The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Stuck at the Starting Gate?

The diet-heart hypothesis is the idea that (1) dietary saturated fat, and in some versions, dietary cholesterol, raise blood cholesterol in humans and (2) therefore contribute to the risk of heart attack.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the theory in relation to dietary cholesterol because the evidence that typical dietary amounts cause heart disease in humans is weak.  Here's a graph from the Framingham Heart study (via the book
Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, by Dr. Harumi Okuyama et al.) to drive home the point. Eggs are the main source of cholesterol in the American diet. In this graph, the "low" group ate 0-2 eggs per week, the "medium" group ate 3-7, and the "high" group ate 7-14 eggs per week (click for larger image): The distribution of blood cholesterol levels between the three groups was virtually identical. The study also found no association between egg consumption and heart attack risk. Dietary cholesterol does not have a large impact on serum cholesterol in the long term, perhaps because humans are adapted to eating cholesterol. Most people are able to adjust their own cholesterol metabolism to compensate when the amount in the diet increases. Rabbits don't have that feedback mechanism because their natural diet doesn't include cholesterol, so feeding them dietary cholesterol increases blood cholesterol and causes vascular pathology.

The first half of the diet-heart hypothesis states that eating saturated fat raises blood cholesterol. This has been accepted without much challenge by diet-health authorities for nearly half a century. In 1957, Dr. Ancel Keys proposed a formula (Lancet 2:1959. 1957) to predict changes in total cholesterol based on the amount of saturated and polyunsaturated fat in the diet. This formula, based primarily on short-term trials from the 1950s, stated that saturated fat is the primary dietary influence on blood cholesterol.

According to Keys' interpretation of the trials, saturated fat raised, and to a lesser extent polyunsaturated fat lowered, blood cholesterol.
But there were significant flaws in the data from the very beginning, which were pointed out in this critical 1973 literature review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (free full text).

The main problem is that the controlled trials typically compared saturated fats to omega-6 linoleic acid (LA)-rich vegetable oils, and when serum cholesterol was higher in the saturated fat group, this was most often attributed to the saturated fat raising blood cholesterol rather than the LA lowering it. When a diet high in saturated fat was compared to the basal diet without changing LA, often no significant increase in blood cholesterol was observed. Studies claiming to show a cholesterol-raising effect of saturated fat often introduced it after an induction period rich in LA. Thus, the effect sometimes had more to do with LA lowering blood cholesterol than saturated fat raising it. This is not at all what I was expecting to find when I began looking through these trials.

Reading through the short-term controlled trials, I was surprised by the variability and lack of agreement between them. Some of this was probably due to a lack of control over variables and non-optimal study design. But if saturated fat has a dominant effect on serum cholesterol in the short term, it should be readily and consistently demonstrable.  

The long-term data are not kind to the diet-heart hypothesis. Reducing saturated fat while greatly increasing LA certainly does lower blood cholesterol substantially. This was the finding in the well-controlled Minnesota Coronary Survey trial, for example (14% reduction). But in other cases where LA intake changed less, such as MRFIT, the Women's Health Initiative Diet Modification trial and the Lyon Diet-Heart trial, reducing saturated fat intake had little or no effect on total cholesterol or LDL (0-3% reduction).  The small changes that did occur could have been due to other factors, such as increased fiber and phytosterols, since these were multiple-factor interventions.

Another blow to the idea that saturated fat raises cholesterol in the long term comes from observational studies. Here's a graph of data from the Health Professionals Follow-up study, which followed 43,757 health professionals for 6 years (via the book
Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease by Dr. Harumi Okuyama et al.): What this graph shows is that at a relatively constant LA intake, neither saturated fat intake nor the ratio of LA to saturated fat were related to blood cholesterol in freely living subjects. This was true across a wide range of saturated fat intakes (7-15%). 

There's more. If saturated fat were important in determining the amount of blood cholesterol in the long term, you'd expect populations who eat the most saturated fat to have high blood cholesterol levels. But that's not the case. The Masai traditionally get a high proportion of their calories from milk fat, half of which is saturated. In 1964, Dr. George V. Mann published a paper showing that traditional Masai warriors eating practically nothing but very fatty milk, blood and meat had an average cholesterol of 115 mg/dL in the 20-24 year age group. For comparison, he published values for American men in the same age range: 198 mg/dL (J. Atherosclerosis Res. 4:289. 1964). Apparently, eating three times the saturated animal fat and several times the cholesterol of the average American wasn't enough to elevate their blood cholesterol. What does elevate the cholesterol of a Masai man?
Junk food.

Now let's swim over to the island of Tokelau, where the traditional diet includes nearly 50% of calories from saturated fat from coconut. This is the highest saturated fat intake of any population I'm aware of. How's their cholesterol? Men in the age group 20-24 had a concentration of 168 mg/dL in 1976, which was lower than Americans in the same age group despite a four-fold higher saturated fat intake.
Tokelauans who migrated to New Zealand, eating half the saturated fat of their island relatives, had a total cholesterol of 191 mg/dL in the same age group and time period, and substantially higher LDL (J. Chron. Dis. 34:45. 1981). Sucrose consumption was 2% on Tokelau and 13% in New Zealand. Saturated fat seems to take a backseat to some other diet/lifestyle factor(s).  Body fatness and excess calorie intake are good candidates, since they influence circulating lipoproteins.

Does dietary saturated fat influence total cholesterol and LDL over the long term?  I don't have the answers, but I do think it's interesting that the evidence is much less consistent than it's made out to be.  It may be that if dietary saturated fat influences total cholesterol or LDL concentration in the long term, the effect is is secondary to other factors.  That being said, it's clear that linoleic acid, in large amount, reduces circulating total cholesterol and LDL.