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Monday, August 28, 2006

The Last Laugh on Low-Fat Diets

From Bottom Line:
Who's got the last laugh now, thought all those french fry and cheese-loving folks when it was reported that low-fat diets have little or no effect on reducing the incidence of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer or colon cancer. While for years we've been lectured that for optimal health we must trim the fat from our diets, the latest results from the National Institutes of Health's Women's Health Initiative (WHI) suggested otherwise.

Needless to say, there is far, far more to this story than the media would have you believe.

So, is it safe to order cheeseburgers and french fries for dinner? Absolutely not, responds Udo Erasm
us, PhD, author of Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill (Alive Books). He told me that the real problem was that this study was very poorly designed. It looked at overall fat intake only, and failed to take into account the most important distinction -- there are good fats and bad fats.

The bad fats -- for example, include artery-clogging saturated fats found in foods such as bacon, sausage and burgers and trans fats in fries -- increase the risk of disease. On the other hand, our bodies require healthy fats (such as omega-3, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids) -- from foods such as seeds, nuts, avocados, olive oil and salmon -- simply to survive, let alone thrive.

Nearly 49,000 women around the country participated in the WHI clinical trial. At the start, all consumed at least 32% (or a mean of 38%) of their total daily calories from fat. The researchers asked 40% of the women to reduce their dietary fat to 20% of calories, and consume more grains, fruits and vegetables. The other 60% were not encouraged to modify their diets.

After one year, researchers found that women in the reduced fat group were only able to reduce their fat intake to 25% of total daily calories. After five years, this percentage crept up to 30%. The percentage of fat intake of the control group did not vary significantly over the years, with a mean of 38% at the beginning of the study and the end. However, whether or not women managed to cut fat from their diets turned out to be largely irrelevant. After an average follow-up of seven-and-a-half years, the dietary intervention had little or no impact on rates of disease.

These results, which earned big headlines in major newspapers and magazines, should really have come as no surprise, says Dr. Erasmus, since understanding the distinction between "good" fats and "bad" fats has been slow to reach mainstream medicine. As a result, the WHI study was fundamentally flawed from the outset in its emphasis on total fat intake alone.

It's time to stop demonizing fat, stresses Dr. Erasmus. Fat is a vital nutrient and the human body cannot survive without it. Healthy fats are required for normal cell, tissue and organ function, and it's dead wrong to equate "low-fat" and "no fat" with "healthy." In fact, to compensate for the loss in taste and texture that come with removing fat from foods, manufacturers simply load on other ingredients like sugar.

As a result, we consume more empty calories. As a population we are putting on excess pounds and developing more inflammation -- common denominators for health scourges such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

To restore a proper balance of good fats and bad fats in the diet, Dr. Erasmus recommends this simple strategy...

Eat less bad fats. Restrict saturated fats from meat and dairy products, and avoid trans fats -- found in foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as fast foods including french fries and processed foods such as commercially produced breads, baked goods, crackers, etc. The American Heart Association recommends that we get no more than 7% of daily calories from saturated fats and no more than 1% from trans fats.

Eat more good fats. Replace these bad fats with healthy essential fatty acids from cold water fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring), nuts, seeds (flax, sesame, sunflower, etc.), and oils carefully pressed from organically grown seeds and stored under protection from light, oxygen and heat. According to Dr. Erasmus, a minimum of 15% of daily calories should come from healthy fats.

If you don't care for eating seafood or nuts, you can take supplements of omega oils. Best: An oil blend with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 2 to 1.

Note: While cold water fish is an excellent source of essential fatty acids, Dr. Erasmus cautions that the presence of toxins has become a major concern. Recently he has cut back on salmon (his former favorite), and now leans more toward lower-fat alternatives such as sea bass, snapper and cod. To limit your exposure to toxins including dioxins and PCBs, choose wild rather than farmed fish whenever possible, and limit your consumption of fish to two or three times a week.

Dr. Erasmus also suggests eating more green vegetables as they help process the fats.

Health is not just the absence of disease, but the optimization of body processes like digestion and circulation, says Dr. Erasmus. This requires that we minimize our exposure to unhealthy fats, and make sure we incorporate sufficient essential fatty acids into our diets. It's not a simplistic formula as the NIH study would have you believe, but neither is it that complicated. Just lay off the red meat, milk shakes and processed foods, and instead enjoy a fresh avocado salad topped with a few strips of grilled wild salmon. Snack on a handful of walnuts instead of a bag of potato chips. Your body will thank you for making the switch from bad fats to healthful ones.

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