modern technology — and, let’s not forget, modern agriculture — people by necessity survived on foods native to their geographic locality. That dependence has been obliterated, thanks to a global food distribution system, but physiologically speaking, it’s no more appropriate for people in western Washington, where I and four million of my close friends and neighbors reside, to be eating olive oil and tropical fruits than it would be for the indigenous tribes in the Amazon to be living on whale blubber.
Olive trees don’t exactly thrive in Montana or New England. Perfect for southern Italy; not so much for northern Minnesota.
Even when the HSPH experts try to portray equanimity, they just can’t bring themselves to admit that eating meat is acceptable.
“Researchers say we should focus on healthy dietary patterns, rather than glorify or demonize specific nutrients,” the article concluded. “A healthy pattern includes heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, poultry and fish. An unhealthy but all-too-frequent pattern: piles of processed meat, mounds of french fries, lots of white bread and potatoes and processed breakfast cereals, giant sugary drinks and packaged cupcakes for dessert.”
Can I be honest? That statement, in addition to being clearly biased, reeks of condescension. The affluent, oh-so-educated bigshots at Harvard are practically sneering out loud as they detail all the “junk” with which they believe the losers wallowing in the lowest income quintile are stuffing their fat faces.
That attitude is no different from dissing someone’s religion because the ceremonies don’t align with your preferences, or criticizing someone’s parenting because it doesn’t conform to your personal style.
I’m not endorsing a diet heavy on processed foods and soft drinks, but it never occurs to these ivory tower types that many people have to live on processed foods, because they can’t afford “heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables” or organically grown poultry or wild salmon at $15 a pound.
Bottom line: Butter isn’t back. It never left.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.