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Abstract

Most researchers to-day consider that a high intake of saturated fat and elevated LDL cholesterol are the most important causes of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. The lipid hypothesis has dominated cardiovascular research and prevention for almost half a century although the number of contradictory studies may exceed those that are supportive. The harmful influence of a campaign that ignores much of the science extends to medical research, health care, food production and human life. There is an urgent need to draw attention to the most striking contradictions, many of which may be unknown to most doctors and researchers.
INVITED ARTICLE
The fallacies of the lipid hypothesis
UFFE RAVNSKOV
Abstract
Most researchers to day consider that a high intake of saturated fat and elevated LDL cholesterol are the most important
causes of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. The lipid hypothesis has dominated cardiovascular research and
prevention for almost half a century although the number of contradictory studies may exceed those that are supportive.
The harmful influence of a campaign that ignores much of the science extends to medical research, health care, food
production and human life. There is an urgent need to draw attention to the most striking contradictions, many of which
may be unknown to most doctors and researchers.
Key words: Cholesterol, saturated fat, cardiovascular disease
The lipid hypothesis consists of two main postulates.
The first says that a high intake of saturated fat raises
blood cholesterol an d the second that high choles-
terol leads to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular
disease. The philosopher Karl Popper is usually
cited as codifying the principle of falsifiability that
scientific theories must meet. The lipid hypothesis
conforms to this requirement: if saturated fat pro-
motes cardiovascular disease by raising choles terol, a
high intake should be followed by high total and/or
low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and
should be associated with an increased risk of
achieving cardiovascular disease; a decreased intak e
should reduce that risk. If high total or LDL
cholesterol causes atherosclerosis, people with high
cholesterol should be more atherosclerotic and run a
greater risk of achieving cardiovascular disease than
people with low cholesterol, and a lowering of total
and/or LDL cholesterol should lead to regress, or at
least to a slower progress of atherosclerosis and to a
lower risk of cardiovascular disease. If these out-
comes are not found, that is, if saturated fat does not
reliably increase cholesterol, if cholesterol does not
reliably predict atherosclerosis and cardiovascular
disease, the theory must be accepted as false. In the
following I shall demonstrate that the postulates have
been falsified effectively in many studies.
Saturated fat
According to all official guidelines a diet rich in
carbohydrates and poor in fat, in particular saturated
fat, is said to be the best non-pharmaceutical way to
prevent cardiovascular disease. The main argument
against saturated fat is that a high intake raises blood
cholesterol. A strong contradiction of this statement
is that the lowest cholesterol concentrations ever
seen have been measured in African tribes whose
diet consists almost entirely of animal food (1). Even
if this is considered an exception ! in such a complex
system, the standards of falsifiability are not absolute
! the cholesterol-raising effect cannot be considered
highly predictable, because in at least ten recent
controlled low-carbohydrate trials, where intakes of
saturated fat were 3!7 times higher than the recom-
mended upper limit, total or LDL cholesterol
remained unchanged. As the concentration of small
dense LDL particles is a stronger risk factor for
cardiovascular disease than LDL cholesterol itself it
is also a contradiction to the theory that LDL size is
inversely associated with intake of saturated fat (2).
Even if a high intake of saturated fat raised
cholesterol to any extent in more balanced diets,
this is surrogate outcome. The crucial question is
whether a high intake leads to cardi ovascular disease,
but few studies suppor t that notion. At least
Correspondence: Uffe Ravnskov, Magle Stora Kyrkogata 9, S 22350 Lund, Sweden. Tel and Fax: "46 46145022. E-mail: ravnskov@tele2.se
Scandinavian Cardiovascular Journal. 2008; 42: 236!239
(Received 8 February 2008; accepted 12 Febr uary 2008)
ISSN 1401-7431 print/ISSN 1651-2006 online # 2008 Informa UK Ltd.
DOI: 10.1080/14017430801983082
30 cohort and case-control studies including more
than 300 000 individuals have found that coronary
patients have not eaten more saturated fat before
their first heart attack than others (1). More at odds
is that in at least seven cohort studies stroke patients
had eaten significantly less. There is no support from
autopsy studies either: low-consumers are just as
atherosclerotic as high-c onsumers (1), and a meta-
analysis of the controlled, randomised dietary clin-
ical trials found no effect of reducing saturated fat,
either on coronary morbidity, coronary mortality, or
total mortality (1).
High cholesterol
Contrary to the widely held belief among doctors
and researchers, there is little evidence that high
cholesterol leads to cardiovascular diseas e. Autopsy
studies of individuals who have died from non-
medical causes have confirmed Lande´ and Sperry?s
observation from 1936 of an absence of an associa-
tion between total or LDL cholesterol and degree of
atherosclerosis, measured before death or immedi-
ately after (Figure 1) (2). A few autopsy studie s of
patients with cardiovascular disease have found a
weak association, probably because such studies
always include proportionally more patients with
familial hypercholesterolaemia. As the latter on
average always are more atherosclerotic than others,
and as their cholesterol is higher, their inclusion
automatically creates an association between choles-
terol and atherosclerosis, although, as explained
below, their higher degree of atherosclerosis may
not be due to their high cholesterol (Figure 2) (3).
Some studies of young and middle-aged men have
found high cholesterol to be a risk factor for
coronary disease, whereas others have not (4). On
the other hand, high cholesterol has not been found
to be a risk factor in patients with diabetes (4),
patients with established heart disease (3), patients
with terminal renal failure, (5) or in women (3), and,
most surprising, rarely in old people (6), although at
least in Sweden more than 90% of all coronary
deaths occur in people above age 65. Also contra-
dictory is that neither the concentration of LDL nor
total cholesterol predict the degree of prog ress of
angiographic changes (7), and neither are associated
with peripheral atherosclerosis or intermittent clau-
dication (8). In cohorts of people with familial
hypercholesterolaemia, LDL or total cholesterol do
not predict future coronary heart disease or per iph-
eral atheroscl erosis; those with moderately elevated
cholesterol run the same risk as those whose
cholesterol is 2!3 times higher than the mean value
in normal people (9!12). Indeed, in one study those
with the highest cholesterol had the lowest risk of
heart dis ease (12). Even Brown and Goldstein were
aware of the lack of an association between choles-
terol and cardiovascular disease among these people.
Thus, in a 1983 paper they wrote: ‘Among FH
patients (both heterozygous and homozygous), there
is considerable variation in the rate of progression of
atherosclerosis, despite uniformly elevated LDL
levels.’(13). The explanation may be that other
hereditary abnormalities are seen in some of these
people, for ins tance a predisposition to abnormalities
of the coagulation system, which is a strong risk
factor for coronary heart disease in familial hyperch-
olesterolaemia (14).
Cholesterol lowering does not prevent
cardiovascular disease
Meta-analyses of the cholesterol lowering trials
before the introduction of the statins found no effect
0
500
1000
1500
2000
2500
3000
3500
4000
0 50 100 150 200 250 300 350 400
Cholesterol; mg/dl
Lipid content in aorta.
Figure 1. Association between degree of atherosclerosis and total
cholesterol concentration in the blood in 40 men and women
between 50 69 years, who had died violently without preceding
disease. The figure is constructed using data from Lande´ and
Sperry (see ref. 7).
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
150 200 250 300 350 400
Cholesterol; mg/dl
% surface involved
Figure 2. Association between degree of atherosclerosis and total
cholesterol at autopsy. It is obvious that the weak association
disappears after exclusion of individuals with cholesterol above
350 mg/dl. (9 mmol/l). Redrawn from Solberg et al. (see ref. 7).
The lipid hypothesis 237
of cholesterol lowering on heart mortality; indeed,
total mortality increased (15). Statin treatment is
able to lower heart mortality, but the effect is trivial,
it is only presen t in high-risk, young and middle-age
male patients, and the small effect achieved is
probably due to the statins? pleiotropic effects, not
to cholesterol lowering, because there is no associa-
tion between initial cholesterol, or degree of choles-
terol lowering, and the clinical or angiographic
outcome (3,6).
Unfortunately, the statins have many side effects,
such as muscular problems, liver damage, renal
failure, depression, amnesia and nerve damage, as
well as impotence, abortion and severe birth def ects
(16!19). Ac cording to the reports from the statin
trials, all of which have been sponsored by the drug
companies, side effects are mild and rare, but
underreporting is prevalent. Muscular symptoms
for instance are said to occur in less than one
percent, but researchers independent on the drug
companies have found the frequency to be 64% (20)
and 75% (21). This side effect may not only be
painful, it also hampers exercising, the most im-
portant, the cheapest and the least harmful measure
in the prevention of heart disease.
High cholesterol may be beneficial
By 1992, a meta-analysis of 19 cohort studies
including more than 600 000 men and women
from many countries had found that cholesterol
was inversely associated with mortality from respira-
tory and digestive diseases (22), most of which were
of an infectious origin. The observation was in line
with a large number of epidemiological, laboratory
and experimental studies showing that high choles-
terol protects against infections (6). The main effect
seems to be exerted by the LDL molecule. For
instance, mice with FH challenged with bacterial
endotoxin by injection with Gram-negative bacteria,
had an 8-fold increased LD50, and a significantly
delayed and overall lower mortality than control
mice. Also, pharmacologically induced hypocholes-
terolaemia led to a markedly increased endotoxin
mortality that was returned to normal after injection
of exoge nous lipoproteins; and the haemolytic effects
of Staphylococcus aureus a-toxin was prevented by
adding purified LDL to the test tube (6). In
agreement with this idea, individua ls with famili ar
hypercholesterolaemia had a longer life expectancy
than others before year 1900, where the main cause
of mortality was infectious diseases (23). A recent,
large follow-up study found that their average life-
span was normal because the increased coronary
mortality was balanced by a decreased mortality
from other diseases (24). Older people with high
cholesterol live longer than older people with low
cholesterol, and this author has tabulated the many
clinical studies that have confirmed the benefits of
high choles terol in various types of infectious dis-
eases (6).
Conclusions
The cholesterol hypothesis has failed to stand up to
the standard of falsifiability. In a med ical theory, it
takes more than one counter-example, but this
review has pointed to the numerous studies that
contradict basic predictions. Although I have fol-
lowed the literature in this field meticulou sly for
almost 18 years I may have overlooked supportive
studies. However, a few supportive studies cannot
outweigh the large number of contradictory ones.
But the cholesterol campaign continues, inappropri-
ate studies are funded and controversial studies are
either ignored or cited as if they were supportive
(15,26). There is, however, increasing awareness
that the diet-heart hypothesis is sustained by a
number of soci al, political and financial factors,
most of which have little to do with science or any
established success in public health.
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The lipid hypothesis 239
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To see if the claim that lowering cholesterol values prevents coronary heart disease is true or if it is based on citation of supportive trials only. Comparison of frequency of citation with outcome of all controlled cholesterol lowering trials using coronary heart disease or death, or both, as end point. 22 controlled cholesterol lowering trials. Trials considered by their directors as supportive of the contention were cited almost six times more often than others, according to Science Citation Index. Apart from trials discontinued because of alleged side effects of treatment, unsupportive trials were not cited after 1970, although their number almost equalled the number considered supportive. In three supportive reviews the outcome of the selected trials was more favourable than the outcome of the excluded and ignored trials. In the 22 controlled cholesterol lowering trials studied total and coronary heart disease mortality was not changed significantly either overall or in any subgroup. A statistically significant 0.32% reduction in non-fatal coronary heart disease seemed to be due to bias as event frequencies were unrelated to trial length and to mean net reduction in cholesterol value; individual changes in cholesterol values were unsystematically or not related to outcome; and after correction for a small but significant increase in non-medical deaths in the intervention groups total mortality remained unchanged (odds ratio 1.02). Lowering serum cholesterol concentrations does not reduce mortality and is unlikely to prevent coronary heart disease. Claims of the opposite are based on preferential citation of supportive trials.
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Objective. To estimate the mortality caused by familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) without selection based on cardiovascular disease. Design. Genealogical investigation with identification of carriers of the V408M-mutation and determination of the standardised mortality ratio (SMR). Method. The mortality in a large pedigree with FH going back to the 18th century was compared with the mortality in the Dutch population. In the pedigree, the mortality due to all causes was studied in all subjects older than 20 years with a 50% chance of having the abnormality. Results. Among 250 persons accounting for a total of 6950 person-years, there were 70 deaths. There was no excess mortality due to the abnormality in the 19th and early 20th centuries; after 1915, the mortality began to rise, reaching a maximum in 1935-1964 (SMR; 1.78; 95%-CI: 1.13-2.76; p = 0.003), after which it again decreased. Moreover, there was a significant difference in mortality between two large branches of the pedigree (relative risk: 3.26; 95%-CI: 1.74-6.11; p = 0.001). Conclusion. The mortality among the subjects with FH varied significantly. Such an extensive variation over the centuries and between the branches of a pedigree suggests a strong interaction with environmental factors. Additional research is required to be able to identify FH-patients with a sharply increased risk of mortality so that optimal preventive measures may be offered.
Article
Background and Aim: The prevalence and significance of lipoprotein abnormalities in intermittent claudication (IC) were investigated. From an epidemiological screening of 15,253 middle-aged men in Linköping County, Sweden, 339 males were randomly selected within three strata: 115 subjects with IC, 115 healthy controls matched for sex, age and smoking habits, and 109 sex- and age-matched never-smokers. Methods and Results: All subjects underwent a treadmill exercise test to confirm or exclude hemodynamically significant peripheral atherosclerosis. The significance of the individual plasma lipoproteins was tested by multivariate logistic-regression analysis. Major risk factors for IC-smoke history, hypertension, diabetes-were included and adjustment made for factors that affect the lipoprotein concentrations. The most frequent lipoprotein abnormalities found in IC were abnormally high levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) triglycerides (TG) and abnormally low concentrations of high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (Chol). Almost half of all claudicants had either one or both lipoprotein abnormalities. The lipid composition of LDL and HDL was changed with a significant increase of TG relative to Chol. The highest increase in risk of IC (by change of 1 standard deviation in lipoprotein concentration) was associated with elevation of LDL-Chol, 2.22 (1.44-3.43) [odds-ratio, 95% confidence interval] and lowering of HDL2-Chol 1.94 (1.19-3.19), while the lowest significant risk was associated with elevation of plasma TG 1.61 (1.01-3.09) and IDL-TG 1.55 (1.04-2.31). Multivariate logistic regression analysis in contrast to univariate disclosed that very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) were not significantly associated to IC. Neither were intermediate density lipoproteins (IDL) Chol or HDL'S major protein (HDL-apoAI), multivariately associated to IC. Apolipoprotein E phenotypes and ε-allele frequencies did not differ significantly between claudicants and healthy controls. Conclusions: The study shows that several lipoprotein abnormalities are present in claudicants. Multivariate analysis demonstrates that the risk of IC is mainly associated to the LDL and HDL particles, while VLDL, IDL-Chol, HDL-TG and HDL-apoAI lipoproteins are not associated to IC. The results of the study suggests that more attention should be paid to plasma lipoprotein concentrations in IC and that efforts should be made in lowering even slightly elevated LDL levels and increasing HDL-Chol.
Article
A National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Conference was held October 9-10, 1990, to review and discuss existing data on U-shaped relations found between mortality rates and blood total cholesterol levels (TC) in some but not other studies. Presentations were given from 19 cohort studies from the United States, Europe, Israel, and Japan. A representative of each study presented its findings and also submitted tables of proportional hazards regression coefficients for entry TC levels in regard to death, and these were incorporated into a formal statistical overview adjusted for age, diastolic blood pressure, cigarette smoking, body mass index, and alcohol intake, as available. The U-shape for total mortality in men and the flat relation in women resulted largely from a positive relation of TC with coronary heart disease death and an inverse relation with deaths caused by some cancers (e.g., lung but not colon), respiratory disease, digestive disease, trauma, and residual deaths. Risk for combined noncardiovascular, noncancer causes of death decreased steadily across the range of TC. The conference considered possible explanations for the statistical associations found between low TC levels or active TC lowering and certain causes of death. One is that TC is lowered by some disease conditions themselves, such as wasting in chronic pulmonary disease or reduced production and secretion of cholesterol-bearing lipoproteins with liver disease. In this sort of situation, the TC:mortality association found in observational studies may be due to preexisting disease. This was addressed by excluding early deaths from the analysis, which did not change the results. The conference considered as well the biological function of cholesterol, which, if seriously deranged, might hypothetically cause a wide variety of diseases and dysfunction. The conference also considered the biological functions that might provide plausible mechanisms for the associations found. Definitive interpretation of the associations observed was not possible, although most participants considered it likely that many of the statistical associations of low or lowered TC level are explainable by confounding in one form or another. The conference focused on the apparent existence and nature of these associations and on the need to understand their source rather than on any pertinence of the findings for public health policy. Further research is recommended to explain the observed associations of low TC levels (and TC lowering) with certain noncardiovascular diseases. This includes studies of the time course of TC change in disease, the relation of TC to morbidity, further studies of possible epidemiological confounding, monitoring of population trends in TC and mortality, further studies of the relations in women, auditing of noncardiovascular events in trials, studies of cell membrane, genetic and molecular links to cholesterol metabolism, TC level and disease, studies of disease manifestations in specific lipid disorders, and further study of the proposed causal mechanisms linking low TC and hemorrhagic stroke.
Article
The aim of this prospective study was to explore the association of different prognostic factors including parameters of cholesterol metabolism with coronary morbidity and mortality in a study group of 96 patients who were heterozygous for familial hypercholesterolemia. During a 15-year follow-up period, 27% of the patients (44% of the men and 10% of the women, p less than 0.01) died from coronary disease, and an additional 4% died of noncoronary causes. Of the baseline characteristics, male gender, previous myocardial infarction, and smoking were the classical risk factors significantly associated with poor cardiac prognosis. In addition, a low bile acid synthesis predicted enhanced coronary mortality both in univariate and multivariate analysis, and in men bile acid synthesis was significantly correlated with cardiac mortality. Further analysis indicated that also in subjects without baseline myocardial infarction, low bile acid, cholesterol synthesis, or both predicted increased risk of coronary events. In multivariate analysis, male gender, previous myocardial infarction, and low bile acid synthesis at baseline explained 5%, 15%, and 5% (25%), respectively, of the variability of survival. Age, serum total cholesterol, and triglyceride values were unrelated to survival.
Article
Criticism of the diet-heart idea is often met with the argument that consensus committees have settled the issue unanimously. To see how these committees have explained discordant results, quotations from papers with such findings were sought in three recent authoritative reviews. Only two of twelve groups of controversial papers were quoted correctly, and only in one of the reviews. About half of the papers were ignored. The rest were quoted irrelevantly; or insignificant findings in favour of the hypothesis were inflated; or unsupportive results were quoted as if they were supportive. Only one of six randomized cholesterol-lowering trials with a negative outcome were cited and only in one of the reviews. In contrast, each review cited two, four, and six non-randomized trials with a positive outcome, respectively. It appears as if fundamental parts of the diet-heart idea are based on biased quotation.
Article
Although epidemiologic investigations are trying to clarify the role of plasma lipid concentrations (primarily cholesterol and its subfractions) as risk factors for both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, little information is available regarding the effect of sustained hypercholesterolemia on cerebral perfusion. Regional cerebral blood flow (CBF) was measured by the 133Xe inhalation method in 25 heterozygous patients (four untreated) affected with familial hypercholesterolemia. In 15 patients regional CBF was repeated 20 minutes after intravenous administration of acetazolamide (10 mg/kg body wt) to evaluate cerebrovascular reactivity. Correlations among cerebral perfusion data, present or pretreatment plasma lipid concentrations, and certain other clinical features were assessed by ANOVA. Both basal regional CBF and cerebrovascular reactivity were normal in the vast majority of patients compared with age- and sex-matched normal control subjects. CBF was significantly dependent on pretreatment low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) concentration (P = .005) and the presence of symptomatic ischemic heart disease (P = .015). CBF was only slightly dependent on age (P = .05) and was not dependent on either lipoprotein(a) or present LDL-C concentration. CBF did not differ between treated and untreated patients, and the perfusional increase induced by acetazolamide was not related to any other variable. Cerebral perfusion and cerebrovascular reactivity were maintained within the normal range despite long-lasting, severe hypercholesterolemia, even if a somewhat lower CBF was found in those patients with the highest LDL-C pretreatment levels. These results are in accord with the epidemiologic data that implicate hypercholesterolemia as a minor risk factor, if a risk factor at all, for intracranial atherosclerosis and ischemic stroke.