The Lowdown on Low-Fat

Posted on Sunday, May 22nd, 2005 at 1:44 pm by Chelsea Green Publishing

There they sit on the supermarket shelves, in the dairy cases, in the freezers: cookies, crackers, ice cream, cheese, lunch meat, frozen dinners and diet soda.

And they’re all labeled “low-fat”!

Hallelujah! Fill up the shopping cart. Take it all home, eat it all up — in moderation, of course — and the result will be a healthier you: less “bad” cholesterol, lower blood pressure, etc.

Don’t be so sure.

A study published in early May in Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that it’s not how low the fat is that counts: It’s where the fat comes from, and what comes with it.

According to stories by The Associated Press and other news services, scientists at the Stanford University Prevention Research Center took two groups of people and put them on two separate diets: One included such packaged foods as those mentioned above; the other was heavy on large quantities of plant-based foods — vegetables, fruits, legumes, soy and whole grains — and limited amounts of meat and dairy.

The two diets were identical in total fat, saturated fat, protein, carbohydrate and cholesterol content. The participants were given enough food so that their weight stayed the same, and they were not allowed to increase or decrease the amount they exercised. After a month, the plant-based diet group’s bad cholesterol had dropped 9.4 percent, compared to the prepared-foods diet group’s reductions of about 4.6 percent.

Christopher Gardner, lead author of the study, said it was no surprise that a plant-based diet resulted in lower cholesterol; earlier studies had strongly indicated such a cause-and-effect link. But the scientists knew that consumers who concentrate on plant-based diets usually consume less fat anyway; they wanted to see what happens when two diets identical in fat content, but sharply different in the content of processed vs. natural foods, faced off.

Now we know.

Where does that lead you, gentle reader, in your quest for a healthier lifestyle? Oh, it leads you to Chelsea Green Publications, of course — to Dianne Onstad’s Whole Foods Companion; to Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (now being revised and updated, and widely considered a classic); and to the upcoming publication of Edible Forest Gardens Volumes I and II, by Dave Jack and Eric Toensmeir;

Browse through the Vermont-based publisher’s catalog: Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture; The New Organic Grower; Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties; The Contrary Farmer; Four-Season Harvest; and dozens of other books that make going natural seem — well, natural.

We can’t testify that your cholesterol level will drop, or how dramatically, but you’ll be following the same path as the Stanford University folks, and that’s where they ended up.

Not the least of the implications of all this was alluded to, in an accompanying editorial, by Dr. David J.A. Jenkins of the University of Toronto’s Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Center. The study’s results, he said, may lower the profile of drugs as the silver bullets of cholesterol control and “make diet relevant.”

Fewer drugs? A diet that’s relevant to your health?

What an age we live in!

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