It is no secret that in Weight Watchers new program using SmartPoints, saturated fat increases the SmartPoints value of food, as does sugar. In another post, I talked about SmartPoints and sugar and why I think Weight Watchers might want us to limit sugar. As I discussed in that post, Weight Watchers is no longer just about losing weight, but is also about encouraging the eating of healthier foods. And, the two types of foods that Weight Watchers is encouraging us to limit are sugar and saturated fats.
From what I see and hear, most people don’t really defend the healthfulness of added sugar as a whole. The objections that I see to Weight Watchers discouraging sugar are mostly about (1) whether sugar is limited so much on Weight Watchers that the entire program is too restrictive, and (2) how much it needs to needs to be limited, particularly for healthy people.
The objections I see about saturated fats are a little different. Those objections mostly center around confusion as to whether saturated fats are unhealthy at all and whether there is any reason to object to them all. And, the fact is the science around saturated fats are more difficult to understand and, for many, seems more unsettled. I think part of the reason is that the issues on saturated fats are more complex and are not simply a matter of them being either “bad” or “good.”
Despite the confusion about saturated fats, the consensus of many nutrition authorities is to limit saturated fats, or at least some saturated fats, in a variety of ways. Just today, the 2015-2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines were released. While lacking the clarity of the recommendations of the Dietary Guideline’s Advisory Committee, the new issued Dietary Guidelines, forthrightly recommend limiting consumption of both saturated fat and added sugar (among other things). Specifically, the Guidelines recommend consuming less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats. The Dietary Guidelines note that this target is “based upon evidence that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.” It also notes that if you actually meet the recommendations for various food groups and stay within calorie limits, there are not enough calories available to actually eat 10 percent of your calories in added sugar and 10 percent of your calories in saturated fat. In other words, if saturated fats are 10 percent of your calories and added sugar is another 10 percent, and you want to stay within calorie limits recommended, then you can’t actually meet the other nutritional goals in the Dietary Guidelines. And, note that those recommended calorie limits are for those maintaining weight, not for those trying to lose weight. (For those wanting a summary of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, see this CSPI summary).
And, that is a big part of what is wrong with both saturated fats and sugar. If you are going to lose or maintain weight, the calories you spend on them can crowd out the other more nutritional food that you need.
I often see people arguing something like this: Saturated fats are not bad for you. They have gotten a bum rap over the years and they are not a bad food.
I am not a nutritional expert (note that some people may have specific health needs that differ from general guidelines. Consult with you doctor about what your individual needs may be). What I can do is report some of what the experts do say on this subject.
As indicated above, the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to 10% of daily calories. But, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to 5% to 6% of daily calories. And, the AHA notes that many other leading health organizations have found that saturated fats are associated with heart disease.
All of that seems clear enough. But, then it gets complicated. For example, this study was touted by some as exonerating saturated fats with regard to heart disease. On the other hand, not so quick. See this article looking at the study in a more complete way and focusing on its limitations.
So, are saturated fats good for you or bad for you? What I, as a layperson, see more and more is a recognition among experts that a key point is what you replace the saturated fats with. With food, if we eat less of one kind of food, we usually replace that type of food with something else. If we replace that food with something that has health benefits for us, then that is one thing. On the other hand, if we replace that food with something that is detrimental to our health, then that is something else entirely.
A recent study addressed this issue comparing eating saturated fats with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to heart disease. Overall, the study found that higher intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and whole grain carbohydrates was associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) comparing those in the highest quintile of consumption to those in the lowest quintile. On the other hand, refined carbs and added sugar were associated with increase risk of CHD. So, what about saturated fats? How did they come out?
The study found that if you replaced 5% of energy intake from saturated fats with the equivalent from PUFAs, monounsaturated fatty acids or whole grain carbs then that was associated with a reduction in CHD risk (25%, 15% and 9%, respectively). On the other hand, replacing saturated fats with refined carbs or added sugar was not significantly associated with CHD risk.
What does this mean? Dr. David Katz discussed this study and succinctly summarized the findings:
The study showed that if saturated fat calories were replaced with sugar and/or refined starches (which tend to go together, as in a donut) the risk for cardiovascular disease was equally high both times. Let’s pause there a moment: equally high both times.
…the study also showed, predictably to some of us, that when saturated fat was replaced with whole grains, polyunsaturated fats, and/or monounsaturated fats, cardiovascular risk went down significantly – with the largest benefit associated with polyunsaturated fats.
He points out that for the PUFAs and monounsaturated fats, the foods sources for those are nuts, seeds, olive oil, other cooking oils, seafood, fish, and avocado.
So, what he is saying is that if I replace saturated fats with added sugar or refined carbs, then my heart disease risk doesn’t get better or worse. But, if I replace the saturated fats with PUFAs, monounsaturated fats, and whole grains, then my heart disease risk improves. And, more and more, I see this point being made. For example, the new Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting saturated fats to 10% of daily calories “by replacing them with unsaturated fats…” The Guidelines note that “evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of CVD events (heart attacks) and CVD-related deaths.”
A Harvard Family Health Guide indicated “a meta-analysis of 21 studies said that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, but that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may indeed reduce risk of heart disease.” And, it also discussed studies that concluded that “replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils or high-fiber carbohydrates is the best bet for reducing the risk of heart disease, but replacing saturated fat with highly processed carbohydrates could do the opposite.”
Another objection that I sometimes see to Weight Watchers SmartPoints penalty on saturated fats is an argument that, even if some saturated fats aren’t healthy, there are other saturated fats that are fine for you. Even the article by Dr. Katz talking about the recent study acknowledges this. He points out that saturated fat is not just one thing and is a diverse group of compounds. He states that two innocuous saturated fatty acids are stearic acid, found in dark chocolate, and lauric acid, which is in coconut.
So, why does Weight Watchers penalize those types of saturated fat? I think a big part of it is practicality. Weight Watchers uses an objective formula to calculate SmartPoints. And, that enables each of us when we read the nutritional information on a food to punch in the numbers to a calculator and have it spit out a SmartPoints value. And, to do that, we have to have the numbers available on a nutritional label. The reality is that the label doesn’t differentiate between the saturated fat in a steak or that in 80% dark chocolate. Does this make the SmartPoints value so flawed that it is not useful in trying to limit the kinds of saturated fat that are more problematical? I don’t think so.
The reality is that most of the saturated fat that most people eat isn’t that in really dark chocolate or in virgin coconut oil. As, Dr. Katz puts it in the article mentioned above:
In the real world, when saturated fat intake is high, it is from the customary sources: pepperoni pizza, pastrami sandwiches and ice cream sandwiches for that matter. It is from meat, much of it processed; daily, much of it processed as well; and food both fast, and fried. Since that is where saturated fat is coming from for the most part, the health effects of saturated fat at varying levels, pertain mostly to variations in the intake of, as a shorthand, “meat, butter, and cheese,” noting that much of the intake is actually processed and fast food incorporating these.
So, personally I don’t worry too much about eating a little bit of saturated fat in dark chocolate. The 53 calories of 80% dark chocolate I ate the other day had 2g of saturated fat in it and I didn’t worry about it (at that level) at all – particularly since my total consumption of saturated fat that day was 6.1% of my total calories. But, I don’t eat beef at all and rarely eat any other red meat.
Where I see Weight Watchers going with SmartPoints is wanting us to limit our saturated fat intake, but certainly not wanting us to replace it with sugar. With PointsPlus and earlier points plans, Weight Watchers penalized all fats. Now it doesn’t do that. Other fats that are not saturated are treated neutrally with just their calories mattering to the calculation of SmartPoints. And I am glad to see them no longer penalizing those fats.
This the second of 3 posts about Weight Watchers and how it is attempting to influence healthy eating through the SmartPoints formula. In my third post, I will address some other aspects of healthy eating that Weight Watchers doesn’t address through SmartPoints.