It really is hard for us consumers to keep up with the current thinking about nutrition, and even when we think we are, we're not always sure of the whys and wherefores. I recently bought a container of Greek yoghurt, for example, having read about its benefits in several places. My wife saw it in the fridge.
"Now I know why people like this Greek yoghurt. It's filled with fat," she said. "It's like cream."
I was caught off guard; she's usually up on these things. "But it's supposed to be good for you" was all I could stammer, knowing I'd read something recently somewhere about fat not being all that bad. A couple of days later, it occurred to me what it was.
In Fit Soul, Fit Body, authors Brant Secunda and Mark Allen compile a list of the "10 Worst Dietary Habits." It doesn't take a vegan foodie with a Ph.D. in biochemistry to appreciate most of the items on the list: 1. Anything high in white, refined sugar; 4. Anything deep fried; 10. Excess alcohol. But right in the No. 5 position was something that made me stop: Nonfat desserts.
"If you are going to indulge, use the full-fat originals," their explanation reads. "Nonfat means high in refined sugars and carbohydrates, which increases your chances of turning a healthy fat-burning meal into a fat-burning roadblock by releasing insulin."
If I knew that once, I'd forgotten.
Then, Grist last Friday re-published a blog by Kristin Wartman with the headline: "The Last Days Of The No-Fat Diet Fad." Wartman goes on to say that "the notion that saturated fats are detrimental to our health is deeply embedded in our zeitgeist -- but shockingly, the opposite just might be true."
Among other sources, Wartman cites a recent round-up in the Los Angeles Times. She also quotes cookbook author and New York Times contributor Martha Rose Shulman, who recently wrote: "I took a pledge the other day that will surprise my longtime followers. It even surprised me. I pledged to drop the term 'low-fat' from my vocabulary." She's putting back "some of the oil and cheese that I took out [of my recipes] when editors were telling me to keep total fat at 30% of total calories," she writes.
In Scientific American last April, Melinda Wenner Moyer took a look at a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, that found no association between the amount of saturated fat consumed and the risk of heart disease. She also cited a study co-authored by Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and published the New England Journal of Medicine. Its findings "do not merely suggest that saturated fats are not so bad," Wenner Moyer writes, "they indicate that carbohydrates could be worse."
A long and somewhat tedious debate follows Wartmen's piece in Grist, an indication of just how muddled the message is and how difficult it will be to convey its underlying truths to the public. One point, made by a commentator with the handle Biodiversivit, hit home, however. He said that writers for the lay press "have to find something timely and attention-grabbing to write about." Furthermore, he says, they "usually have little understanding" of said topic.
There's admittedly an element of truth to that, so I turned to nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN to put all this news into perspective for us.
"In trying to identify 'the' reason for American's ailments, if you point your finger at one food or one food group, you're pointing in the wrong direction," she says. "Diets are made up of a combination of foods, and even a 'perfect diet' -- should it even exist -- could be far from perfect if your cup runneth over. Supersizing has lead to a distortion of proper portions, and whether you are eating too much fat, carbs or protein."
The bottom line, then, is that "too is much is just that. Too much." And Taub-Dix says that she never bought into the "fat phobic mentality" in the first place because "saying 'no' to fat means saying 'yes'" to other foods that are unhealthy.
"The key here is not to make lard luscious but, instead, to welcome healthy fats like almonds, avocado, and olive oil as a part of a balanced (an overlooked and underappreciated word) diet. These fats help us feel more satisfied. They contribute important nutrients to our diet."
But you still need to proceed with caution, says the author of Read It Before You Eat It, a consumer's guide to decoding food labels. "These foods are not calorie free; for that, we have water."
As far as justifying bad behavior like smoking on the theory that science will someday reverse itself and find hidden benefits, I say, go ahead and think that way if you'd like. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to weigh the evidence and conclude that you're likely to wind up dead wrong.