Links & Commentary: Cavemen in the News; Vitamin A Toxicity; and Saturated Fat Will Kill You

Wow, I don’t think I can even remember the last time I was so unmotivated to blog much. Not quite sure what it is. Spring has sprung, I feel great, workouts going better than ever — due at the gym in 45-minutes — and yet I sit down to write and it’s just not coming to me. Burnout? Perhaps. Hopefully only temporary. Well, fortunately I have lots of tidbits to hit up here & there. So links is all today, folks.

Thanks to so many readers who often sent me heads up on many of these.

~ Another mainstream news report on "cavemen" in The Denver Post: Their secret: Work out hard, and eat like a cave man.

CrossFit’s embrace of the paleo way, also called the "cave man" diet, also has thrilled Colorado State University professor Loren Cordain, though he isn’t swinging a club in celebration or grunting for joy. At least not yet.

But the scholar, who teaches in the university’s health and exercise science department, wrote the book "The paleo Diet" in 2002, based on decades of research into the diets, and the health, of people who get their food from hunting and gathering. Among other things, Cordain found people who eat diets rich in meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds suffer fewer diseases and health problems than Western contemporaries.

The book didn’t do gangbusters in the marketplace. Cordain continued publishing articles and teaching. And then, nearly a decade later, the book started selling. Its ranking on began creeping up. Now, Cordain is a celebrity among CrossFitters. It all surprises Cordain, a tall, ruddy guy who has dedicated his life to scholarship.

Still some of the "lean meat" nonsense, but otherwise pretty good.

~ Is the "Vitamin A is Toxic" BS ever going to end? Cannell at Vitamin D Council. Echoed by Mercola. But it just doesn’t pass muster with me. If they were right it would be harmful to eat liver and that just makes no sense. Fortunately, Chris Masterjohn of The Weston A. Price Foundation comes to the rescue with some sense talking.

The researchers split people into three groups according to vitamin A intake: those who consumed less than 1500 IU/day, those who consumed more than 3000 IU/day, and those who consumed some amount in between those two values. To put this in perspective, the RDA for vitamin A is 3000 IU/day for men and 2300 IU/day for women. In those consuming less than 3000 IU of vitamin A per day, low vitamin D status was associated with an increased risk of cancer and high vitamin D status was associated with a decreased risk of cancer. In those consuming more than 3000 IU of vitamin A per day, however, the magnitude of these relationships became so small that they lost statistical significance, which means the effect of vitamin D status was so small that it could not be distinguished from the effect of chance.

Naturally, opponents of vitamin A supplementation like Dr. Cannell have seized on the fact that high vitamin D status was not associated with the benefit of a decreased risk of colorectal cancer in those consuming the RDA for vitamin A. They have, however, ignored the fact that low vitamin D status was not associated with the harm of an increased risk in the same population. And thus they claim without any true justification that vitamin A intakes at or above the RDA render vitamin D useless and that vitamin A-rich cod liver oil constitutes "poison."

~ Anyone have time to take apart this study? Effects on Coronary Heart Disease of Increasing Polyunsaturated Fat in Place of Saturated Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. It concludes:

These findings provide evidence that consuming PUFA in place of SFA reduces CHD events in RCTs [randomized controlled trials]. This suggests that rather than trying to lower PUFA consumption, a shift toward greater population PUFA consumption in place of SFA would significantly reduce rates of CHD.

And the BBC reports:

Experts said cutting down on saturated fats, found in butter and meat, was just one part of a healthy diet.

It is recommended that adults get no more than 11% of their energy from saturated fats.

This is because the fats raise the levels of bad cholesterol that block the arteries to the heart.

In comparison, polyunsaturated fats have the opposite effect by increasing the levels of good cholesterol.

The Harvard analysis suggested that for every 5% increase in polyunsaturated fat consumption there was a 10% fall in heart disease.

Well, so now we have something to balance out the other recent meta-study by Ronald Krauss that concluded: "A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat." Here’s a recent post that deals with that and bunch of other studies.

I’m wondering whether the associations found in the underlying RCTs were themselves statistically significant… One way to fool you — and, it must be said, this would apply to Krauss as well — is to gather up a bunch of insignificant data, pool it, and magically attain significance because of the higher numbers.

…And I guess lead researcher Dariush Mozaffarian has never heard of the Tokelauans who seem to do just fine on 50% of energy from saturated fat — until, that is, they begin consuming modern processed foods.

Update: Dr. Stephan has given an initial impression of the Harvard study. Can you guess?

Update 2: And now he has a post up on it. Go read it. Oh, and frequent commenter Ned Koch also has a takedown on his blog. Both are appropriately short (guess why), so read ’em both.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Organic Gabe on March 23, 2010 at 14:46

    Yeah, saturated fat will kill you 😉

    OK, here’s a real killer:

  2. Alex Terry on March 23, 2010 at 14:16

    I saw the saturated fat article earlier today, and it didn’t take much reading through the actual study to find the money quotes that more or less confirm what you just pointed out. From line 2 of the ‘discussion’ section of the paper:

    “Whereas nearly all these trials were insufficiently powered to detect a significant effect individually, the pooled results demonstrate a significant benefit of replacing PUFA for SFA on clinical CHD events.”

    And from a bit earlier, in a section titled ‘What do these findings mean?”, they say:

    “Furthermore, the small number of trials identified in this study all had design faults, so the risk reductions reported here may be inaccurate.”

    Interestingly, there is some discussion in the paper about carbohydrates raising triglycerides and being a risk factor for CVD. So it fits in with what appears to be a trend emerging where saturated fat is still the devil, but carbs are bad too. Dr. Harris blogged about exactly that idea just a few days ago. Its pretty crazy, and doesn’t leave a whole lot left to eat.

  3. Rick on March 23, 2010 at 15:21

    Amen on the “vitamin A is toxic” garbage. I immediately thought of liver as well. Cannell’s statement that you referenced is exhibit A that some of this vitamin D cheer-leading has gotten out of control. Promoting benefits is one thing, demonizing traditionally consumed substances with little or no real evidence is quite another.

    I’m always back and forth on Mercola. I think the guy just needs a better filter. That would probably hurt sales of all his products though:


  4. Nigel on March 23, 2010 at 16:02

    The human body contains more than just a heart. Focusing on one aspect of health while ignoring all-cause mortality is typical of health professionals & drugs companies.

    Ass-loads of pufas may be good for your heart, but you’ll die of something worse instead. Ditto for statins.

    Avoiding sun exposure may save a few lives from malignant melanoma, but far more will die from other cancers instead due to hypovitaminosis D. And so on…

  5. Gabriella Kadar on March 23, 2010 at 16:47

    In re: unsaturated fats and oils: could the fact that these things begin to turn rancid rather rapidly not be contributory to their ‘unhealthy’ effects?

    Nigel: I know of someone who died of malignant melanoma: the primary was in her ARMPIT! So much for too much sunshine!

  6. Ned Kock on March 23, 2010 at 18:13

    I posted on the BBC nonsense here:

    It is actually pretty easy to refute this type of nonsense, but the names involved (BBC, Harvard) can sway a lot of people.

  7. Helen on March 23, 2010 at 19:11

    Dr. Krauss, in his meta-analysis of saturated fat and heart disease (finding no relationship), stated that he nevertheless expected to find a reduction in heart disease by replacing saturated fat with PUFAs. This meta-analysis said basically the same thing, saturated fat won’t give you heart disease, but PUFAs will reduce it. I wonder if it would even have been necessary to reduce saturated fat — maybe you could just add PUFAs and get the same result.

    BUT. I am extremely skeptical of this PUFAs reducing heart disease business. It doesn’t jibe at all with all of the things I’ve read about PUFAs (omega-6’s, primarily) increasing inflammation and promoting metabolic syndrome. Eliminating PUFAs for me has greatly reduced my inflammatory conditions – let’s see, eczema, allergies, asthma, and sunburn (not a condition, exactly). So I buy the inflammation connection. I feel like something else is at play here, diet-wise, or this was a bad study, or something.

    Of course, we anti-PUFA people could all be wrong. But the evidence suggests the anti-saturated-fat people are, too. This study will, of course, be read as proving saturated fat is bad, which is not what it says at all.

  8. Kurt G Harris MD on March 23, 2010 at 20:33

    Garbage in, garbage out, people. If you slice and dice a bunch of cherry-picked studies that individually proved nothing, you still have proved nothing. Some of the studies included were pure shite.

    Stephan hinted he will blog on this. Hopefully, he will so I won’t have to.

    It’s so tiring playing whack-mole with all these “we’ve found it, saturated fat is bad after all” studies…

  9. Helen on March 23, 2010 at 23:38


    “So it fits in with what appears to be a trend emerging where saturated fat is still the devil, but carbs are bad too. ”

    This is exactly what’s being taught. I have a dear relative who has recently been in cardio rehab. This is what they say. When I said, just what you way, that this doesn’t leave a lot to eat, she just shrugged. It’s the same low-fat everything she was eating before, but less of it. She’s supposed to be on a 1,300 Kcal/day diet. And several drugs.

  10. ToddBS on March 24, 2010 at 03:03

    Anyone have time to take apart this study

    Ask and ye shall receive.

  11. Michael Sanchez on March 24, 2010 at 05:30


    Everything you could ever want to dispell the idea that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces heart disease mortality is discussed in Anthony Colpo’s “The Great Cholesterol Con.” The detail in this book is astounding.

    I am assuming you own the book. There are only 18 randomized clinical dietary intrevention studies to date. Those in the treatment group who increased polyunsaturated fat and reduced saturated fat experienced far greater CAD mortality , despite the fact they indeed lowered their cholesterol levels by as much as 35 mg/dl lower than the saturated fat controls who fared well. The reason there are only 18 is because these are the most controlled, represent hundreds of hours of scientific man power and cost millions. Anyone who claims saturated fat causes heart disease should be referred to those 18 studies in Colpo’s book to read full text and very carefully.

    The Sydney Diet Heart Study, The National Diet Heart Study, The Minnesota Coronary Survey, Rose et al are all studies worth reading in full text. The 26 prospective studies to date are not supportive either.

    Cholesterol theory proponents can only use selectively cited epidemiological evidence to back their nonsense.
    I admit Anthony’s personality is rather rough ( and his treatment of Dr. Eades leaves much to be desired), but his cholesterol book is the ultimate demolition. The best anywhere on the matter. Dr. Ravnskov himself even said his book is better than his. ( and I respect Dr. Ravnskov a lot).

    The only polyunsaturated fat that is especially beneficial is the long chain PUFA’s n-3’s EPA/DHA found in fish oils etc. However, a background diet moderate to rich in saturated fat will help aborb the n-3’s better. The polyunsaturated fats found in corn, soybean, oils etc are actually inflammatory and atherosclerosis promoting. They sure do lower cholesterol, but they definitley increased CAD mortality very significantly when put to the test of a randomized double blinded clinical dietary intervention study. ( our most reliable method of study)

  12. Richard Nikoley on March 24, 2010 at 10:53


    Well, looks like we’re 100% on the same page about Colpo. Awesome book, lousy behavior. See here.

  13. Dave on March 24, 2010 at 12:32

    I think the vit D council’s speculation is well-founded (for now). Cannell’s arguments are based on valid (albeit speculative) inferences from multiple epidemiological studies and on mechanistic plausibility.

    Refer to his newsletter for a summary of the epidemiological basis for his conclusion.

    The mechanistic argument is based on the fact that the active metabolites of retinol and D3 (e.g., retinoic acid and calcitriol) both require the RXR receptor to carry out their regulation of gene expression, with the result that high amounts of retinol may sequester the RXR receptor away from calcitriol, inhibiting the formation of the VDR/RXR heterodimer receptor by calcitriol, which prevents activation of the vit D receptor complex and prevents D3 mediated gene expression.

    Moreover, because retinol can activate some of the same genes as calcitriol, the epidemiological results finding vitamin A to be protective (among vitamin D deficient populations) make sense. It’s like a D-lite…

    • Richard Nikoley on March 24, 2010 at 12:55

      Well I can only go by what I get from others, plus the fact that liver is so super high in A. I’ve asked Dr. Stephan at Whole Health Source about this several times, including with this most recent newsletter and he still doesn’t buy it.

      • Dave on March 24, 2010 at 18:21

        I hear you. That said, there is only 1 liver per animal, so our ancestors may not have had so much after all. They didn’t eat dairy either (RDA for vitamin A comes in just 1000 calories of dairy fat) and may have only had eggs seasonally. It’s just speculation from Cannell (et al) but they are definitely not out to lunch. Masterjohn isn’t either and he may, in the end, be right. For now, though, nobody that eats plenty of dairy, eggs, or liver should supplement with cod liver oil or retinol.

  14. Don Wiss on March 24, 2010 at 15:35

    Here’s another mainstream news article that has some similarities to the one in the Denver Post:

  15. paul on March 24, 2010 at 18:50

    Have you seen this report also by Dariush Mozaffarian in 2004.

    Key take outs from it are…
    “Among postmenopausal women with established CHD, greater saturated fat intake was associated with less progression of coronary atherosclerosis over an average follow-up of 3 y, whereas polyunsaturated fat and carbohydrate intakes were associated with greater progression. To our knowledge, this is the first study that evaluated the associations between dietary macronutrients and atherosclerotic progression in women. Although the findings do not establish causality, the associations were independent of a variety of other risk factors, including age, diabetes, smoking, body mass index, physical activity, prior MI or PTCA, and other dietary habits. Thus, known clinical risk actors do not appear to account for the observed relations.

    The inverse association between saturated fat intake and atherosclerotic progression was unexpected. However, this finding should perhaps be less surprising. Ecologic and animal experimental studies showed positive relations between saturated fat intake and CHD risk (8). However, cohort studies and clinical trials in humans have been far less consistent (9 –12)…..

    …..Polyunsaturated fat intake was not associated with atherosclerotic progression when replacing carbohydrate or protein but was positively associated when replacing other fats, especially saturated fat….

    …Our findings also suggest that carbohydrate intake may increase atherosclerotic progression, especially when refined carbohydrates replace saturated or monounsaturated fats.”

    • Dave on March 25, 2010 at 10:50

      This report is a piece of shit. Read Stephan’s summary of it at wholehealthsource blog. If omega 6 polyunsaturated fat lowers risk of CVD at all, it is only among the severely omega 3 deficient (unfortunately this is the most studies population so far). In any other group, more omega 6 would increase inflammation and result in worse outcomes. This group is already maximally inflammed so adding more omega 6 may result in slightly lower CVD risk (by unknown mechanisms — PUFAs do lower LDL, but so does zetia and that doesn’t help at all…). Overall, best case scenario, n-6 PUFAs only help very sick people a tiny bit. More likely they hurt everybody. They almost definitely hurt people who get adequate omega 3s. The author of that study is an idiot to not realize that.

  16. Sid Aust on March 26, 2010 at 13:08

    Omega 6 is far more important than omega 3…It is true we get far too much omega 6…But it is the wrong king and it is adulterated and processed all all the oxygen transfer abilities have been removed.. We do need some omega 3 but not much…I use cold pressed organic sunflower, safflower or Evening primrose… and some omega 3 from flax…mix them with a 2-1 mix in favor of omega 6…
    1-3 teaspoons per day…

  17. Katie on March 27, 2010 at 15:51

    I calculate that I consume about 6500 IU’s of of vitamin A every day (from eggs, butter, and veggies). I also supplement with a good amount of D when I don’t get outside enough (which is most days) but I have never ever had a problem and I am well over twice the upper limit.

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