Heart disease is the number 1 cause of death in the US (Cancer is #2). And now that cancer treatment is more effective, many cancer survivors are going on to develop heart disease after cancer diagnosis. When I talk to survivors about a healthy lifestyle after cancer, I make sure to address their risk for cancer coming back as well as other chronic diseases, like heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.
When talking about heart disease risk, dietary fat always comes to mind. An article, from MSNBC was published last Thursday (Dec. 13th) and addressed an important question regarding nutrition. It focused on whether saturated fat (often termed "bad fat" along with trans fats), is really as bad as nutrition experts say.
It is important to keep in mind how we come to recommendations and conclusions regarding nutrition and what are the "good" or "bad" foods. Some recommendations are based on trends that we’ve noticed from one culture to another. These are important observations, however this method does not control for many factors, including physical activity habits, genetics or stress management.
The best way to study something is to do randomized, blinded study that controls for the factors that can confound results. However, have you ever tried to blind someone to something that’s in their food? Sometimes parents try that on their kids by disguising vegetables. It doesn’t work so well!
It’s also hard to get people to comply with the "experimental diet". Therefore, nutrition studies are VERY hard to produce what I would call real results. Meaning that the study shows something, but are you sure that the experiment group actually received the nutrients as planned.
Usually, what I do with results is to try to look at them in the context of what most studies are showing, or what the big picture says. In this case, with saturated fats we may or may not know exactly how each specific saturated fat (there are several different types) affects our heart health, or cancer risk.
Here’s the big picture: Diets where fat consumption is mostly unsaturated fat have been shown to be beneficial in many areas, including heart disease, arthritis, cancer, as well as potentially affecting inflammation. Is it likely to harm you if you cut back on saturated fats? Probably not. Unless you count missed time with your confidant, ice cream, as an opportunity cost.
In these cases, I lean towards the theory that there are no risks to eating healthy. For now, we suggest eating less saturated fat. In the future, we’ll be able to look at each person’s genetic profile and make specific diet recommendations. For now, we have to go with what we know.
Remember… We have NOTHING to lose by making smart nutrition choices!
How we define "smart nutrition choices" might change with time, but
that’s the science of it!