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Does Low-Fat Still Matter?

After years of guidance on dietary fat intake, recommendations have recently moved their focus from quantity to quality. It was first advised to limit the total fat to lower heart disease risk. In the followed years, health organizations recommended a bit less saturated and trans, a bit more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, but net guidance to eat less fat remained constant. Nowadays, with the benefit of more years to evaluate the impact of long-term effects of fat restriction on the body, Dietary Guidelines emphasize quality rather than quantity.

Evolution of Fat Guidelines

Years ago when Dietary Guidelines advised to eat less fat and more carbohydrate-rich foods to replace the calories, they had in mind whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Unintended consequence had happen were people unfortunately swapped out the whole milk, full-fat dairy products, and higher fat meats in their diet for refined white potatoes, breads, desserts, pasta and sugars. Instead of reducing the chances of developing heart disease, this higher carbohydrate diet caused an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Years later, it was agreed on the detrimental health effects of saturated fat and trans fat. Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary source of trans fats, became popular among food producers for their ease of use, low cost, stability, and desirable effects on the taste and texture of foods. Fried foods are considered food sources of trans fat, as well as baked goods such as pies, cookies, cakes and crackers. However, few months later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer classifies PHOs as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and gave manufacturers three years to remove PHOs from their products.

People equate fat with calories, and low and non-fat foods provide an apparent shortcut to weight loss. Currently, regulations require that ‘healthy’ labeled foods should be limited to no more than 3 grams of total fat and 1 gram of saturated fat. This definition disqualifies nutrient-rich foods rich in healthful fats, such as avocados and nuts as well as fatty fish such as salmon, and allows less healthful fat-free high carbohydrate foods to carry the designation. However, until regulations change, FDA is working on reconsidering its definition of “healthy”.

The Global Dietary Guidelines

Ingredient list for healthy fats should be checked rather than relying on the term “healthy” on the label. However, below is a framework offered by the Global dietary guidelines to guide consumers toward more healthful diets:

• Enjoy a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, low- or non-fat dairy, whole grains, seafood, nuts, and legumes.
• Reduce red and processed meats.
• Include moderate amounts of healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils, nuts and fish, while reducing saturated fat and avoiding trans-fat.
• Be mindful of fast food such as burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas; they are the top sources of saturated fat.
• Increase low-fat/fat-free milk and yogurt while decreasing cheese.
• Use non-tropical vegetable oils (e.g. canola, olive) and nuts instead of solid animal fats (e.g. margarines, butter).

Christelle Bedrossian
Beirut, Lebanon

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Dietitian Christelle Bedrossian