The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Health

Let's get right to the meat of this study. It's relevant to the hypothesis that saturated fat is a cause of cardiovascular disease.  Tokelauans traditionally obtained 40-50% of their calories from saturated fat, in the form of coconut meat. That's more than any other group I'm aware of.

So are the Tokelauans dropping like flies of cardiovascular disease?  I don't have access to the best data of all: actual heart attack incidence data. But we do have some telltale markers. In 1971-1982, researchers collected data from Tokelau and Tokelauan migrants to New Zealand on cholesterol levels, blood pressure and electrocardiogram (ECG) readings.

The Tokelauan diet, as I've described in detail in previous posts, is traditionally based on coconut, fish, starchy tubers and fruit. By 1982, their diet also contained a significant amount of imported flour and sugar. Migrants to New Zealand had a much more varied diet that was also more typically Western: more carbohydrate, coming chiefly from wheat, sugar and potatoes; more processed sweet foods and drinks; more red meat; more vegetables; more dairy and eggs. Sugar intake was 13 percent of calories, compared to 8 percent on Tokelau. Saturated fat intake in NZ was half of what it was on Tokelau, while total fat intake was similar. Polyunsaturated fat intake was higher in NZ, 4% as opposed to 2% in Tokelau. I don't have data to back this up, but I think it's likely that the n-6:n-3 ratio increased upon migration.

Blood pressure did not change significantly over time in Tokelau from 1971 to 1982, if anything it actually declined slightly. It was consistently higher in NZ than in Tokelau at all timepoints. Men were roughly three times more likely to be hypertensive in NZ than on Tokelau at all timepoints (4.0% vs. 12.0% in the early 1970s). Women were about twice as likely to be hypertensive (8.1% vs. 15.0%).

On to cholesterol. Total cholesterol in male Tokelauans was a bit lower on average than in New Zealand, but neither was particularly elevated (182 vs. 199 mg/dL). LDL was also a bit higher in NZ males (119 vs. 132 mg/dL). Triglycerides were lower in Tokelauan men than in NZ (80 vs. 114 mg/dL). There were no differences in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol or triglycerides between Tokelauan and NZ women.  It's interesting that serum lipids don't correspond at all to saturated fat intake.

But does it cause heart attacks? The best data I have from this study are ECG readings. These use electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of the heart. There are certain ECG patterns that suggest that a person has had a heart attack (Minnesota codes 1-1 and 1-2). The data I am going to present here are all age-standardized, meaning they are comparing between groups of the same age. On Tokelau in 1982, 0.0% of men 40-69 years old showed ECG readings that indicated a probable past heart attack. In NZ in 1980-81, 1.0% of men 40-69 years old showed the same ECG readings. In Tecumseh U.S.A. in 1965, 3.5% of men 40-69 years old showed the same ECG pattern. I don't have data for women.

These data don't prove that no one ever has a heart attack on Tokelau. Tokelauans do have heart attacks sometimes, and they also have strokes (at least in modern times). But they do allow us to compare in quantitative terms between genetically similar people living in two different environments.

This is consistent with what has been observed on Kitava and other traditional Pacific island cultures: a vanishingly small incidence of cardiovascular disease while they retain their traditional diet and lifestyle (and sometimes even when some processed Western food has been introduced). When diets and lifestyles become modern, there is invariably a rise in the incidence of chronic disease.

These data raise serious questions about the role of saturated fat in cardiovascular disease. Tokelau underlines the fact that a non-industrial diet and lifestyle may be a more significant protective factor than the quality of ingested fat.

Unless otherwise noted, the data in this post are from the book Migration and Health in a Small Society: the Case of Tokelau.