This Thanksgiving, Cut The Cheese?

Danger of saturated fats in cheese and dairy called into question

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

This Thanksgiving, it would seem that the United States Department of Agriculture would like you to have a second helping of those cheesy mashed potatoes.

And don't forget the whipped cream on that pumpkin pie! Or maybe not, because they're also telling you to watch out for all that saturated fat in those dairy products. What? 

Earlier this month, the USDA came under scrutiny when a report in the New York Times detailed a possible relationship between it and an organization called Dairy Management that has been working with the nation's dairy farmers to promote consumption of cheese and dairy products in the United States. The report questioned whether the USDA was being hypocritical in it's messages, as it clearly recommends that the populace should restrict the consumption of saturated fat, while simultaneously promoting the consumption of cheese and dairy as healthy options...options that are very high in saturated fat. 

Earlier this week, Dairy Management put out a press release stating that it is a fully private, non-profit entity funded and run by the nation's dairy farmers, and that the USDA only provides a “congressionally mandated oversight role over the collection and disbursement of dairy farmer's funds, and to ensure that our programs are consistent with the law that set up the program.” 

Still, the story illustrates the difficulty the average American has with trying to decipher what's the right information to use when making dietary choices. It seems like different information about what are 'good' fats and 'bad' fats comes out every other day, and the advice given on what to eat or what not to eat is often times contradictory. 

An example of this came earlier this month, when a study was published in the medical journal Lipids that consumption of saturated fats by themselves may not have as big an impact on cardiovascular health than previously believed. “"The relationship between dietary intake of fats and health is intricate, and variations in factors such as human genetics, life stage, and lifestyles can lead to different responses to saturated fat intake.” stated J. Bruce German, PhD, professor and chemist in the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California at Davis. “Although diets inordinately high in fat and saturated fat are associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk in some individuals, assuming that saturated fat at any intake level is harmful is an over-simplification and not supported by scientific evidence.” 

Expounding on the findings was Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, from the Department of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard University School of Public Health. His research put forth the idea that reducing saturated fats in the diet was only beneficial when taken together with what they were being replaced with. In the case of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates, the reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease was actually non-existent and even harmful when starches and sugars were used. The research of Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, supports that of Dr. Mozaffarian. Dr. Volek stated ''Carbohydrate intake has been intimately linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of risk factors that can increase CVD risk.” 

So with thanksgiving around the corner, what's the average person to do? While the nutritional value of saturated fats is in dispute, it still may be better to err on the side of good health and not over-eating. Saturated or unsaturated, foods high in any kind of fat are best ingested in moderation. Go for the white meat on the turkey instead of the fatty dark meat. Maybe have just one small helping of those cheesy mashed potatoes. And keep the red wine to one or two glasses for that extra heart benefit. 

But usually on Thanksgiving, even the most sensible diet advice is usually implemented “tomorrow.”

Review Date: 
November 18, 2010