Uncovering The Truth Behind Misleading Nutrition News

One of the perks of being a registered dietitian is that I get daily emails with the newest nutrition news. These emails contain news articles from all over the internet and cover a wide range of nutrition-related topics.

They help me stay up-to-date with the newest nutrition trends which is really helpful when I get emails or questions regarding this diet or that weight loss pill, etc. Receiving this email also helps prepare me for the social media tornado that follows anything “clickbait”.


FYI: Click bait is any type of terminology, used by news publications or other websites, that is provocative in an attempt to get people to click on the article.

An Example To Illustrate

Recently, I was looking through this daily email and saw the headline, “No Health Benefit to Replacing Fat With Carbs”. Well already I was skeptical as a huge bulk of research shows that both carbs and fat (as well as protein) are important parts of our diet but in different quantities and that typically a higher carbohydrate diet tends to lead to better health outcomes (less disease, lower mortality).


The headline was grabbed from an article on the New York Times Blog. Luckily, the email also includes a link to the study about which this blog post was written.

The study paints a very different picture than what the headline purports. The study, “Association of Specific Dietary Fats With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality” published in the American Medical Association’s Journal Of Internal Medicine concludes that it’s “findings support current dietary recommendations to replace saturated fat and trans-fat with unsaturated fats.”


Did you read anything about replacing fat with carbs there? Neither did I.

Digging Deeper Into The Example

In the past, I may have stopped there. I’ve occasionally been a culprit for reading only the abstract of a study. But I’ve learned that the abstract doesn’t always paint the whole picture and that you can gather a lot of good info from diving into the study details. In the discussion section, the study’s authors state:


“Although the modest positive association between saturated fatty acid (SFA) intake and mortality suggests small health benefits of replacing SFAs with total carbohydrates, replacing SFAs with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) was associated with a significantly lower risk for total and cause-specific mortality due to several major chronic diseases.

Dietary intake of total fat, compared with total carbohydrates, was inversely associated with total mortality. However, the association between total fat intake and mortality largely depends on specific types of fat.”


So if you read that first statement again, the study’s authors state that there is a small benefit of replacing saturated fats with total carbs. Sounds a bit different than, “No Benefit of Replacing Fat with Carbs.” And if you replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats, you get a more significant benefit.

The study shows decreased rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer when SFA and trans-fatty acids (TFA) are replaced with unsaturated fats. The study largely focuses on types of fats, but not types of carbohydrates.


Not Meaning What They Say

My favorite summary line from the study was this:

[pullquote]Our analyses provide strong evidence that using PUFAs and/or MUFAs as the replacement nutrients for SFAs can confer substantial health benefits. Whereas replacing SFAs with total carbohydrates has little effect on CVD mortality. However, the effects of replacement by carbohydrates may depend in part on the quality of the carbohydrates.[/pullquote]


In other words, substituting saturated fats with unsaturated fats offers substantial health benefits in the way of reducing disease. However, we need fewer fats in our diet overall than carbohydrates or protein due to their caloric-density (fats have 9 calories per gram vs 4 calories per gram in carbs and protein).

Lastly, there is a small, but notable, benefit of replacing saturated fats with carbs. This benefit could be more significant depending on the quality of carbs. More nutritious forms of carbohydrates include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains (quinoa, couscous, brown rice)
  • Beans

Eat more unsaturated fats

  • Grilled veggies
  • Avocado
  • Peanut butter
  • Sorbet
  • Raw nuts
  • Tofu

Eat less saturated fats

  • Fried veggies
  • Mayonnaise
  • Butter or margarine
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate candy
  • Beef