The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – the government-sanctioned recommendations about what we should and shouldn’t eat – will include a game-changing edit: There’s no longer going to be a recommended upper limit on total fat intake. This hasn’t gotten as much press as the other big change – that cholesterol will no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern,” meaning that we can now eat eggs without feeling guilty. But as the authors of a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association point out, the true game-changer in the new recommendations is that we won’t have to worry so much about the total fat content of our food. And this makes a lot of sense, since in many ways, fats are much better for us than what they’ve typically been replaced with in low-fat diets – refined carbs and added sugars.
For people who lived through the low-fat/no-fat craze that started in the 80s, this is big news. The change in fats recommendations has been coming for some time now, as studies have consistently shown that low-fat diets are in no way the beacon they once seemed to be, and can in fact be quite unhealthy over the long-term.
Here’s why fats are coming back into style. The fats restriction largely stemmed from the fact that saturated fat was once thought to be a major culprit in heart disease – and this somehow extended to all fats. But in recent years, it seems that saturated fat may not be so bad, and may even be good in some ways (as in its effects on HDL or “good” cholesterol), or at least neutral. This is especially true when compared to a diet high in refined carbs, which do nothing for cardiovascular risk, except possibly increase it. In fact, refined carbs and added sugars, which have typically been the alternative to fats, are linked to a laundry list of health ailments.
The other problem with previous recommendations to reduce our total fat intake is that it also means that we’re reducing fats that are undeniably good, like poly- and monounsaturated fats, found in fish, nuts, and avocadoes, which we know are excellent for body and brain.
So the recommendation to have no more than 35% of your calories coming from fats is over.
“Placing limits on total fat intake has no basis in science and leads to all sorts of wrong industry and consumer decisions,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, one of the authors of the new paper. “Modern evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthful fats like nuts, vegetable oils, and fish have protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. Other fat-rich foods, like whole milk and cheese, appear pretty neutral; while many low-fat foods, like low-fat deli meats, fat-free salad dressing, and baked potato chips, are no better and often even worse than full-fat alternatives. It’s the food that matters, not its fat content.”
Research has shown that high-carb diets, which have typically been the fallout of the low-fat movement, increase the risk of metabolic dysfunction, obesity, and even heart disease – all the things that low-fat diets were supposed to address. To this end, the authors suggest that Nutrition Facts on food labels be changed, to call out not only added sugar, but also refined grains. Not adding these elements in, they say, would imply that added sugars and processed carbs are no big deal – and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Hopefully, we can shift the way we think about fats, and get rid of the often-crazy substitutions we make – not only for ourselves, but for our kids, who have also been the victims of our nutritional confusion. For instance, the authors point out that there’s a ban on whole milk in school cafeterias, but fat-free milk with lots of added sugars is allowed. We’ll still want to keep an eye on our fat intake a bit; the new recommendations aren’t licence to drink a glass of bacon fat with your meal. But getting more than 35% of our calories from fats just isn’t the health risk that we once thought it was – and in many ways, if they’re very healthy fats, it may be a great benefit.
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