An author's tryst with saturated fats defies conventional medical thinking, and suggests that we may have been very wrong about this much vilified fat
The dietary Guidelines for Americans set the eating patterns for the world as these have been extensively followed all over since then as the gold standards.
Issued for the first time in 1980, these guidelines said that eating extra saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels in most people and if someone has high blood cholesterol level, he has a greater chance of having a heart attack. According to the guidelines, high cholesterol is clearly a major risk factor. Since then the saturated fats in butter, ghee and coconut oils and cholesterols from red meat, eggs and organ meats have virtually been banished from diets of most of the people who are health conscious in the world.
Before that, in 1961, the influential American Heart Association had declared that when the intake of saturated fat is reduced, blood cholesterol decreases. It further said that when vegetable polyunsaturated oils such as corn, cotton and soya oils are substituted for saturated fats, the blood cholesterol decreases. It clearly said that substitution of polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats is a valuable addition to the diet. It concluded that substitution of polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat is recommended as a possible means of preventing atherosclerosis and decreasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Even the latest American dietary Guidelines which are for 2015-2020 says that saturated fats consumption should be limited. It specifically says that one must consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. It goes on to say that the recommendation to limit intake of calories from saturated fat to less than 10 percent per day is a target based on evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Indian Dietary Guidelines issued by National Institute of Nutrition in 2011 says that adults need to be cautioned to restrict intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Excess of these substances could lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
So right from American Heart Association to Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Guidelines for Indians have been unanimous in saying that intake of saturated fat should be restricted as it could lead to chronic diseases, particularly heart attacks. The guidelines recommend substitution of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in the form of corn, soy vegetable oils. Following these guidelines, the world has banished saturated fats as evil and adopted the polyunsaturated vegetable oils as preferred medium of cooking and source of energy.
We as a family followed the Guidelines for nearly 30 years but the results were not good. We banished the saturated fats from our kitchen and replaced these with the supposedly heart healthy vegetable oils as recommended. I distinctly remember my wife, a medical doctor, brought upon these guidelines, getting upset when I tried putting ghee on chapatis many years ago. She thought I would compromise my health and wellbeing.
The result of replacing saturated vegetable oils was not what we expected.
I developed high cholesterol and high triglycerides way back in 1998 and was put on statin medicine. A few years later I developed high blood pressure and was put on medicine for that and the medicines continued for nearly 20 years. This would have continued like this for the rest of our lives had my wife not noticed that many studies have proved that replacing saturated fats with vegetable oils is harmful for human health. On the contrary, the studies suggested that saturated fats, which have been the cooking medium of human society for thousands of years, are healthy. The studies have proved that the vegetable oils could be the cause of so many chronic diseases the world is struggling with mostly since the 1980s which have seen the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and cancer.
My medical report of February, 2019 which showed high cholesterol, high triglycerides, low HDL was the turning point. Since then, we have consciously replaced all polyunsaturated vegetable oils, except omega-3 rich cold pressed flaxseed oils, from our household. We replaced all polyunsaturated oils by saturated fats in the form of ghee and cold pressed coconut oil. Not only that, the content of saturated oil became predominant in our diet, much beyond the recommended 10 percent.
To see how the changes in diet were affecting us, as a precaution we went for periodic medical tests to see important medical parameters like HDL, LDL, triglycerides, HsCRP which are recognised indicators of heart health. The results were astonishing and contrary to conventional medical and dietary wisdom. After increasing intake of saturated fats, for the first time in my life, my HDL showed a very healthy increase. From 32 in February, 2019 it steadily climbed to 34, 38 and eventually to 40 in December, 2019. Against all the medical advice, with so much intake of saturated fat, LDL constantly decreased to 133, 131 and eventually to 129. There was a spectacular decline in Triglycerides from 226 to 127, 123 to the lowest of 120.
Clearly the formulation that saturated fats increase cholesterol which increases heart attacks is wrong, at least in my case. The saturated fats do not increase cholesterol. On the contrary, it increases the healthy HDL and reduces LDL and the triglycerides.
Have we been taken for a ride by the establishment? My medical reports and experience of the last one year and three months possibly proves so.
(The author, an IPS Officer of 1987 batch, is presently Joint Secretary with Ministry of Home Affairs)