A reader recently sent me a reference to an interesting paper titled "Dietary Fat Saturation Effects on Low-density-lipoprotein Concentrations and Metabolism in Various Animal Models". It's a review of animal studies that have looked at the effect of different fats on LDL concentration as of 1997.
When an investigator wants to study diet-induced atherosclerosis, first he selects a species that's susceptible to it. These are generally herbivorous or nearly herbivorous species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and several species of monkey. Then, he feeds it an "atherogenic diet". This is typically a combination of 0.1 to 1% cholesterol by weight, plus 20-40% of calories as fat. The fat can come from a variety of sources, but animal fats or saturated vegetable fats are typical. The remainder of the diet is processed grains, vitamin and mineral supplements, and often casein for protein.
Let's put that amount of cholesterol into human context. Assuming the average person eats about 2 pounds dry weight of food per day, 0.5% cholesterol would be 4.5 grams. That's the equivalent of:
- 17.5 pounds of beef steak, or
- 3.8 pounds of beef liver, or
- 22.5 eggs
It's important to remember that the relevance of this hamster experiment to humans is unclear. No one is claiming that reducing saturated fat and cholesterol will reduce a human's LDL by 7-fold.
But let's get back to the animal models. The hypothesis the paper addresses is that saturated fat raises LDL in animal models. If that is true, it should be able to raise LDL even in the absence of added cholesterol. So let's consider only the studies that didn't add extra cholesterol to the diets. And if saturated fat raises LDL, it should also do it relative to monounsaturated fat (MUFA- like olive oil), rather than only in comparison to PUFA, which has a known cholesterol-lowering effect. So let's narrow the studies further to those that compared SFA-rich fats, MUFA-rich fats and PUFA-rich fats. In Fernandez et al. (1989), investigators fed guinea pigs 35% of calories from corn oil (PUFA), olive oil (MUFA) or lard (MUFA-SFA). Here's what their LDL looked like:
The same investigators published two more studies showing similar results over the next five years. The next study was published by Khosla et al. in 1992. They fed cebus and rhesus monkeys cholesterol-free diets containing 40% of calories from safflower oil (PUFA), high-oleic safflower oil (MUFA) or palm oil (SFA-MUFA). How was their LDL?
None of the differences were statistically significant. Khosla and colleagues published another study with the same result in 1993. This is hardly supportive of the idea that saturated fat raises LDL in animal models. The most you can say is that PUFA lowers LDL in some, but not all, species. There is no indication from these studies that SFA raises LDL in the absence of excessive dietary cholesterol. I didn't cherry pick studies here; this is every study in the review paper that met my two criteria of no added cholesterol and a MUFA comparison group.
The bottom line is that experimental models of atherosclerosis appear to rely on overloading herbivorous species with dietary cholesterol that they are not equipped to clear. SFA does exacerbate the increase in LDL caused by cholesterol overload. But in the absence of excess cholesterol, it does not necessarily raise LDL even in species ill-equipped to digest these types of fats. Dietary cholesterol has a modest effect on LDL cholesterol in humans, and it has even less effect on LDL particle number, a more important measure. So there may not be a cholesterol overload for saturated fat to exacerbate in humans.
PUFA vegetable oils do lower LDL in humans, and the effect appears to persist for at least a few years (probably indefinitely). But the evidence is not conclusive that lowering cholesterol in this way actually prevents heart attacks.