- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

Those new studies showing low-fat diets don’t reduce cancer and heart disease aren’t the real story. The real story is that the health establishment has known for decades how ineffective such “lifestyle changes” are, and that they don’t intend to change their advice to Americans regardless of what the science shows.

There’s always been strong evidence the central tenet in the religion of preventive medicine — low-fat diets will reduce or prevent cancer and heart disease — is false. The advice dished out by the health establishment about lifestyles is mostly based on “indirect evidence.” In the language of science, that means we really have no evidence at all.

The failure of low-fat diets to make a difference to cancer and heart disease (CHD) risks has been documented since the 1970s. For instance, in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, 12,866 men at increased risk from heart disease were divided into two groups. One group received the usual care. The other group was given drugs to reduce hypertension, told to stop smoking, and counseled to reduce fat and cholesterol.

Despite these factors, there was no statistically significant difference in mortality rates from CHD or any other cause between the two groups.

Or take the famous study from Finland, the North Karelia Project, which has exceptionally high rates of CHD. Five thousand people were recruited for a five-year study that focused on reducing cardiovascular death (CVD) risk factors such as dietary fat. Yet, in both women and men, there were no significant differences in CVDs.

There’s also the massive Nurses’ Health Study involving almost 90,000 nurses, aged 30-55, and run by researchers from Harvard since 1976. In a study on CHD risks and the nurses published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, no statistically significant association was found between CHD and total fat intake, animal fat intake, cholesterol and saturated fat intake. And several other studies have also failed to find a link between cholesterol and heart disease, a fact that should set off any number of alarm bells.

There’s something even more extraordinary than that the “new” studies simply confirm something we’ve known at least two decades but which has never been widely reported, or that all those lifestyle claims about avoiding fat to cheat cancer and heart disease are based only on indirect evidence. It’s that the health establishment has no intention of changing its advice even now that the advice has been so soundly discredited.

In their media sound bites, the high priests of the low-fat religion were quick to tell people not to quit their low-fat regimes, since these studies were probably flawed. After all, they were only about women, or old women or women who didn’t follow their diets or women who didn’t follow their diets long enough or whatever.

The most insulting piece of scientific hubris and hypocrisy, however, came in the editorial accompanying publication of the studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There, Cheryl Anderson and Lawrence Appel from Johns Hopkins University wrote that, despite finding no effect from low-fat diets, “dietary changes can have powerful, beneficial effects on CVD risk factors and outcomes.”

In other words, we’ve just spent almost a half-billion dollars of your money and, once again, found low fat diets don’t reduce your risks from cancer and heart disease. But, hey, trust us, forget the science and just keep doing what we’ve always told you to do. That’s a mockery of both the scientific process and the requirement that health advice be evidence-based.

Anyone for a little crow to replace that fat?

John Luik is a health policy analyst and Patrick Basham is director of the Democracy Institute. This spring, London’s Social Affairs Unit will publish their new book on obesity.

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