In Sweden, the popularity of a low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet similar to the Atkins diet is being blamed for a surge in national cholesterol levels. Meanwhile, all that dieting isn’t making the Swedes any “smalare,” or skinnier—average BMI has also been rising. Still, the LCHF diet—which focuses on cutting sugars and starches while upping fat intake—has become so popular that by 2011, around 25% of Swedes had at least partially adopted it.
In a new study published in Nutrition Journal, researchers from the University of Umea looked at 25 years worth of data on Swedish diets, weights and cholesterol levels, beginning in 1986. They found that during the 1990s, fat consumption in Sweden declined steadily. But by the end of the study (2010), Swedes were consuming more fat than they had 25 years earlier.
Fat consumption—especially consumption of saturated fat and “butter-based spread”—began rising again around 2004, around the same time more Swedes adopted the LCHF diet. [Also popular in Norway, the LCHF diet is partly to blame for a late-2011 butter shortage] Cholesterol levels also declined throughout the 1990s, and remained steady throughout the early 2000s. But around 2007, they, too, began to climb.
In 2010 the average cholesterol level for men was around 5.5 millimoles per litre of blood, and for women slightly less. This was despite a significant increase in the number of people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
In earlier years, cholesterol levels had declined from a peak of more than six millimoles in 1986.
Over the whole 25-year period there was no sign that dieting of any kind helped people lose weight. Average body mass index (BMI), a measurement relating weight and height, showed a consistent rise in both men and women.
Professor Ingegerd Johansson, who led the study, said it shows that “while low carbohydrate/high fat diets may help short-term weight loss … long-term weight loss is not maintained,” and that “this diet increases blood cholesterol,” which ups heart disease risk.
“Supportive opinions in media for high-fat diets seem to have had an impact on consumer behaviors,” she added. “Initially beneficial and thereafter deleterious changes in blood cholesterol paralleled these trends in food selection, whereas a claimed weight reduction by high-fat diets was not seen in the most recent years.”