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The big FAT question

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Why is the topic of fat so confusing? DL's editor-in-chief and registered dietitian, Jessie Shafer, helps us break down the fat conversation.

As a registered dietitian-nutritionist, I often get asked about fat. What are the best types of fats to eat? What fats should I avoid? Should I drink and eat nonfat or whole milk and yogurt? Should I use butter or oil or margarine or WHAT?

And, as a journalist, I often cringe when it comes to articles that cite nutrition advice about fat. Why? Because I spot a lot of big, fat, bad reporting.

The fat issue is busting at the seams with complication. And fat—as a matter of dietary intake—is different for everyone. Fat requirements differ, too. As such, most advice about nutrition should be tailored to individuals based on lifestyle, access, preferences, family history, conditions and more.

Yet I still see journalists, publicists and nutritionists (those with real nutrition training, those with zero nutrition education, and those with nothing more than an Instagram account and an idea of what has “worked” for them) freely passing out prescriptive-style nutrition advice about fat (and more) as if it’s a one-size-fits-all model.

Let’s dissect the current conversation about fat.

The latest word on the street

If you’ve been listening—or if you’re at all confused—it’s probably because you’ve heard something like this:

“For years, experts told us that eating fat is bad for our health. Who remembers the low-fat era of the American '80s and '90s? We stuffed our grocery carts with Snackwell’s cookies and cakes, light yogurt, fat-free pudding snacks, cartons of egg whites and margarine. Well, as it turns out, eating fat-free wasn’t all that good for our health. With more fat-free products than ever, Americans just got fatter. We’re still experiencing cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes at epidemic rates.”

Sound familiar? It should. Sound convincing? Perhaps. Do you spot the bad reporting?

I hope so.

My issue with the above conversation is not the bit about the prevalence of low-fat products in those decades. They absolutely proliferated. For the first time ever, you could buy reduced-fat Oreos. You probably had no less than 10 options in fat-free yogurts. Some people even started making dips and sauces with fat-free mayo and nonfat sour cream and spreading reduced-fat peanut butter on their toast (even though it was higher in sugar, salt and carbohydrates than the regular ol’ PB). Lower-in-fat chicken breasts were the protein du jour (still are for many) and cheese, poor cheese, was even made to be fat-free (usually resulting in a higher-sodium product). You might even remember snacking on fat-free rice cakes.

But the problem with the above conversation is this: Even though low-fat products were around and more available than ever, there is no actual proof that Americans were eating less fat in the '80s or '90s. In fact, we’ve never had a problem with under-consumption of fat (the average total fat intake for American men and women in 2014 was right around 33% of total calorie intake and hasn’t budged from there in years, according to the CDC/NCHS National Health Interview Survey).

Additionally, due to the make up of a lot of those new low-fat products, there is anecdotal evidence that even if someone was eating less fat (I emphasize someone so as not to speak of the American public in sweeping generalizations), that same someone was now taking in more carbohydrates, sugar, salt and fillers, simply because that is how low-fat processed foods were—and are—being manufactured, in order to maintain an acceptable taste. In the end, those products may have contained 2, 5 or even 10 less grams of fat per serving than the regular product, but most had just a marginal difference in calories.

Know your fats

What else is wrong with the current cultural conversation?

It’s the way we talk about fat. We have a history of lumping all types of fat together in a pile.

Marion Nestle, chair of New York University’s Department of Nutrition, says this about the low-fat mantra (note: fat in general) in an interview with PBS: “In the late 1980s, there were two major reports that came out, identifying dietary fat as the single most important change that needed to be made in order to improve diet and health. The idea was to reduce saturated fat, but the assumption was that it was too complicated to explain all that, and that if people just reduced their fat content, the fat content of their diet, they would be improving it.”

Gradually, over the last 30 years, public health groups such as the American Heart Association have revised their messaging, moving away from recommending a lower fat intake in general and toward a focus on the types of fats in our foods and diet as a whole. Due to this, most people now know that the majority of the fat in nuts, seeds and avocados (for example) is of the “better-for-you” type and that the majority of the fat in red meat, butter and ice cream is of the “worse-for-you” type.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Feb 23, 2016

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