Saturated fat’s role (or non-role) in the New Year’s diet resolution

Nonfat? Whole milk? Something in between? Some of 2013's dietary advice softens the bag-guy label on saturated fat.
Nonfat? Whole milk? Something in between? Some of 2013’s dietary advice softens the bag-guy label on saturated fat.
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Saturated fat’s bad, bad image—the evil ingredient that supposedly makes people fat and keeps them that way, while clogging our blood vessels and raising our cardiovascular risk—has been getting a bit of a makeover.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone too much. Just a few years ago, anything but a low-fat diet was considered sure to doom people to a life of obesity. Then studies began finding that “good” fats such as those from olives, nuts and some fish were healthful for us and that people on diets high in refined carbohydrates—so-called high-glycemic diets--lost less weight than those on some diets richer in fats, even when the groups ate the same number of calories. But that moderate diet also proved more healthful than the very-low-carb Atkins diet.

Eggs were liberated from the bad-food cabinet several years ago; more recently, the health benefits of coconut oil, once another dietary no-no, were recognized.


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But 2013 was the year that saturated fat’s reputation as a killer was, if not repudiated, certainly questioned. That’s along with an increased vilification of sugar and highly refined, low-nutrition carbohydrates that are quickly converted to sugar during digestion. It may have reached its peak with a stinging October article in the British Medical Journal that reviewed the evidence on cholesterol, saturated fat and carbohydrates and claimed that the blame has been misplaced.

That’s not to say it’s time to bring home the bacon and embrace it as an everyday food. This is still a matter of contention. But it is worth noting that nutrition information gets questioned and outdated almost as soon as it comes into vogue. The evidence against sugar has been mounting over the past few years, but as this excellent blog post from Scientific American shows, the picture is far more complicated than the simple “Sugar is toxic!” battle cry that became popular in 2013.

An undated article put out by the Harvard School of Public Health said it was time--whatever that particular time was--to bust the “low-fat myth” but stressed the importance of reducing saturated fats. But a Harvard Medical School article published in September 2013 suggests too much may have been made of saturated fat. “Dr. [Dariush] Mozaffarian and his colleagues have taken a hard look at the scientific evidence that consuming a lot of saturated fat leads to heart disease. ‘The association is not as firmly established as many people believe,’ he says. ’The evidence does not support a major benefit of focusing on saturated fat alone, without considering the overall food itself and what is eaten instead.’ ”

That’s why rigid food policies—a tax on soda or a requirement that school lunches contain no more than x amount of fat—might prove counterproductive. Unlike cigarettes, food is complicated. It’s not just the ingredient that matters; it’s the context in which that ingredient is consumed. Is it part of a whole food or extracted and processed with other ingredients in ways that might be harmful? One Harvard professor found that the sugar in fruit appears to be digested far more slowly than that in fruit juice, keeping blood sugar levels more even.

So as we face a new year and a new set of resolutions about healthful eating and weight loss, we’re also faced with too little consensus to inform our eating plans—assuming we’re even at the point of thinking about and planning our food, rather than eating whatever comes to hand most easily. At this point, our ancestors might have the best advice for us: Eat the whole food that looks more like what our grandmothers ate, which means more chopping and cooking and storing for days of need, just as they did. And, as our mothers would and probably did say: Eat your vegetables. Moderation in all things. And go outside and play!



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