“Eat Butter”? The Skinny On Saturated Fat

The cover story on this week’s issue of TIME Magazine is making waves – and driving sales at the nation’s checkout counters. The article traces the recent history of nutrition science, specifically the 20th-century vogue for health messages about cutting consumption of saturated fat. It does a nice job laying out how those messages were seized upon by food marketers to create today’s grocery aisles thronged with “fat-free” and “low-fat” processed foods.Tasty butter on wooden cutting board isolated on white

But ironically, in its effort to rehabilitate the reputation of saturated fat by showing how that food component has been isolated and demonized, the article effectively demonizes carbohydrates, blaming them for the same health conditions once widely linked with saturated fat.

It’s only the latest article in the popular press to do this. But while it makes a compelling read, singling out any one food or food component for blame oversimplifies a field of study marked by complexity and nuance.

As a cancer research and education organization, we should note that AICR’s expert reports and their updates have found no strong links between dietary fat itself –whether saturated or unsaturated – and cancer risk. Instead, it’s the fat we carry on our bodies that is strongly linked to increased risk for eight different cancers.

Which is why articles with headlines like “Eat Butter” concern us. Because many major studies show that people who follow plant-based diets (a description that includes the diet laid out in AICR Recommendations, as well as a host of others like the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet, etc.) are leaner, lead healthier lives, have lower rates of mortality, and lower risk for many cancers and other chronic diseases.

In other words: it’s the whole diet that matters. Suggesting that carbohydrates (and/or sugar) are the single reason Americans are obese and unhealthy is misleading – just as misleading as blaming our current health ills on fat. After all, carbohydrate-rich foods include fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Many are low in calories and filling; all are packed with nutrients and other compounds studied for their cancer-protective properties; they should comprise most of the food on our plates.

We agree that those foods which are high in fat yet also high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals – such as nuts and avocados – clearly have a role in a healthy diet. But it’s important to differentiate between foods with added fats (chips, cookies, pastries) and those with healthful components. Total calories do matter for healthy weight.

As for red meat: whatever the evidence turns out to be for heart disease, the research is clear and compelling when it comes to cancer: diets high in red meat raise risk for colorectal cancer.

This page on impact shows the results of recent studies done by independent researchers who’ve shown that following AICR Recommendations to reshape the overall diet provides powerful protection from a range of chronic diseases.

The problem isn’t carbohydrates, and it isn’t fat. It’s the cycle of blame/vindication that causes Americans to throw up their hands and ignore the clear, convincing evidence for healthy, comprehensive dietary change.


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