Saturated fat reconsidered, traces of herbicide in ice cream, and a curcumin success story

Week in Review
Steak and herbs on skillet

News about food is often a mix of conflicting advice and dubious claims. Three thought-provoking articles published this week caught my eye and offer plenty of food for thought.

Critique of the ‘diet-heart theory’

“Don’t believe the American Heart Association (AHA)—butter, steak and coconut oil aren’t likely to kill you” is the provocative title of an op-ed by Nina Teicholz published in the Los Angeles Times. Whereas the  latest Presidential Advisory contends that saturated (animal) fats do cause heart disease and should be replaced with vegetable oils, Teicholz argues that these claims are not borne out by the research.

Teicholz, an investigative journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, has extensively researched many studies examining the issue of saturated fat. Over the years, billions of dollars have been spent on “diet-heart theory” research. In 1961, the AHA issued the world’s first recommendations to avoid animal fats and cholesterol to prevent heart attacks. Those recommendations have been a source of confusion and controversy ever since.

Why? Because most studies critical of a high-fat diet focus on patient-reported incidents of pain or discomfort. But when considering clear endpoints—myocardial infarctions (heart attacks), strokes, and deaths related to cardiovascular problems—there is absolutely no correlation between those outcomes and the consumption of saturated fats. Hard to believe, but true. The world’s largest manufacturers of vegetable oils have benefitted enormously from consumer worry over saturated fat, and have continued to support studies that raise questions about animal fats.

In reality, we can eat meat, eggs, avocados, and nuts guilt-free or almost guilt-free. Some guilt remains because, as with everything in life, there are serious pros and cons to consider. Meat consumption certainly raises profound ethical and environmental issues. And, of course, moderation is key. In addition, research from areas of the world designated as “Blue Zones,” where people live to be over 100 years old, demonstrates the health benefits of a largely Mediterranean diet that minimizes, but doesn’t eliminate, meat and eggs.

As I have discussed in the past, the dominant recommendation is to eat “real food,” fresh and locally grown organic products. Processed foods and drinks should be avoided. Processed carbohydrates are of particular concern. In any event, there are far more harmful ingredients in our food than saturated fats.

An unexpected ingredient

A case in point is a report that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contains the controversial herbicide glyphosate from the weed killer “Round Up.” Glyphosate is widely used in agriculture, especially on GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. Several years ago, a World Health Organization group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, issued a controversial report indicating that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer, a perspective supported recently by the State of California. Lymphomas and myeloma have been linked to exposure to the herbicide.

The toxic pollution of our environment is becoming pervasive. In October, Island Press will publish Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, an examination of this serious problem written by science journalist Carey Gillam. The book draws attention to another serious contamination: that of honey. This caught me by surprise. Pesticides and insecticides enter wild flowers and are transferred by honey bees into the honey. The Monarch butterfly populations are being decimated because their natural food, milkweed, is being wiped out by these same toxic chemicals.

Fortunately, in California, there are active programs to replant milkweed, which can hopefully have an impact in restoring butterflies.

One patient’s curcumin story

Dietary supplements should be taken with caution. In most cases, touted benefits have not been proven or studied. Plus, side effects and interference with prescribed treatments can be a problem.

 A new report raises hopes of a possible exception. A case study published in The BMJ shows “long-term stabilisation of myeloma with curcumin.” This is the report of a single patient from the University Department at Barts Health NHS Trust in London. After multiple therapies, a 57-year-old woman with myeloma has finally stabilized for five years after taking curcumin 8g each evening.

One must always be cautious about single-case reports. Nonetheless, this is intriguing and deserves further study, especially in light of known potential anti-myeloma and anti-inflammatory effects. Clearly, more research is required.

And so, trying to stay healthy is a challenge these days, not least because of the difficulty is assessing the truth about stories in the news. I do my best to get to the bottom of these controversies, but am always happy to hear other viewpoints!        

Image of Dr. Brian G.M. DurieDr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.

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