The Exoneration of Fat

Every five years, the USDA and US Department of Health and Human Services publishes their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, outlining what we should or should not eat. To help them out, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is in charge of providing evidence-based recommendations to them beforehand. You might have already heard that this year, dietitians want the current limits on cholesterol intake to be eliminated, as evidence increasingly suggests very little of it is actually absorbed from the diet. What’s more surprising is that the DGAC completely left total fat out from the “nutrients of concern” list. Which means…

That’s right people, fat is back on the menu!

But why, after all these years (over 30, to be exact) are they no longer recommending restrictions on the total amount of fat in your diet? Well, scientists are learning that not all types of fat are bad for you. In fact, eating foods rich in unsaturated fat (fish, nuts, and vegetable oils) can help lower your cholesterol, thereby decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. That being said, research also conclusively shows that trans fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. And as for saturated fats (found in meat and dairy), scientists are still struggling to determine if it’s good for you or not. The problem is that saturated fats are found in healthy foods, like coconuts and dark chocolate, as well as in unhealthy foods, like french fries and butter. What researchers do know is that replacing saturated fats with carbs does nothing to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, however switching from saturated fats to unsaturated fats can.

Another reason the DGAC left total fat off the “nutrients of concern” list was that setting limits on the total amount of fat in the diet has led to some unintended negative consequences. Specifically, they found that because people were trying to cut out fats from their diet, they began increasing the amount of carbs in their diet, especially refined sugars and grains. That’s because, ironically, low-fat and non-fat products actually tend to have higher amounts of carbs and sugar. Unfortunately, replacing fats with processed carbs and added sugar can actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Truth be told, in almost every case, the DGAC found that increasing refined grains and added sugars is harmful to your health!

Take home messages:

1. Don’t go overboard trying to lower the total amount of fat in your diet. Instead, make sure you’re getting a well-rounded diet that features more of the healthy unsaturated fats. And if you cut back on saturated fats, don’t replace them with refined carbs.

2. Avoid low-fat and non-fat products, which tend to have relatively higher amounts of refined grains or added sugars

3. Replace the refined and added sugar in your diet with healthy sources of carbs such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes.

Finally, I should note that everything I’ve written here is based upon the recently published DGAC report, which is accessible here.

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