Arguments – well, discussions, but there is enough Irish and Italian blood around here to call them arguments – break out in the Foodsmatter offices on a regular basis over the merits and demerits of complementary therapies (homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine etc) versus Western allopathic medicine. In the complementary corner – FoodsMatter assistant editor Cressida and I; in the Western corner, SkinsMatter’s Alex Gazzola.
Many of our ‘discussions’ range around scientific trials – the double blind-placebo-controlled variety in particular. Alex maintains that although they may not be perfect (what is?) they are the best that we have and that they are at least an objective way of assessing the efficacy of a drug or a therapy. Cressida and I maintain that although DBPCTs are appropriate in some cases, they are totally inappropriate in many others and they are also very vulnerable to manipulation and corruption. (See some of the presentations at the BSEM conference in 2011 for example.)
This is a hugely complex subject and I certainly am not proposing to investigate it here. I only mention it because today I received a link from Dr Harry Morrow Brown pointing me to this research report published in the BMJ on February 5th: Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Heart Study and updated meta-analysis.
The eminent authors of this ‘re-evaluation of data’ conclude that :
Advice to substitute polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats is a key component of worldwide dietary guidelines for coronary heart disease risk reduction. However, clinical benefits of the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega 6 linoleic acid, have not been established. In this cohort, substituting dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats INCREASED (my caps) the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. An updated meta-analysis of linoleic acid intervention trials showed no evidence of cardiovascular benefit. These findings could have important implications for worldwide dietary advice to substitute omega 6 linoleic acid, or polyunsaturated fats in general, for saturated fats.
So all of that research on which the massive poly-unsaturated-fat food industry based its investment (and from which it has reaped sizeable profits) was a load of hocum….
Yet, it is the very methods of meta analysis that I spent half an hour proving to Alex last week simply did not work, that has now apparently disproved 40 years of other research findings – and found a sensible answer to the French paradox: saturated fat does not cause coronary heart disease. (For those who have not met it before, the French paradox asks why it is that those who live in Normandy in northern France and who eat prodigious quantities of butter, cream and other saturated fats have one of the lowest rate of coronary heart disease in Europe.)
I write this with no intent or hope of illuminating the discussion – merely to highlight yet again how incredibly patchy our understanding of the human body continues to be and how unreliable our research methods remain. So while doctors can do truly miraculous things to repair soldiers blown up by Afghan bombs, and drug companies have created drugs that really can arrest some fatal conditions as if by magic, it appears that we can still get something as massive as a 40-year campaign to wean us off saturated fats for the good of our hearts completely and utterly wrong……
Assuming that the authors of this latest paper are right, the people I feel sorry for are the millions and millions of those who have, for years, been shunning delicious ‘real’ butter, cream and cheese in favour of tasteless polyunsaturated alternatives, in the belief that they were helping themselves to live longer and healthier lives – only now to find that they were doing quite the opposite!