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Just a decade ago, our concept of “healthy eating” was so simple and straightforward: fat is bad. These days, not so much. Amby Burfoot’s most recent Peak Performance blog post summarizes the key points from “The Great Fat Debate” held among four highly respected nutrition experts (Walter Willett, Alice Lichtenstein, Lewis Kuller, and Darius Mozaffarian) in the current issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
There was plenty of disagreement, but some common ground. For example, total fat is less important than the type of fat: saturated fats (e.g. dairy and meat) are less desirable than unsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil). But replacing fats with processed carbs isn’t the answer, and will probably make things worse — which brings up the fundamental problem with this kind of debate. As Harvard’s Mozaffarian puts it:
Dietary recommendations that focus on selected nutrients, such as total fat or saturated fat, are often confusing for the public, result in illogical dietary decisions, and increase the potential for manipulation of nutrient targets by the food industry… If we’re eating an otherwise healthful diet including plenty of vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts, it will be much less important what the saturated fat level is.
Or as Lichtenstein (of Tufts) puts it, more simply:
I think we have to stop talking about individual dietary components because when one goes up another goes down.
Given the continuing disagreement about fundamental questions (is cholesterol bad?), it seems pretty clear to me that we don’t have enough understanding of the complex relationship between diet and health to successfully micromanage the ratios of specific nutrients. On the other hand, we have pretty unambiguous evidence about the benefits of certain patterns of eating — like getting lots of vegetables and fruit. Until the research is a little less murky, that’s the approach I’m sticking with.