Vegetable Oil Consumption Can Increase Heart Disease Risk

Back in the 20th century, Ancel Keys delivered a message to the American public: We’ve become an indulgent nation and we consume too many saturated fats which causes cholesterol levels to rise and this is driving high rates of heart disease. This is what is known as the “lipid hypothesis” or the “diet-heart hypothesis.” Ancil told us what the solution was:

Stop eating saturated fats from things like butter, whole milk, full-fat cheese, etc. and eat more polyunsaturated fats from sources such as refined vegetable oils and margarines that contain omega-6 fatty acids like linoleic acid. This will decrease cholesterol and result in fewer heart attacks.

Various sources of dietary fats. Image Credit: Getty Images

This message was taken up and implemented as food policy in the United States, notably by the United States Department of Agriculture who publishes the “Food Guide Pyramid” (now called MyPlate). Anyone familiar with history is aware of how this turned out. It resulted in Americans drastically increasing their consumption of trans fats and processed oils. This policy (along with the low-fat guidelines which caused Americans to drastically increase their sugar consumption) decimated the health of millions of Americans. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, obesity, asthma, and other diseases gained a strong foothold.

It took decades, but eventually we came to our senses, at least partially. We turned our back on trans fats and outlawed them from the food supply. This was a good step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough.

The food industry and Ancel Keys’ sympathizers doubled down. They said the problem is still saturated fats. The solution: eat less saturated fat and eat more polyunsaturated fats from things like vegetable oils and margarines. Butter, cheese and egg yolks were out and soybean oil, corn oil and vegetable spreads were in.

An old corn oil advertisement

Not everyone was convinced. There was a crowd of scientists that questioned these policies and proposed that it was actually the refined, processed fats and oils that were the problem. Their cries fell on deaf ears for the most part. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the nutritionist, Mary Enig.

The pro-vegetable oil crowd did actually have a shred of evidence they could stand on, as long as they viewed the data from the standpoint of the lipid hypothesis being accurate. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats like those found in soybean oil could be shown to lower cholesterol levels in food studies. According to the lipid hypothesis, if you lower cholesterol you lower heart disease risk. It seems inuitive, but this was an unproven hypothesis when they proposed the theory and it has remained unproven to this day. Half of the major heart attacks occur in people who have normal cholesterol levels.

Over time, we found out that cholesterol levels don’t tell the whole story. Things such as oxidized-LDL cholesterol, LDL particle size counts, chronic inflammation, improper calcium utilization in the body, infections, stress levels, lifestyle choices, and more also play important roles in heart disease risk and cannot be ignored.

After decades of research, the truth of the matter is finally starting to come to light. A study published in the British Medical Journal does a great job of summarizing some of the findings.

Omega-6 vegetable oils as a driver of coronary heart disease: the oxidized linoleic acid hypothesis

“The intake of omega-6 vegetable oils, particularly soybean oil, began to increase in the USA starting in the early 1900s at a time when the consumption of butter and lard was on the decline. This caused a more than two-fold increase in the intake of linoleic acid, the main omega-6 polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oils, which now makes up around 8% to 10% of total energy intake in the Western world. The omega-6 fat linoleic acid should not be confused with conjugated linoleic acid found in pastured animal foods.

A systematic review of studies measuring the changes in linoleic acid concentration in subcutaneous adipose tissue in the USA revealed an approximate 2.5-fold increase in linoleic acid increasing from 9.1% to 21.5% from 1959 to 2008. Importantly, the concentration of linoleic acid in adipose tissue is a reliable marker of intake as the half-life of linoleic acid is approximately 2 years in adipose tissue. The authors of the study also noted that the increase in adipose tissue linoleic paralleled the increase in the prevalence of diabetes, obesity and asthma.”


“The consumption of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid has dramatically increased in the western world primarily in the form of vegetable oils. [Oxidized LDL (OxLDL)] is thought to play an important role in atherosclerosis formation; however, it is the oxidised linoleic acid contained in LDL that leads to harmful OXLAMs, which induces atherosclerosis and [coronary heart disease (CHD)]. Thus, reducing the amount of dietary linoleic acid, mainly from industrial vegetable/seed oils, will reduce the amount of linoleic acid in LDL and likely reduce oxLDL as well as the risk for coronary heart disease.

In summary, numerous lines of evidence show that the omega-6 polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid promotes oxidative stress, oxidised LDL, chronic low-grade inflammation and atherosclerosis, and is likely a major dietary culprit for causing [coronary heart disease (CHD)], especially when consumed in the form of industrial seed oils commonly referred to as ‘vegetable oils’.”

Note: This article should not be generalized to mean omega-6 fats, linoleic acid or polyunsaturated fats are bad for you in general. The take-away is that we eat too much of them to the point where they create inflammatory conditions inside the body AND that we often consume them from the wrong sources (e.g. processed, refined oils).

What Does the World Need More Of?

A friend of mine recently shared this with me. He wanted to ask the question “What does the world need more of?” After a Google search, he found this answer on the Quora website: Link

The author goes on:

“We need bass players on construction sites, nail guns firing in tempo.

Just imagine that for a second. A house is going up. The workers are using their tools as percussion instruments, keeping time, adding their own beats —individual rhythms, but in cohesion. And then…a walking bass line starts up…a piccolo or tin whistle cuts in, beginning the melody of the day… (what else would carry over the cacophony of a construction site?) No, they’re not playing anything you’ve ever heard before. There is no composer, no author, nor recording they’re trying to emulate. It will only be played once. In this moment…can you hear it? Would you want to be part of that crew or a member of their ‘audience’?”

…there’s too many households without music… Without music, everything becomes discordant chaos.

So here’s your reminder you make some music today: sing a song, look dumb dancing in your kitchen, or simply turn off the TV and put some of your favorite music on.

Are We Overreacting to COVID-19?

My recent thoughts on COVID-19:

Here’s an editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine published yesterday (March 26th): Link

“On the basis of a case definition requiring a diagnosis of pneumonia, the currently reported case fatality rate is approximately 2%. In another article in the Journal, Guan et al. report mortality of 1.4% among 1099 patients with laboratory-confirmed Covid-19; these patients had a wide spectrum of disease severity. If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.”

“Either children are less likely to become infected, which would have important epidemiologic implications, or their symptoms were so mild that their infection escaped detection, which has implications for the size of the denominator of total community infections.”

In an NPR article on why death rates from Coronavirus can be deceiving (Link), the author says this:

“In Italy, about 10% of people known to be infected have died. In Iran and Spain, the case fatality rate is higher than 7%. But in South Korea and the U.S. it’s less than 1.5%. And in Germany, the figure is close to 0.5%.

So what gives?

The answer involves how many people are tested, the age of an infected population and factors such as whether the health care system is overwhelmed, scientists say. Also, because of the way countries monitor pandemics like the coronavirus, he says, the case fatality rate tends to decrease over time. The reason: When a new disease first shows up, testing usually focuses on severely ill people who are at high risk of dying. Later on, testing is more likely to include people with milder illness who are less likely to die.

That’s what happened with West Nile virus, which appeared in the U.S. in 1999. At first, when scientists only knew of about a few dozen cases, it appeared the mortality rate was higher than 10%. But wider testing eventually found hundreds of thousands of people who’d been infected but never got sick enough to notice. Today, more than 3 million Americans have been infected and studies show that fewer than 1% become seriously ill.”

Looking at real time data for Coronavirus statistics, it shows 25,360 deaths and 559,351 confirmed cases.

25,360 / 559,351 = 4.5% fatality rate

The problem with that figure is that the denominator only counts people who have been tested and tested positive. How many people have it and aren’t tested either because their symptoms are mild or because they can’t get a test (test shortages, they don’t meet the (sometimes strict) testing requirements, etc? If we are capturing 25% of the cases with testing, then the new denominator is 2,237,404.

25,360 / 2,237,404 = 1.1%

Personally, I don’t think we’re catching even 25% of the cases with testing, so that number could be well south of 1%. Whatever the number is, we have to compare it to the cost of the public policies we’ve chosen which are hurting the economy and leading to job losses. Some people view this as a people dead vs money thing. And that’s wrong. It’s people dead vs people dead. Unemployment kills people too.

If the fatality rate is down around 1% or lower and in line with other common ailments, our global reaction would be an overreaction. To be consistent, we have to ask ourselves why didn’t we implement similar policies and crash the economy over SARS or MERS or swine flu or even regular flu every winter? We need to keep things in perspective.

If coronavirus is more akin to a common cold or seasonal influenza, is decimating the global economy like we’re doing a practical solution to this? The stock market has lost $6 trillion dollars in wealth and millions of jobs could be lost. We’re gearing up to spend trillions more with these recent spending bills. According to one estimate, as many as 25 million jobs worldwide could be lost. The low estimate is 5 million jobs. The International Labour Organization “calculated that there could be as many as 35 million more people in working poverty around the world than before the pre-coronavirus estimate for 2020.”

Is anyone out there running the numbers on how many people will die and how much economic value will be erased by a global recession that may be caused by our reaction to COVID-19, and then comparing those numbers to what coronavirus may do? What’s worse: the virus or our reaction to it?

I’m no politician and I don’t get to make decisions, but my vote for what we should do would be to put out a voluntarily quarantine order for any high risk population: the elderly, immune compromised people, etc. and have the low risk, healthy population keep working hard and working intelligently (maintain social distancing guidelines (6 feet), washing hands, etc.) to slow down the spread AND keep the economy running.

That’s my two cents. If this virus is as dangerous as some are saying then it means all of the reaction we’ve done so far and all the economic losses are justified. If this is more akin to an aggressive seasonal flu, we’ll be adding insult to injury and paying for it for years to come.

Why Isn’t Digital Audio Perfect?

Digital glare. A plague of digital audio playback systems. It seems the best comment a CD player or digital source can get is to sound “like analog” or “as good as vinyl.” I’ve gone to great lengths to battle this in my CD-based 2-channel system but it’s never ending. My father, upon hearing my system for the first time (and at loud volumes), said this: “The treble isn’t offensive to my ears.” What a great compliment! My hard work has paid off, but the “glare” isn’t completely gone… yet.

Digital glare can manifest in multiple ways, often in the form of piercing high frequencies or “shouty” midrange frequencies. A hallmark signature is that long listening sessions, especially at louder volumes, leads to listener fatigue: your ears may hurt or you may get a slight headache that makes you want to turn the music off. Analog sources, like vinyl records or reel-to-reel tapes, don’t seem to be as plagued by this as digital sources are.

So what does digital do wrong? Is it a problem with the format or the playback hardware? Why does it take so much work to make digital sound as good or better than analog recordings? The technical specs tell us digital is far superior to vinyl or reel to reel. Does it try too hard? Where digital is trying to capture the micro details of complex passages, analog just “rounds it off” and says “good enough,” and it sounds good enough? Or does digital have some other issue in the chain – noise in the DAC chip, high frequency harmonics, or issues with the anti-aliasing filter? Does it have to do with the power supply? If you ask any audiophile, they’ll tell you that clean power is very important.

There are studies that show people subjectively prefer the sound of vinyl, even if only by a small margin. That doesn’t quite add up when we consider digital’s dominant technical specifications. On paper, digital should win.

So what’s really going on here? Why doesn’t digital knock the socks off vinyl and why does there appear to be some issue with “digital glare” in these types of audio systems that takes some serious work to resolve?

A flow of audio from sound waves through a microphone to an analog voltage, A-D converter, computer, D-A converter, analog voltage, speaker and finally as sound waves again. Image Credit: Wikipedia User: Teeks99