Focus on Fats: Research, Regulations, and Recommendations
Over the last four decades, low-fat diets have been advocated for health and weight loss. As a result, we became a nation of fat-focused consumers. Along with this obsession came an array of new non-fat and reduced-fat food products often filled with refined carbohydrates and as many calories as the original version. Unsurprisingly, these new food products did not lead to weight loss or health improvements.
Dietary guidance has been steadily evolving since the fat-free craze. In fact, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommends reducing saturated fat by substituting with unsaturated fat and replacing solid animal fats with non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts (1). Close on the heels of this report was a JAMA opinion article commending the DGAC for eliminating the upper limit on recommended fat intake. The authors concluded that a move away from total fat reduction and toward healthy food choices is warranted, including those foods higher in healthful fats (2).
An in-depth look at the impacts of fats in the food supply was provided in the May 2015 Advances in Nutrition supplement “Fats and Oils: Where Food Function Meets Health” (3). Ten papers by food and nutrition scientists explored the latest research on the metabolic responses and health benefits of foods made with vegetable oils along with a detailed look at how science-based advances in preparation methods and processing technologies affect the nutrient profile of food products.
The researchers acknowledged difficulties facing food manufacturers in developing food products that meet the changing fat recommendations. Fat imparts desirable characteristics to foods that affect texture, mouth feel, flavor, and satiety, making it a challenge to develop reduced-calorie, low-fat foods with the same positive attributes as full-fat products. While there are calls from several groups to ban trans fatty acids (TFA), partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with TFA have been reduced substantially in the food supply since 2006 and virtually eliminated from many foods, including potato products like French fries. So it is questionable if a ban on the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils will result in additional health benefits.
The question remains, “How can registered dietitian nutritionists translate these evolving fat recommendations into advice to help consumers plan healthful meals?” One way is to encourage the pairing of healthy fats and oils with under-consumed foods. A recent study found that 87% of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables (4), which provide generous amounts of fiber, potassium, and vitamins A and C—identified as “shortfall nutrients” in the 2015 DGAC report. Potatoes in all forms provide an affordable, well-liked vegetable choice that is particularly high in potassium and fiber. Sautéing, roasting, grilling, or frying vegetables with unsaturated oils is a great way to boost flavor and increase the appeal of vegetables. Eating a handful of nuts as a snack or sprinkling them on cooked vegetables, salads, or cereal also increases intake of healthful fats and other nutrients.
As always, moderation is the key. With the pendulum swinging back from fat restriction, we want to encourage a balanced intake of a variety of foods and use unsaturated fats and oils to enhance flavor and provide health benefits. But we can all be grateful to put our fat-free days behind us!
(1) U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. February 2015.
(2) Mozaffarian D, Ludwig DS. The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines: Lifting the Ban on Total Dietary Fat. JAMA 2015 Jun 23-30;313(24):2421-2422. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.5941.
(3) Supplement—Fats and Oils: Where Food Function Meets Health. Adv Nutr 2015 May 15;6(3):286S-382S. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007146.
(4) Moore LV, Thompson FE. Adults Meeting Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations—United States, 2013. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2015 Jul 10;64(26):709-13.