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Is the public not confused enough yet? | Gustafson
It was the kind of report news outlets pounce on because it apparently offers one of those ‘gotcha’ moments their audience seems to crave so much. So you’ve probably already heard about the latest study on dietary fats and their limited impact on heart health.
If not, here are a few details. For their research, an international team of scientists undertook what is known as a ‘meta-analysis,’ meaning they reviewed a number of previous investigations (as opposed to doing their own) to determine the effects of diet changes with regards to fat intake. In the end they concluded that cutting back on saturated fat or adding polyunsaturated fatty acids, as recommended by many health experts, was not as beneficial as widely believed.
In layperson’s terms, the study results could be interpreted as saying that for heart health it doesn’t really matter all that much what kind of fat you eat – whether it comes from meat products (mostly saturated), oils (mono- and polyunsaturated), plant foods like vegetables, beans and grains (polyunsaturated), fish (omega-3), or nuts and seeds (omega-6 polyunsaturated).
This, of course, sharply contradicts existing nutritional guidelines – including those by the American Heart Association (AHA) – most of which urge limiting saturated fats and replacing them with the other varieties, especially for heart disease patients.
To be sure, studies like these (including studies of studies) are important and instrumental for the progress of science. They help us refine and, if need be, correct the knowledge we claim to have. On the other hand, if they are reported in the press and elsewhere in ways that misread or distort the facts and only add to the confusion of an already weary public, we may need to look for a more careful approach.
The findings of studies that solely focus on particular nutrients cannot readily be translated into nutritional guidelines, warns Dr. David L. Katz, the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University and the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut, and author of several books on nutritional health, most recently, “Disease Proof – The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well” (Penguin, 2013).
The point is that if you ask people to change just one thing in their diet, you are not necessarily improving their overall nutritional health. For example, it doesn’t suffice to recommend reducing consumption of meat (saturated fat) but say nothing about excessive intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar, which is equally common in the American diet, and has equally menacing health outcomes.
When people decide to eat less of certain foods, they usually compensate for the deficit by eating more of something else. The question is, what is that something else, says Dr. Katz.
To give meaningful dietary guidelines people can trust and follow in practical terms, scientists have to stop taking a “one-nutrient-at-a-time” approach and rather focus on the larger picture, he demands in an article he wrote in response to the study.
“Dietary guidance must be about the whole diet, and should be directed at foods rather than nutrients. If we get the foods right, the nutrients take care of themselves,” he argues.
So what should be the take-away from this study and others of its kind? To everyone who is interested in health-promoting eating habits, I suggest you continue with your regimen of a balanced diet as best as you can. The benefits are clear and so are the risks of deviating from what we know to be healthful. There is nothing to be confused about.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).