Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

About That French Paradox

SPOTLIGHT: The death rate from heart disease in France is half that of America even though their national diet is high in cream, butter, and cheese. This has been called the French Paradox.

BIG PICTURE: Nutritional orthodoxy insists that animal/saturated fat leads to heart disease. Some say this doesn’t happen in France because red wine acts as a counterbalance.

In The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz traces hostility to animal fats back to influential scientist Ancel Keys. In 1954, Keys claimed to have discovered “a remarkable relationship between the death rate from degenerative heart disease and the proportion of fat calories in the national diet.” A pivotal graph he’d published the previous year appeared to demonstrate this.

But although data was available from 22 countries, Keys’ graph included only six. Had he focused on different countries, such as Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, or West Germany his argument would have made no sense. In each of those nations, fat consumption was high yet heart disease deaths were not. What later came to be called the French Paradox was no isolated phenomenon.

In 1957, two other scientists decisively demonstrated that Keys’ logic was faulty. According to the same data sources he’d consulted, meat eating was more strongly linked to heart disease than was fat. More importantly, when all causes of death were considered (including those from heart disease), higher fat and higher meat consumption were associated with longer lives.

The claim that animal fat is particularly unhealthy should have perished then. But some ideas are apparently irresistible. Keys helped write a 1961 American Heart Association statement recommending less “whole milk, cream, butter, cheese and meat” in favour of margarine and oils made from corn and soybeans.

By 1970, research published by the World Health Organization was referring to “the generally accepted hypothesis that excessive intake of fats, especially the saturated type” is bad for our hearts.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Medical research is performed by human beings. Human beings frequently succumb to tunnel vision and groupthink.

LINKS:

  • Keys’ 1957 critics, Jacob Yerushalmy and Herman Hilleboe, plotted all 22 countries on an alternative graph (I’ve highlighted the ‘paradox’ countries).
  • Among their many concerns is that the data in question was highly unreliable and was never intended to be used in the way Keys used it. It’s a pity their thorough and persuasive smackdown fell on deaf ears.

 

 

 

 


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This entry was posted on January 22, 2018 by in quotations and tagged , , , , , .
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