Why Low-fat's in the Fire
By Mike Buzalka
A blaring headline on the over of The New York Times magazine this past July
7 asked the shocking question, "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?" In case you
missed the point, the blaring block-type challenge was accompanied by a border
to-border picture of a rather fatty t-bone steak topped with a pat of butter.
Soon, other major media outlets latched on to the story. ABC News, for
example, produced its own segment on the topic for the 20/20 newsmagazine a few
The gist of the "expose" is that the U.S. government and the nation's
nutrition and diet a establishment endorsed and continue to endorse low-fat
diets despite growing evidence that they not only don't work as well as
advertised, but are potentially dangerous because they may raise the risk of
coronary disease and cause dieters to over-eat.
As a result, say critics, millions of Americans who have followed mainstream
nutrition guidelines (as epitomized by the Food Guide Pyramid), and cut the fat
in their diets, may today be not only less healthy than they might have been,
but more likely to be overweight and at greater risk of heart attacks, strokes,
diabetes and other ills. It's not hard to see why this story has legs. Food and
dieting have been national obsessions for decades, and especially so today,
given the country's prevalence of obese citizens. If the low fat approach's
critics are right, then not only is a mainstay of prevailing diet theory blown
out of the water, but so likely is the credibility of the government and the
mainstream nutrition establishment on the subject.
That would have significant consequences for, among other thing, the National
School Lunch program, whose mandate that no more than 30% of school meal
calories come from fat rests on the reduced dietary fat theory.
Meanwhile, FSDs and others on the front lines of the eat-away-from-home
industry may face a whole new set of demands for meal options from consumers
utterly at a loss as to what to believe anymore. Will the cafeteria of the
future come with three grades of everything-low fat, medium-fat and high fat-to
satisfy competing approaches?
Not surprisingly, mainstream dietitians are urging caution.
"For sure we need research on how to lose weight," says Julie O'Sullivan
Maillet, president of the American Dietetic Association and chairperson of the
department of primary care and associate dean for academic affairs and research
at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Health
"We Americans like to find the easy fix. We tend to like something that
focuses on `less of or `more of something, such as fat, when the real issue is
calories and exercise."
Maillet notes that a healthy diet can accommodate varying amounts of fat. She
cites the lauded Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes high-fat olive oil, as an
"Total fat is too simplistic," she says. "We need to consider the different
types of fat-saturate, unsaturated, trans-fatty-- in the diet and balance
appropriately." She adds that the overall proportion of fat in a healthy diet is
important primarily as a tool to control calorie intake to manage weight.
"Fats are more calorically dense," she notes, "so it's reasonable to limit
the amount you take in. Diets should be individual." to best meet the needs of
Where's the beef.
Be that as it may, fat is ultimately not the major issue in the controversy.
Even Times article author Gary Taubes admits that research supporting high fat
diets is as incomplete as those supporting low-fat diets.
What is the issue, critics like Taubes note, is the unseemly-and
unscientific-haste with which the government blessed the low-fat diet approach
back in the late-1970s before it had any compelling clinical proof that it had
any merit Since then, a series of studies costing hundreds of millions of
dollars have failed to establish a definitive link between dietary fat and heart
Indeed, if anything, some of those studies suggest just the opposite, that
fat in the diet-even from animal sources like beef and pork-actually makes for
better coronary health, by raising levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or
"good" cholesterol) in the body.
On the other hand, low-fat diets rich in the simple carbohydrates emphasized
by nutritionists and the government's Food Guide Pyramid (rice, pasta, bread)
tend not only to raise the body's levels of triglycerides-a substance
increasingly linked with heart disease-but to encourage overeating by
short-circuiting the body's appetite regulation mechanism.
In effect, the low-fat message may have sent millions of Americans to fill up
on exactly the kind of foods that would induce them to overeat and be more prone
to heart attacks.
Though the charges are incendiary, the details remain highly technical and
speculative. But one fact is difficult to dismiss out of hand: obesity and its
attendant evils began inching upward in the population at about the same time
(the early 80s) that the low-fat message was taking hold.
After all, the last 20 years also saw the advent of the super-size combo
meal, the introduction of all sorts of labor- (and exercise-) saving devices and
an explosion of snack foods, fast foods and sugared beverages.
Still, other Western cultures had access to the same excess, but only the
U.S., the nation where the low-fat dogma most holds sway, has super-sized both
its meals and its consumers at epidemic levels.
Ironically, where this issue goes from here rests with the government. That's
because, after years of belittling critics of the low-fat approach as eccentrics
and cranks whose theories merited no serious examination, the National
Institutes of Health recently did an about face and agreed to find comparative
studies of various diet approaches.
Among those being studied are the heretofore officially ostracized
high-protein (and, in effect, high-fat) diets that are the polar opposites of
what NIH and other mainstream diet experts have been recommending for the past
20-plus years. If those studies track toward confirming that fat in the diet is
less harmful than previously thought never mind beneficial-it could trigger a
fundamental shift in mainstream dietary theory as significant as the release of
the original Dietary Guidelines for Americans in the early 80s.
What could follow? Certainly, a rethinking of the Food Pyramid, which would
almost literally have to be stood on its head. The school lunch program could
also likely get a major revision, probably back toward the original "four food
groups" approach and its emphasis on meat and dairy.
And...well, Dr. Atkins for Surgeon General anyone?
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June 28, 2015