Healthy Eating: Experts shun fat-free diets

Dec 8, 2010

Many people choose fat-free products assuming they are healthy, but this could be worse for your heart. Experts are calling on the FDA to discontinue the “total fat” information on the food label, and they are asking health professionals to stop advising people to follow a low-fat diet.

Decades of research on diet and heart health was presented by epidemiologists from Harvard, Tufts and elsewhere at the American Dietetic Association’s Annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Boston last week.

The message was clear: Americans should not follow low-fat diets but, instead, should add “good fats” to replace simple carbohydrates, similar to a Mediterranean eating pattern.

Keeping saturated fat low is still a prudent recommendation for heart health, and over the past decade, Americans have done a good job reducing foods like cheese, fatty red meats, whole milk, ice cream and other full-fat dairy foods. But at the same time, processed and high-glycemic index carbohydrates have replaced them. This is detrimental.

Fat-free versions of ice cream, salad dressing, sour cream, cream cheese, muffins, crackers, cookies and the like, along with sugary drinks and sweet foods, can increase the risk of heart attack by more than 30 percent when they replace saturated fat in the diet. In other words, too many simple carbohydrates are detrimental to heart health.

Good fats include polyunsaturated oils, like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and omega-3 fats from fish, flax seed and walnuts. Polyunsaturated fats doubly benefit the heart by lowering bad (LDL) cholesterol and increasing good (HDL) cholesterol.

But before you go chomping on nuts all day, consider two other key points: maintain a healthy weight and lower salt intake; both are important components of heart disease risk.

Think like a Mediterranean. They recoil in horror at our salty, processed and manufactured food. Buy natural, wholesome sources of carbohydrates, like fresh fruits (not Fruit Roll-Ups) and fresh vegetables (not pumpkin muffins). Use vegetable oils to roast or sauté them your vegetables. Also, add reasonable amounts of nuts and seeds. For example, trade in a bagel or muffin for oatmeal with walnuts and blueberries.

On food labels, key in on saturated fat (aim low), trans fat (aim for zero) and calories. If the calories of the food fit with your activity level, don’t worry about total fat because the excess will be from polyunsaturated sources, which is desirable. For example, a Nature Valley granola bar, hummus and a 100-calorie package of almonds each have a high total fat content but no trans fat and little saturated fat. They are better choices than pretzels or Twizzlers because these foods are simple carbohydrates that lack good oils.

Be aware of balancing the amount of food eaten (calories) with the amount of activity done to maintain a healthy weight. One researcher said that Americans must to stop acting like stable animals (eating anytime) and start acting like zoo animals (eat at set times), which he likened to the French who enjoy three wholesome meals a day but snack very little.

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