You might want to rethink that low-fat diet.
A new report in the medical journal BMJ suggests current dietary recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) — which suggest limiting saturated fat intake — might actually hurt your health.
The controversy here centers on saturated fat, or the kind of fat found in foods like butter, cheese and red meat. You’ve probably heard it referred to as one of the “unhealthy” fats — not as bad as artificial trans-fats, which pretty much everyone agrees are artery-cloggers, but less virtuous than the “healthy” fats found in salmon, avocados and olive oil.
So, in its 2018 dietary guidelines, the WHO — whose nutritional decrees matter, because they get woven into entire countries’ dietary recommendations — suggested that people reduce their saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of their overall diet, and to swap those out for “healthier” fats.
Sounds good, right?
Not so fast, says Arne Astrup, a nutrition professor at the University of Copenhagen.
As his and his colleagues’ study points out, not all saturated fats are made equal.
Plus, cutting too many high-sat-fat foods from your diet could actually mean robbing yourself of other important nutrients and their benefits.
In his BMJ paper, Arne argues that the WHO’s guidelines ignore “considerable evidence that the health effects vary for different saturated fatty acids.”
For example: The kind of saturated fat in dark chocolate has totally “different physiological effects” on the body than the type of saturated fat found in meat, or in dairy products.
Plus, he adds, a food’s “composition” — meaning its chemical-level structure and nutritional profile — “is crucially important” to consider.
Take dairy for example: Although dairy products may share the same type of saturated fat, if you were to take a microscope to a stick of butter versus a container of yogurt, you’d see two very different pictures — and even though it’s hard for our brains to parse that difference, our bodies respond to those minute structural differences.
Simply saying to reduce saturated fats, Arne explains, fails to account for the complexity of food and digestion.
He’s concerned that the WHO’s guidelines will have dangerous consequences — like discouraging people from eating some foods with saturated fats and science-backed benefits. (Some examples: eggs, yogurt, tofu and dark chocolate.)
“A recommendation to reduce intake of total saturated fat without considering specific fatty acids and food sources . . . might cause a reduction in the intake of nutrient-dense foods that decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, other serious non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, and deficiency diseases,” writes Arne and co.
Furthermore, they’re concerned that it will lead to people substituting saturated fat with worse crap.
Or, as they scientifically put it: “We’re concerned that, based on several decades of experience, a focus on total saturated fat might have the unintended consequence of misleading governments, consumers, and industry towards promoting foods low in saturated fat but rich in refined starch and sugar.”
Arne and his colleagues stress that the best way to evaluate the healthfulness of a person’s diet is simply to focus on the mix of foods they’re eating — without getting too obsessive about the individual nutrients, they conclude.
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