Health & Fitness

When it comes to low-fat diets, let bygones be bygones

Nutrition recommendations often do flip-flops, leaving consumers confused. New fad diets and one-and-done research studies do not help matters much.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the recommendations on what we Americans should eat — are about to be released (most likely in December) amid much controversy. The main focus of the debate swirls around fat.

In the past, the guidelines recommended everyone adopt a low-fat diet and switch to consuming lower-fat foods such as low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese. Recipes and cookbooks were altered to make our meals lower in fat as well.

Now, 25 years later, obesity is at an all-time high.

Dr. Gregory Miller, the chief science officer and executive vice president of research, regulatory and scientific affairs for the National Dairy Council, was in Boise earlier this month to speak to health-care providers about fat and what the last 25 years of research reveal. Dr. Miller has published research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Miller and ask him some questions.

Why is telling people to avoid fat and, in particular, saturated fat bad advice?

Well, science evolves. The recommendations for low-fat diets and avoiding saturated fats started back in the ’60s. Although the thinking on total fat has changed, saturated fat is still singled out as a problem by dietary guidelines.

Recent evidence now indicates that the proportion of calories from saturated fat may not have as profound an effect on cardiovascular disease risk as once thought. That is because there are so many types of fatty acids (both polyunsaturated and saturated), which may elicit different physiological functions in different people. It’s not all black and white or an “all good” or “all bad” situation.

Dr. (Dariush) Mozaffarian from Tufts University looked at intakes of traditional dairy products and fat-free dairy and found that people backfill those calories lost with refined carbohydrates. Fat provides satiety and helps you control your appetite better.

Heart disease — a leading cause of death: What do we tell people who have heart disease or a family history of heart disease?

Total fat intake is not related to cardiovascular risk. There are countries that consume large amounts of fat with very little incidence of heart disease. You need to get enough polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.

Concentrate on consuming fatty fish, which is high in omega-3s, and eating nuts and seeds high in unsaturated fats.

What will the new dietary guidelines reveal?

Speculations on what will be in the new guidelines is that cholesterol comes off the naughty nutrient list. In fact, it won’t be addressed.

The controversy is not so much (about) fat anymore as the new Dietary Guidelines will not limit fat; it is about saturated fat. They have recommended we limit saturated fat to 10 percent of calories or less, but many say we do not need to have a recommendation for saturated fat.

Today, we are more concerned about refined carbohydrates in our diet than we are about fat. And, of course, there will be recommendations to not smoke and get plenty of exercise.

What is our message to consumers?

We need to focus on a healthy lifestyle and a healthy dietary pattern, rather than focusing on foods to avoid.

Embracing healthy-eating patterns — such as those found in the DASH Diet or Mediterranean diet that focus on positive dietary habits such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, dairy products, fish and lean meats — is what we need to focus on.

We need to eat whole foods in their natural states. Eighty percent of your diet should come from these and 20 percent or less from processed foods.

We should not be afraid to eat eggs or dairy products. Milk fat is only 67 percent-saturated fat, and there are over 400 different fatty acids in milk. Calcium binds some of the fatty acids in milk and forms insoluble soaps that are carried right through, and you don’t even digest them.

Dairy consumption has received a bad rap in the low-fat diet craze. It is so critical in children’s diets, and they need a variety of options for consumption preference. We should let children make whatever choice they want: whole, 2 percent or fat-free milk. Children do not consume enough dairy products at a time when they are reaching peak-growth velocity, which is critical for bone mass.

To summarize my conversation with Dr. Miller, there is no one nutrient that’s responsible for all health ills, and there is no one nutrient that will make us healthy. It really is the overall dietary pattern that is important, according to Dr. Miller.

Dietary patterns consistently associated with good health tend to be low in saturated fat — but not because they focus on staying away from saturated fat — but because they’re made up of the most nutritious whole foods available.

These foods are naturally low in saturated fat, just as they are low in salt and sugar and free of trans fat and so forth. Those foods are also minimally processed. Bottom line, eat as close to nature as you can get.

Dr. SeAnne Safaii, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho Dietetics Program and past president of the Idaho Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.