Fat or Fiction: The Latest Science on Fat

by in Our Dietitan

When we enter the supermarket, we are at the crossroads of our beliefs about nutrition and the food industry trends that are clear in package call-outs and the products themselves. As we seek the foods we mean to purchase for our family, we may also recall recent headlines, a magazine article or the advice of a t.v. personality. As conflicting messages bombard us, we may wonder if we are making the right choices at the market. After all, if coconut oil appears to be just as popular as olive or vegetable oil, should we be buying it?

Low-sugar desserts like this Coconut Mango Pudding can be “better for you” than high-sugar, high-fat desserts, but the amount of saturated fat in popular ingredients like coconut milk has to be considered in context of your food needs for the day.

I get it. Nutrition guidance, policy and recommendations from organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can be boring, science laden and sometimes difficult to understand and put into practice. That said, these organizations, which develop our national food policies and are comprised of the thought leaders in the world of nutrition and health, are our link to the latest sound science. Their guidance is designed to prevent chronic disease and encourage healthy living. While the food industry may sometimes align with these health messages, it can’t be counted on as an ambassador for these organizations (unlike dietitians like me, who can be counted on). In other words, a food industry trend is not the same as a nutrition trend.

The Food Industry Buzz

Let’s consider for a moment the numerous recent headlines surrounding saturated fat. These headlines, which have created consumer confusion by putting saturated fat in a favorable light, have driven food industry trends and led to this intersection of food trend and health trend. So we know that the food industry has embraced saturated fat and wants you too as well through whole milk yogurt, coconut “everything” and the like. But, has the science really supported this new emphasis on saturated fat?

The Reality of the Science

Last June, in their Presidential Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) reported the results of studies in which participants lowered their intake of dietary saturated fat, replaced it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil, and saw a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk by about 30%, which is similar to the reduction achieved with commonly used statin drugs. In this report, the AHA also showed that lower intake of saturated fat coupled with higher intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat (the “good fats” found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, and avocados) is associated with lower rates of heart disease, including reduced risk of atherosclerosis (clogged arteries). Based on these studies and more, the AHA concluded that a diet low in saturated fat is recommended and suggested a daily intake of only 5 to 6 percent of total calories from saturated fat.

Making Sense of What to Eat

So if the science is telling us to reduce our intake of saturated fat, why does the food industry seem to be telling us the opposite through their ever growing number of saturated fat rich products? This isn’t the first time our food industry has influenced our fat intake. Indeed, throughout history, we can find periods when the food industry swayed our diet through non-fat (think SnackWell cookies), then trans-fat (until we learned how harmful that was) and then “right fat,” which embraces all fats and is the prevailing message today.

The ever-changing landscape in the supermarket highlights the importance of the Guiding Stars nutrition guidance program. Based on the science provided by policy makers like the World Health organization and the guidance of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Guiding Stars algorithm ensures that the foods you choose to put in your cart are a true reflection of the way nutrition experts believe you should be eating. Consider it the shopping partner you truly can trust.

For more on this fascinating intersection between science and the food industry, particularly as it relates to the science on dietary fat, check out our newest webinar: Fat or Fiction? The Latest Science vs. What People Believe About Fats.

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