The Bad Fat isn’t Bad and the Good Fat isn’t Good

President Eisenhower followed a low-cholesterol diet with military precision. But his cholesterol continued to climb. Even with exercise and strictly eating no foods with fat. He listened to the best medical advice of the day- and they were wrong.

President Eisenhower could not have been more frustrated. Following the advice of his cardiologist and General Thomas Mattingly, and the famed Paul Dudley White, Eisenhower was eliminating all cholesterol and fat from his diet. But every time they would take his blood level his cholesterol was higher.  He was no stranger to exercise, he gave up smoking in 1949, and days he would just have grapefruit with some melba toast.  The blood cholesterol would come back, higher than before. It was so frustrating that the White House physicians seeing him would make up numbers to tell him that it was getting better. But it didn’t. Eisenhower was crippled in retirement by his heart disease – determined to eat as prescribed, he ended his days as a cardiac cripple.

Lyndon B Johnson had a heart attack while he was a senator. General Thomas Mattingly was also his physician. Mattingly prescribed the same low fat diet that he had given to President Eisenhower. For months after his first attack Johnson followed it to the letter, shedding some 4o pounds and feeling better. But still his cholesterol was high.

LBJ, a heart patient, tried the “low cholesterol, low fat” diet, but realized his cholesterol didn’t change – so he gave it up. Remarkably, once he started eating the beef from his ranch his cholesterol decreased.

Johnson fell back into his old habits, and had another heart attack, which derailed his presidential ambitions for a while. Finally, in retirement Johnson started to follow the regime again – but noticed that when he started to eat beef from his ranch, his cholesterol went down. He came to his own conclusions, stopped trying to avoid beef- and enjoyed the bounties of his retirement. He enjoyed friends coming to the ranch, with frequent barbecues – often coming late for dinner.

For years America was told that saturated fat is bad for your heart. It was based on a faulty principle – that the fat in the arteries came from the fat in the blood which came from the fat in the diet. While it makes sense, it wasn’t until after Johnson and Eisenhower died that science discovered that dietary fat contributes only a small amount to blood lipid levels. The idea was popularized by Ancel Keys.

But in spite of evidence to the contrary, once a popular notion is in the press, it stays there. Which brings us to President Clinton. The president enjoyed his burgers, and when he had his heart attack he began to examine the notion that plant based diets would reverse heart disease. His disease arteries bypassed, he turned to Dr. Dean Ornish. Ultimately, Clinton became a vegan. Was it a wise choice? President Clinton is a smart fellow, but if he were to critically go through medical journals he might question his choice. ,

It has been 16years since Dean Ornish published his data showing a 3 per cent reduction in the plaques seen by coronary angiograms on a select group of patients who followed his Ornish diet and “lifestyle” plan. To be exact: the 28 patients who followed his plan had a 1.75% decrease in atherosclerotic plaque after one year and 3.1% decrease after five years. With the control group there was an increase of 2.3% in one year and 11.8% at five years.

In 16 years no one has reproduced that data. No one. Still, from one old paper Dean Ornish has made a career; first being the anti-Atkins, and riding the anti-cholesterol, low-fat band wagon with the same religious fervor as Keyes did thirty years before. Ornish has since become the lead health-blogger for Huffington Post, has influenced Bill Clinton – turning him into a vegan, and is favorably mentioned by Dr. Oz.

The difficulty is this: science has caught up with him, and we know a lot more about how atherosclerotic plaques form. We know that dietary lipids and their carriers are far less important that what the body makes. We know that the dietary component is far more related to the trigycerides – and triglycerides are raised much more by the grains and pastas that Ornish preaches on (in his trial, the “Ornish lifestyle” patients had a rise in their triglycerides).

What Ornish and his crew call a landmark paper, would not be accepted by the same journals today for a number of reasons:

(a) No one compares angiograms – a two-dimensional photograph of an artery – because they can be manipulated so easily and interpreted differently from one experienced radiologist or cardiologist to another. Depending on the angle you take the angiogram from, you can show a reduction in plaque by varying the recorder by a few degrees. Today intra-vascular ultrasound is the test of choice – this gives us a three dimensional view of the artery, from within the artery. The recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine, comparing lipid medications and their long-term effect on atherosclerotic plaque, is the most accurate measurement of plaque and its formation.

(b) We know about the science of lipids, plaque formation, and how we can manipulate those to provide a better answer for atherosclerosis that does not involve severe manipulations of a diet. For example, it appears it is the carrier proteins that cause the damage to the arteries – and more carrier proteins are made in response to certain stimuli (triglycerides being one).

(c ) There were deep and troubling issues with the groups of patients serving as controls. For example, we do not know how many pack-years of smoking were in one group or the other. This is not a minor flaw, as science understands the highly inflammatory changes that are made with smoking as opposed to those made with hyperlipidemia.

(d) Lipid lowering drugs were used in some, and not others – however, the drugs today are far better, and more targeted than before.

To this day when most talk about saturated fat we are given “alternatives” like margarine, olive oil, oils from nuts, seeds, and the like.  They are suppose to be better for us than “animal fat.” They are not.

We built pyramids – food pyramids, based on avoiding certain foods. We went out of our way to define the chemical nature of fats: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, a trans-fats. We made charts so we could keep track of which fats were the “good fats,” so we could tell patients to eat these.

Monounsaturated fatPolyunsaturated fat
Olive oilCorn oil, Grapeseed oil
AvocadosFatty fish
Almonds, peanuts, macadamia nutsWalnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed


Then of course we had to tell people what was “bad” because it caused problems so we made tables like this:

Saturated fatTrans fat
Beef, lamb, porkMargarine (stick form)
Ice creamFried foods (french fries, breading)
Milk, creamCrackers, popcorn, chips


But wait – then we had to tell what to change in their diet so we made tables like this one:


Less HealthyBetter Choice
Beef that is corn-fedBeef that is grass-fed
ButterOlive oil
Standard eggsEggs high in omega-3 fatty acids
Ice creamFrozen yogurt
MilkFat-free milk, soy milk, almond milk
Shortening, lardGrape seed oil, canola oil, vegetable oil

Did I mention we were wrong?

In science we make a hypothesis – then we test the hypothesis – then based on our findings we refine things, test again, and somewhere we develop a theory that explains the nature of things. In this case – food.

When the USDA and Europeans looked at the data to make recommendations about fat, they cherry-picked the data about saturated fats. Meaning, in spite of studies showing that saturated fat did not increase heart disease, in spite of studies showing that polyunsaturated fats may be worse than saturated fats, they pressed through guidelines and recommendations that were based not on critical thinking, but the bias of the committee members.

Remember: in those days, everyone had the thought that the fat laden arteries of people with coronary artery disease came from butter, animal fat, and the like.

Heart artery plaque- low fat diet doesn’t prevent this

What do we do?

It turns out that saturated fat is not bad for a person, and the studies showing we should substitute with other fats were wrong.

Still the ideas of eating “healthy” for many people means avoiding red meat, avoiding saturated fats, even though the evidence for this is almost non-existent.

How We Live:

Which brings us to one simple fact: how we live is more important than how when we die- especially if the quality of life is less than satisfying. I doubt Eisenhower enjoyed his last days as much as Lyndon Johnson.

But let me bring one simple point: learn to cook. Appreciate fresh food. Yes, you can live on processed food but you cannot thrive.



In 2003, a meta-analysis of over 50 trials was published examining the relationship of dietary fat to serum cholesterol levels (Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester AD, Katan MB. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serumlipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;77:1146–55.).  The conclusion was that saturated fat increases the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) but without changing the ratio of total to the HDL cholesterol.   They concluded that using cholesterol alone as a marker of risk was unreliable. This was because if you replace the saturated fat with carbohydrates or tropical oils if you examine the effects on HDL and apolipoprotein B. They concluded that “… we can never be sure what such fats and oils do to coronary artery disease risk.” To translate that from doctor-scientist language: we can improve some laboratory markers, but really not by any mechanism that makes a difference from what we know.

While a systematic review of randomized trials showed that when saturated fats are replaced by polyunsaturated fats there is a reduction in the laboratory marker for risk of heart disease, there was no association with mortality from heart disease.  To emphasize this: the laboratory values of the patients studied improved, but their mortality didn’t. The review also showed that monounsaturated fat intake significantly increased cardiac events, but no effect from the intake of saturated or polyunsaturated fat. Let me emphasize that: Monounsaturated fats, by at least one study, not only didn’t improve issues with the heart- the patients in that study did worse.

When examining other prospective studies about the risk of saturated fat and cardiovascular disease, there has been a consistent lack of an association between fat intake and heart disease, stroke, or total cardiac events.

Cohort studies show that by replacement of saturated fats with unsaturated fats, or carbohydrates – and examining the hazard ratios for heart attacks and deaths from heart disease were as follows: 0.87 for polyunsaturated fat, 1.19 for monounsaturated fat, and 1.07 for carbohydrates.  For those not familiar with statistics, these are essentially no difference, and if these small statistical numbers are accepted than polyunsaturated fat shows an alarming trend. So here is a study that indicates (with as much precision as most studies these days) that polyunsaturated fats are worse for you than saturated fats.

There is a difference between protection against what we define as risk of heart disease and death from heart disease.  Risk reduction means that we lower the laboratory values of factors we associate with risk – but the end point is death.  In a meta-analysis published in 2010 (Ramsden CE, Hibbeln JR, Majchrzak SF, Davis JM. N-6 fatty acid-specific and mixed polyunsaturated dietary interventions have different effects on CHD risk: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Nutr 2010;104:1586–600.) examined seven different trials, they found that there was a risk reduction but no change in mortality.  Another study (Skeaff CM, Miller J. Dietary fat and coronary heart disease: summary of evidence from prospective cohort and randomized controlled trials. Ann Nutr Metab 2009;55:173–201.  ) had eight trials found “There is probably no direct relation between total fat intake and risk of CHD (heart disease).

The advice of the USDA is reflected in places like WebMD, recounted in public service commercials, and recited as gospel by health care workers everywhere.  Giving false impressions about what an appropriate diet is.


Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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Latest Comments

  1. Paul Lebow says:

    Your article and most others focus on the risk for CHD – but I just discovered my calcium board values of 157 indicating plaques in my heart arteries. What studies are there once CHD is a reality?

  2. thedoc says:

    Depends on what caused the plaque. If it was smoking, elevated blood lipids, untreated hypertension then those can be treated. In terms of diet, the major thoughts are either a plant based solution (vegetarian) or a paleo-based solution (avoiding grains). While both have their proponents, the best studies done are with medications. The question you and your cardiologist must ask is what evaluation now, and that will be based on your physical examination, possible other interventions.

  3. Ted Hutchinson says:

    It may help readers to understand how we got misled about Saturated Fat if they read
    “Food for Thought: Have We Been Giving the Wrong Dietary Advice?”
    a free, open access, peer reviewed paper from “Food and Nutrition Sciences”
    We see “The Seven Countries study classified processed foods, primarily carbohydrates, as saturated fats.”
    I think if more people had gone to the original research papers and understood the classification of processed foods not as refined carbohydrates but as Saturated Fats, then perhaps dieticians and nutritionists would not have spent so long giving dangerously misleading advice.

  4. thedoc says:

    Nobody reads primary sources – but population studies are very flawed and to utilize them means to utilize flawed data

  5. tw says:

    ‘ It was based on a faulty principle – that the fat in the arteries came from the fat in the blood which came from the fat in the diet.’

    hmmm, well one thing we do know is that eating fatty foods increases the amount of fat in the blood after the meal.

    you also say ‘there has been a consistent lack of an association between fat intake and heart disease, stroke, or total cardiac events.’

    there has been a plethora of research done on this its almost overwhelming and every world and government health organisation have come to the opposite conclusion. its virtually unanimous, i cant buy your explanation that every single one of them has for some reason cherry picked data.

    you critise steve jobs in a previous post for going against conventional treatment but in saying ‘saturated fat is not bad for a person’ youre doing exactly the same thing in going against the strongly and widely held scientific consensus.
    if youre wrong on this and the scientific consensus is right then youve also mis-informed everyone whos read this page.

  6. thedoc says:

    First- there has not been research done by the government, there have been panels that have taken the data. It is not a scientific consensus, in fact, the consensus is the opposite. Second, the “fat” in the blood after eating fat is quite different than lipoproteins. So lets take the studies that are available: when people were asked to record what they ate, and then blood levels of cholesterol were drawn, there was no affect between the dietary fat consumed and blood cholesterol. In another study, out of Italy, dietary cholesterol varied by around 4% with saturated fat intake.

    Second, you can read the references for yourself- this is why they are there, to see the point.

    Third, there is no “conventional” treatment for diet – none, zero. The purpose here is not to go against science- but rather uphold it. Once there is a study that shows what a panel “concludes” then we will happily change the posts. As of now nope, not an issue.

  7. L Walker says:

    I enjoy your articles. It’s great to find a doctor not in lockstep with the AMA or is a peddler for (expensive) health-food products. I am 76 years old and have been taking 1000 mg of vitamin C a day, (and more when I have flu-symptoms) since I was 25. I rarely get a cold and that is always because I have neglected my daily C regimen. I live in Canada in a rural ex-fishing village, where I retired to from the city.
    My mother died from dementia in her late years, and I have a great fear of the same thing happening to me. In re-searching the subject I ran across some references to coconut-oil. At one time it was used widely in Europe and North America. The 2nd world war cut off much of the supply from S_E Asia and vegetable oil(hydogenized) and later margarine took up the slack. Most of SE-Asia still uses it. (In India it is known as Ghee). The western manufacturers of cooking oil and margarine saw a danger to their dominance and villianized coconut-oil up to almost the present time. What is your take on this..

  8. thedoc says:

    Coconut oil is just fine- does it have health benefits – I don’t know, but it is best when you get it from the source- prefer in the South Pacific. I think most of the trans-fat vegetable oil that was widely used, until recently discovered the trans-fat was horrid- had terrible consequences for people. I prefer foods that come from things we can identify – when they have things in them that I can’t then I worry – and as much as I like chemistry, I prefer to keep those long names out of the foods I eat

  9. Case says:

    On the day of his heart attack, Eisenhower ate bacon and sausage for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, and roast lamb for dinner. Also, what the heck are you talking about Johnson being so healthy and enjoying his retirement after leaving office?! He left office in 1969, gained tons of weight, was hospitalized the next year with angina and generally just went into self-destructive mode. He died of a heart attack at 64yrs in 1973; boy, I sure hope he “enjoyed the bounty of his retirement” as you say in your article, for those 4 years of retirement! Eisenhower took care of himself by that day’s standards and lived to 78 with 8 years of retirement.

  10. Dr. Terry Simpson says:

    Both Eisenhower and LBJ had their first heart attacks in 1955. LBJ lived until 1973 and Eisenhower until 1969. Eisenhower’s last years were bed ridden. LBJ’s weight went up and down for years, and he smoked like a chimney. The bad fat didn’t kill LBJ or Eisenhower – but LBJ had better blood work, lower cholesterol than Eisenhower.

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