You know the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid that graces the nutrition pages of every school child’s health textbook? Well, even though it has been modified lately to include more specific recommendations, the results of an eight-year study show convincingly that the pyramid was wrong. Eating low-fat foods do not decrease heart disease or cancer rates.
The party-line experts from the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and other organizations were so smug in their perennial recommendations that Americans would be healthier if only they would eat a low-fat diet. Let’s hope that crow is low in fat, because now those experts are going to have to eat a large helping of it.
The federal study, part of the Women’s Health Initiative, cost $415 million and involved 49,000 women over a period of eight years. Dr. Michael Thun, who directs epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society, called it the “Rolls-Royce of studies,” because it cost so much and lasted so long.
And for that reason, most experts believe it should be taken very seriously. The results are definitely not preliminary. Some say it should be the final word on the matter.
Of course, those like Dr. Dean Ornish who has been a low-fat cheerleader for years and who has developed a diet around low-fat eating, say the results may not mean much because the amount of fat consumed was still not low enough.
It hardly matters. The women in the study, who were mostly obese or overweight, barely managed to keep their fat intake below the USDA recommended limit of 30 percent of total calories. They were still far below the control group’s intake of fat, which was 37 percent of total calories.
Ornish recommends no more than 15 percent of total fat from calories. That is clearly an unreasonably low goal that very few Americans would be able to reach, even if studies proved it would help make them healthy. But no such study exists.
A five-year study is currently being conducted on the once popular low-carbohydrate diet. Preliminary results indicate that low-carb beats low-fat in weight loss results as well as blood chemistry profiles. But, like the low-fat diet, people tend not to stay on it for long.
Health experts disagree on what we can take from the low-fat diet study, but most agree that doctors should stop recommending a low-fat diet alone to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
But most health professionals are still recommending a diet reduced in saturated fats and especially trans fats. They point to the Mediterranean style diet which is generally high in total fat, but low in saturated fat. Most people who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to have a low incidence of heart disease and cancer.
Monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, and fats rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, are thought to be particularly healthy. Saturated fats, such as those in beef products, and trans fats like those found in most baked goods, are generally considered bad fats.
So the new USDA food pyramid, while still recommending a limit on the amount of total fat, differentiates between types of fats and between types of carbohydrates. It recommends a diet high in carbohydrates, but it specifically recommends whole grains, fruits and vegetables rather than sugar and flour products.
The new pyramid is a shade better than the old one, but it still should not be considered the last word in nutrition advice. It may work for the average healthy American, but it is still too carbohydrate-rich for diabetics and those with insulin resistance.
The bottom line is that each individual should follow a diet that has been fine tuned specifically for them. If a doctor gives you a photocopy of a standard diet, it should send up a warning flag that perhaps more thought should be put into your personal diet recommendation. Seek a second opinion.
The study results clearly show that, at least when it comes to nutrition and health, what might seem to be an obvious recommendation might turn out to have no relevance. The lesson learned should be to wait for the final results before making sweeping nutritional recommendations.