If recent, well-meaning dietary advice has you puzzled (Welcome back, butter! Cut carbs, not fat to lose weight!), you’re not alone. Even health authorities started to wonder if long-held nutrition truths should be overturned.
The answer is, not yet. We asked top nutrition experts for help unravel the confusion behind two of this year’s biggest food stories.
THE SKINNY ON FAT
The sound bite: Saturated fat does not increase your risk of heart disease.
The better takeaway: It’s still not beneficial to your health.
This spring, adults who for years have shunned butter and reluctantly ordered chicken instead of beef were thrilled to hear the findings of a large meta-analysis that found the link between saturated fat and heart disease was unproven. After exploring data from several studies, researchers concluded that there was no significant link between saturated fat and increased cholesterol in the blood or increased risk of heart disease.
Alas, the paper contained errors and left out key evidence, says Seattle-based nutrition coach Kim Larson, R.D. (totalhealthrd.com). (The paper’s authors did publish a correction, but it didn’t receive even close to the same amount of coverage.) “The actual findings are much more complicated,” says Larson, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Just because saturated fat is less bad doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., a registered dietitian who is a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association agrees. What’s good for your heart and your overall health is to replace saturated fat with beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts and fatty fish, she says. There’s strong evidence supporting the inverse relationship between good fats and heart disease risk factors—the more you consume, the lower your risk.
“Most of us over 50 have to really watch our energy intake,” says Johnson. “There’s not a lot of room for empty, discretionary calories so the message needs to be to use fat calories wisely.”
Her advice: Strive to fill up on good-for-you fats, like extra virgin olive oil, salmon, avocados and nuts. These foods are the centerpiece of the hailed Mediterranean diet and should make up between 25 and 35 percent of your total daily calories. Top off your daily saturated fat intake at 7 percent of your total daily calories.
THE WEIGHT-LOSS WAR: AND THE WINNER IS …
The sound bite: Cut carbs and keep the fat to lose more body fat and overall weight.
The better takeaway: Whatever diet you can adhere to is the better option.
As summer was winding down, a study financed by the National Institutes of Health got people to turn their eyes away from their beach reads and focus on the headline that men and women who avoided carbs but didn’t worry so much about cutting calories or dodging fat lost more weight, compared to those who focused on a low-fat, low-calorie strategy.
In a year-long trial, 150 racially diverse men and women were asked to follow diets that limited the amount of either carbs or fat they could eat on any given day, but not the calories. Both groups’ physical activity levels went untouched. By trial’s end, the low-carb group lost about eight pounds more on average, had greater reductions in body fat, and saw improvements in lean muscle mass.
Impressive results, to be sure, but certainly not the final word, says Johnson. “When you lose weight, your health markers will all look better,” she says. “So if weight loss is your goal, it’s most important to look at what diet changes you can make that are sustainable for you over the long term. If it’s easier for you to eliminate carbs, do it. If it’s easier for you to eliminate fat, do it.”
Johnson’s main concerns with studies like this are that people will start to cut out good carbs — like whole grains, fruits and vegetables — or will zero in on the “fats are okay” nugget and not pay close attention to which fats they’re eating. She also worries that findings like this will lead bread and pasta lovers to just give up their weight-loss efforts out of a sense of frustration.
Her advice: Build your meals and snacks around vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. And get your sweet fix from whole fruit. These foods will not only deliver the nutrients you need, but they’ll also fill you up on less so you won’t be so hungry.