Could Our Love of All Things “Low Fat” Backfire?

DSCN1041One of the most anticipated sessions at the American Dietetic Association’s Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo last week was “The Great Fat Debate.”

Even though it didn’t quite live up to the billing — and no feisty arguments erupted — the session was thought-provoking.   Yet at the end, the debaters seemed to agree on things more than they disagreed.  Bottom line conclusion:   low fat diets are not all they’re cracked up to be.  The type of fat we eat is more important than the total amount.  There’s also no debate that trans fats are bad, omega-3s are good.

The first of the four experts to take to the stage was Walter Willett, MD, DrPH (shown above), chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department.  He was probably the boldest in his statements.  He thinks all the focus on fat reduction in dietary guidelines  has been a “massive distraction” and he wants to see total fat and % of calories from fat abolished from food labels so people won’t zero in on the amount of fat in foods. 

He believes today’s low fat advice  can even be harmful because it results in the reduction of healthy fats, along with a corresponding increase in carbohydrates — most often refined, sugary grains. 

Harvard’s Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, believes this trade-off can be harmful to our health.  The average carb we eat in the U.S. is worse than saturated fat, he said. 

So it all comes down to replacements.  Saturated fat has been singled out due to its link to heart disease — although even that connection was called into question during the session because of conflicting evidence.  However, unless we replace saturated fat with other fats (mono- and polyunsaurated fats) we could be doing more harm than good.

All four experts agreed that replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates is likely to raise the risk of heart disease, not reduce it (especially with the type of carbohydrates most people typically eat). 

How did we get it all wrong?   Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the cardiovascular health laboratory at Tufts University, said it’s a problem of message translation.  Oh, how often that’s the case. (See my related guest post on the International Food Information Council’s blog Food Insight.)


There’s been an over simplification of dietary guidlines, which had lead to misinterpretations, she said.  Cutting down on saturated fat has been translated to cutting down on all fats.  “Low fat” was equated with “healthy,” and then “low fat”  became “low calorie” in the minds of consumers. 

People may feel good about buying a low fat muffin, for example, but the calories may be just as high or even higher than a regular fat version. 

Lichtenstein warned against focusing on single nutrients for disease risk reduction.  This is where the advice can lead people astray.

She said we should stop emphasizing  individual dietary components  because when one goes down, another goes up.

Instead, Lichtenstein recommends a food-based approach. 

I agree.  After all, we do eat food — not nutrients.

What do you think?

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