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Dietary Science is Awakening from a 50 Year Sleep

August 1, 2014

     In the 1973 Woody Allen comedy “Sleeper,” Allen’s character awakes from two centuries of suspended animation to find that his preferred diet of wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk has fallen out of favor. Scientists in the future have concluded that the benefits of those substances, believed in the 1970s to contain life-preserving properties, were inferior to deep fat, steak, cream pies and hot fudge. Nutritional science in the 22nd century found that what was once viewed as “health food” was, in fact, the opposite of what later came to be understood as healthy.

Although it was intended to be a parody of 1970s counter-culture excess, Sleeper serves as an important reminder that food fads come and go, and that what passes for mainstream dietary dogma at a given point in time can evolve. The really startling news is that we’re seeing precisely such a shift in the 21st century because of the accumulation of recent research suggesting that saturated fats from dairy foods are not the dietary villains they have been portrayed to be for many years.

The most significant of these findings was published this spring in the Annals of Internal Medicine. After reassessing the results of 72 different studies, a team of British researchers concluded that “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

A similar conclusion was published in the medical journal Atherosclerosis, which earlier this year found that “Animal product intake (unprocessed red meat, egg, dairy) is not necessarily associated with increased cardiovascular risk.”

These findings add to a 2010 compilation of research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease or cardiovascular disease.”

The accumulation of research like these peer-reviewed reports is finally beginning to chip away at more than a half-century’s worth of accepted of medical doctrine: the long-questioned theory that dietary intake of saturated fat from meats, eggs, and dairy, is directly tied to higher cholesterol levels leading to increased coronary heart disease.

What’s also become obvious is that, as fats were villainized and skimmed out of foods in the past two generations, they were replaced in many cases by simple sugars and other refined carbohydrates – a deal with the devil that is now looking more like a major source of the obesity epidemic in our society, and others as well. To put it in plainer terms: We’ve been fighting a war against fat, and fat – consumed in moderation – is not the enemy.

Heavily-processed foods are now being viewed with the jaundiced eyes once reserved for products containing saturated fats. Witness the renaissance of butter, sales of which are sizzling, even as margarine – a heavily-processed imitator if there ever was one – is in a long-term slump. The awareness that trans-fats are a greater health concern than saturated fats has put margarine on the defensive, and led to a resurgence in use of butter.

It will take additional research to verify this growing body of opinion that balanced diets in otherwise healthy people need not fear dairy fats. There are plenty of indications that consumption by children and adults of dairy products such as milk and yogurt is tied to healthier body weights. As the National Dairy Council has reported, the evidence from observational studies has shown that the consumption of dairy foods as part of a balanced diet is not associated with increased weight gain over time, and in many cases, is associated with less weight gain. Research has also shown that consumption of milk, even flavored milk, doesn’t contribute to a higher body mass index in kids.

Rolling back the conventional wisdom where fats are concerned is not going to happen overnight. Many people and organizations have staked their reputation on the premise that fat is bad. They will not go quietly into that good night.

But the process is underway, and will hopefully lead to a more reasoned discussion about the need for a balanced diet, with less strident rhetoric about good versus bad foods. Hot fudge sundaes – even in the 22nd century – may never achieve health food status, but even now, chocolate (at least the dark kind) is seen by many as having health benefits. And that’s no joke.