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No one could be blamed for feeling that the health headlines are causing whiplash. For decades, Americans were told to avoid butter and use margarine on their bread instead.

The Food and Drug Administration has just done an about-face with a proposal to eliminate trans fats from the food supply. The agency no longer believes that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (a primary source of trans fats) should be considered safe. Experts now blame artificial trans fats for heart disease. According to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D.: “Further reduction in the amount of trans fat in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year – a critical step in the protection of Americans’ health.”

Keep in mind that this dietary evil was being hailed as a savior from the sins of saturated fat a few decades ago. Although the food industry saw this reversal coming and took trans fats out of many products, they can still be found in some crackers, cookies, frozen pies, microwave popcorn, coffee creamer and ready-to-use frosting.

Although public health experts are still warning about the dangers of saturated fat, some researchers are questioning this old advice. A cardiologist writing in the BMJ (Online, Oct. 22, 2013) suggested that “Saturated fat is not the major issue.”

Years ago, some Americans became skeptical about the experts’ advice to avoid saturated fat. One reader wrote: “In our house we did our own experiment. More than 30 years ago, our doctor believed all the claptrap about cholesterol. I had my hubby on a low-fat/low-cholesterol diet with margarine, vegetable oils and the like.

“The results? His cholesterol continued to climb to the mid-300s. Our doctor threw up his hands in defeat, and I informed him I was going to put us back on the foods my parents grew up with. I got rid of all the oils, except the extra-virgin olive oil. I now use organic butter and cream, and I save our organic bacon drippings. We use no packaged foods, and I make my own mayonnaise with nut oils.

“His cholesterol dropped 100 points, and he is doing really well. The doctor changed his tune as well. Seeing is believing. My total cholesterol, sadly, is very low (110), and yet I am the one who has had a heart attack and stroke.”

Perhaps our simplistic obsession with total cholesterol numbers has gotten us into trouble. Another reader reported:
“My doctor told me that if I did not get my cholesterol down, I would be on medication in six months. I am confused as to why. My cholesterol was 229. My triglycerides were 80, and my LDL was 78. My good cholesterol (HDL) was 135 – yes, you read it right – 135.

“She said my lipid panel is ‘fair,’ though I think it is darn good. My pharmacist is wondering why she would even consider putting me on a statin. I am not diabetic and don’t have heart disease.”

We agree with the pharmacist. The good HDL cholesterol is fabulous and probably accounts for the slightly elevated total cholesterol number.

We discuss the meaning of the various types of cholesterol in our guide Cholesterol Control and Heart Health (online at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com). There are more than 200 risk factors for heart disease, and cholesterol is only one among many.