Why is nutrition advice on fats so confusing? A registered dietitian weighs in

This March 27, 2014 photo shows shoppers in the produce section at the the Whole Foods Market in Woodmere Village, Ohio. Whole Foods reports quarterly financial results on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Two major organizations disagree about how much fat Americans should be eating. 

The U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services compiled the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend keeping saturated fats at or below 10% of a person’s total daily caloric intake. 

However, in a recent review article published in the Journal of American Cardiology, nonprofit The Nutrition Coalition says these recommendations lack scientific backing. The organization argues that a 10% cap is baseless and, what’s more, putting a ceiling on such fats could do more harm than good.

News 8 spoke with Kathleen Cowden, a registered dietitian at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, about the coalition’s latest report and how to deal with conflicting data about diet and nutrition. 

Question: The USDA recommends limiting saturated fats. The Nutrition Coalition says there is no need for this. What’s going on?

Cowden: “I always say that we do not eat nutrients – we eat food. Nutrition would be much less confusing to people if we talked in terms of food instead of micromanaging each nutrient. Percentage restrictions are given as a guideline to help us put it in perspective of our whole diet. There are many studies looking at fats and types of fat that have been supported by medical and dietetics professionals. There are reputable studies supporting the restriction of saturated fat as part of a diet to support good health, not only cardiac health, but the prevention and management of other chronic illnesses. To simply look at a nutrient without taking into consideration the entire diet and lifestyle of the individual or looking at individual foods as simply bad or good is ignoring the big picture. Also, to say that foods like unprocessed red meat, whole fat dairy, and dark chocolate [all of which contain saturated fat] do not need to be restricted is irresponsible. These foods can fit into a healthy diet, but not in unlimited amounts or without considering the other components of the diet like plants and other proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

Q: Nutritional guidance often has conflicting evidence. Something is “good” one day and then “bad” the next. The public gets frustrated and people don’t know what to believe.

Cowden: “Nutrition is a science. There is new research and information daily, but because nutrition is linked to food and food can be an emotional subject, people feel there is conflicting advice or disagree with what they hear. People often want to hear support of foods and eating habits they personally prefer. There is also confusion due to the many recommendations made by self-proclaimed nutrition professionals that are not or only partially based on scientific evidence.” 

The dietary guidelines are based on current evidence and take into account the most pressing nutrition problems in our country such as obesity. They are only guidelines so they can’t possibly take into account every person and every diet. If the average American followed the dietary guidelines we would have a healthier nation.