Dealing with contradictory health advice

2016 10 29 10.27.06

After the last item I posted on fat and carbs — which I know is at odds with the Heart Foundation’s message — the least I can do is help you make sense of these kinds of contradictions.

As you know, food is a tricky area. Everyone can point to research that tells a story, but what do we do when those stories conflict?

As much as we all wish doctors, scientists, dietitians and the like would just get together and agree on what’s ‘right’ it’s never going to happen.

Food is political and there are careers and big dollars at stake.

On top of that, good dietary research is hard to do because human beings do far more than just eat. Ideally, scientists would separate what people eat from everything else that might influence the outcome of their studies.

Often that’s impossible so they give us their own interpretations, which are often influenced by the factors above.

For example, while I was putting this together I spotted a newspaper article with the heading Meat increases heart risks, latest study concludes.

I’ve told you that vegan diets aren’t the best for older bodies, but meat is going to increase your risk of heart disease. Sigh.

The research behind the heading used survey data collected on people over three decades to show that people who ate the most meat, processed meat and poultry had a small but increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Many dietary studies use surveys, but since most of us can barely remember what we ate for our last meal it’s not an overly precise technique. And the best this data can do is show an ‘association’ between meat-eating and heart disease. It doesn’t tell us that meat gives us heart disease.

Now, while eating a lot of meat, and certainly processed meat isn’t wise, there’s also the slightest chance that the kinds of people who do this might also have other not-so-healthy habits.

But we see this reported in the paper and it reads as though the lamb chops we were planning for dinner have it in for us.

Of course, by the time the story reaches us it’s also been filtered through the researchers’ university PR people and a journalist.

Just one more point about that meat research. It was headed up by one of the people who devised the current US dietary guidelines and was funded by the American Heart Association. Hmmm, no conflicts of interest there.

Something similar happens with research into saturated fat and disease. As Australian dietitian Rosemary Stanton has pointed out, a lot of studies on saturated fat haven’t separated it from trans fat (i.e. processed fat).

Every few years, a ‘Cochrane report’ is published on dietary fat. Cochrane reports, named after Scottish doctor Archie Cochrane, are considered the gold standard in health research.

The 2020 report is the fourth on fat. The first was published in 2000.

The 2015 and 2020 reports focused on saturated fat and both concluded that reducing saturated fat doesn’t affect our risk of heart disease, stroke or death from any cause. Saturated fat doesn’t reduce our risk of these but it doesn’t increase it either.* The problem is trans fat.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So how do we make our own path through this maze?

As complicated as it all seems, in a way it’s not. Stick to good quality food that’s fresh, and ideally seasonal and local. Mother Nature isn’t out to kill us. As much as possible, skip things that come in boxes and packets.

There’s no one perfect diet for everyone, but we could all benefit from paying attention to how we feel an hour after meals. Unless there’s something else going on, we should feel satisfied, energised and alert.

If we feel, for example, light-headed, nervy or unsatisfied or we’re hungry again quickly, we might need to increase the protein and fat in our meals. If we feel lethargic, dull or heavy we might need more carbs.

It’s ridiculously hard to know what research, practitioner or organisation to believe, so try to learn from your own situation rather than swallowing anyone else’s dogma.

Finally, bear in mind that diet never exists in a vacuum. Exercise, stress levels and sleep make a big difference too.



*Some of you will be understandably nervous about saturated fat and concerned that you need to eat a high-carb (low-fat) diet to keep your LDL cholesterol down and your GP happy.

Here’s a tip. Olive oil and coconut oil reduce LDL because they contain plant sterols. Sterols have a similar structure to cholesterol and block some of our absorption of cholesterol. Nuts and avocado also contain sterols. Animal products don’t.

Sterols are added to margarines, low-fat dairy products and some breakfast cereals, but these are processed foods and you can get the same effect with a sensible balance of unprocessed (fresh, local, seasonal) foods. Fibre also reduces cholesterol absorption, so ramp that up, especially the vegies.

Photo Source: I took this at the canteen of a major hospital.  It’s a beautiful example of contradiction, with the signage about healthy living and the decidedly unhealthy food they sell. 

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