The Finnish Mental Hospital Trial

This diet trial was conducted between 1959 and 1971 in two psychiatric hospitals near Helsinki, Finland. One hospital served typical fare, including full-fat milk and butter, while the other served "filled milk", margarine and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Filled milk has had its fat removed and replaced by an emulsion of vegetable oil. As a result, the diet of the patients in the latter hospital was low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in polyunsaturated fat compared to the former hospital. At the end of six years, the hospitals switched diets. This is known as a "crossover" design.

The results were originally published in 1972 in the Lancet (ref), and a subset of the data were re-published in 1979 in the International Journal of Epidemiology (ref). They found that during the periods that patients were eating the diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in vegetable oil, male participants (but not females) had roughly half the incidence of heart attack deaths. There were no significant differences in total mortality in either men or women. The female data were omitted in the 1979 report.

This study is often cited as support for the idea that saturated fat increases the risk of heart attack. The reason it's cited so often is it's one of a minority of trials that came to that conclusion. The only other controlled trial I'm aware of that replaced animal fat with polyunsaturated vegetable oil (without changing other variables at the same time) and found a statistically significant decrease in cardiovascular deaths was the Los Angeles Veterans' Administration study. However, there was no difference in total mortality, and there were significantly more heavy smokers in the control group. The difference in heart attack deaths in the V.A. trial was 18%, far less than the difference seen in the Finnish trial.

I can cite three controlled trials that came to the opposite conclusion, that switching saturated fat for vegetable oil increases cardiovascular mortality and/or total mortality: the Anti-Coronary Club Trial (4 years), the Rose et al. corn oil trial (2 years), and the Sydney Diet-Heart trial (5 years). Other controlled trials found no difference in total mortality or heart attack mortality from this intervention, including the National Diet-Heart Study (2 years) and the Medical Research Council study (7 years). Thus, the Finnish trial is an outlier whose findings have never been replicated by better-conducted trials.

I have three main bones to pick with the Finnish trial. The first two are pretty bad, but the third is simply fatal to its use as support for the idea that saturated fat contributes to cardiovascular risk:

1) A "crossover" study design is not an appropriate way to study a disease with a long incubation period. How do you know that the heart attacks you're observing came from the present diet and not the one the patients were eating for the six years before that? The Finnish trial was the only trial of its nature ever to use a crossover design.

2) The study wasn't blinded. When one wants to eliminate bias in diagnosis for these types of studies, one designs the study so that the physician doesn't know which group the patients came from. That way he can't influence the results, consciously or unconsciously. Obviously there was no way to blind the physicians in this study, because they knew what the patients in each hospital were eating. I think it's interesting that the only outcome not susceptible to diagnostic bias, total mortality, showed no significant changes in either men or women.

3) The Finnish Mental Hospital trial was not actually a controlled trial. In an editorial in the November 1972 issue of the Lancet, Drs. John Rivers and John Yudkin pointed out, among other things, that the amount of sugar varied by almost 50% between diet periods. In the December 30th issue, the lead author of the study responded:
In view of the design of the experiment the variations in sugar intake were, of course, regrettable. They were due to the fact that, aside from the fatty-acid composition and the cholesterol content of the diets, the hospitals, for practical reasons, had to be granted certain freedom in dietary matters.
In other words, the diets of the two hospitals differed significantly in ways other than their fat composition. Sugar was one difference. Carbohydrate intake varied by as much as 17% and total fat intake by as much as 26% between diet periods (on average, carbohydrate was lower and total fat was higher in the polyunsaturated fat group). The definition of a controlled trial is an experiment in which all variables are kept constant except the one being evaluated. Therefore, the Finnish trial cannot rightfully be called a controlled trial. This places it in the same category as other observational studies, in which variables are not controlled and one can only guess what factors caused the difference in disease incidence. The fact that the result has never been replicated casts further doubt on the study.

I could continue listing other problems with the study, such as the fact that the hospital population included in the analysis had a high turnover rate (variable, but as high as 40%), and patients were included in the analysis even if they were at the hospital for as little as 50% of the time between first admission and final discharge (i.e., they came and went). But what's the use in beating a dead horse?

The Finnish trial is still very useful, however. I use it as a litmus test to determine which papers are solid and which are desperate for data that confirm their biases. Any author who cites the Finnish trial in support of the idea that saturated fat causes heart attacks either isn't familiar with it, or is not objective.