I respect and appreciate the work of NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, as does much of the organic food community. I cited her in my most recent post, on genetically modified organisms. And I often swoop in on her blog to check out her latest commentary on food issues.
But now and then Professor Nestle says something I am surprised to hear from her.
Take the following. In her book What To Eat, Nestle says about dairy products, “[t]he calories and saturated fat are reason enough to choose lower-fat options.” A few pages earlier, she refers to saturated fat as “the bad kind that raises the risk for heart disease.”
For now, let’s forget about Nestle’s comment about calories. (I have big questions about this comment and will address them in a future post.)
Let’s chat about fat. Nestle seems certain that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. But I am not sure this is the open-and-shut case that she makes it out to be.
Take the Masai, a tribe in east Africa that lives much the same way they’ve lived for the past several thousand years. They live off of cow’s blood cow’s milk and, occasionally, the cows’ meat itself. That’s it. Scientists who’ve studied the Masai have found that, though this diet is shockingly high in saturated fat, their incidence of heart disease is virtually nonexistent.
OK, so the Masai may be different. Maybe they get more exercise. Maybe they’ve adapted to high saturated fat levels over their thousands of years of herding cattle. And maybe the same can be said of Eskimo populations that also live primarily off of red meat (from caribou) and yet similarly show little sign of heart disease.
But the evidence from clinical trials of red-blooded Americans may not show much clearer a correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories runs through the entire history of heart disease research in the western world and leaves you with, at the very least, a big question mark over your head and, if you read the evidence the way Taubes does, a pretty solid conviction that saturated fat simply is not the problem.
So, why is Nestle so certain that saturated fat is the culprit, that she does not feel the need to qualify her remark, or even offer any reasons why we think saturated fat may cause heart disease? Probably because it’s what the government tells us, and what nutritionists have held generally to be true for decades.
But think for a minute about whether it makes sense that a modern disease (heart disease) with little evidence of its occurrence prior to the past couple hundred years, would come from a product (whole milk) that our ancestors (at least in large parts of the world) have been drinking for millennia.
And think about whether our major shift over the past 50 years toward low-fat, skim, fat-free diets have done anything to reduce our incidence of heart disease.
I don’t have the answers any more than anyone else does. But does it sound like any of us really have the answer? I just am surprised that Ms. Nestle takes for doctrine the causation between saturated fat and heart disease. At the least there are big questions to be asked, and further research to be done.
If you doubt whether these questions indeed need to be asked, I have a question for you: Have you at least read Taubes’s book?