A Response to The Atlantic’s Bad Nutrition Take
If there’s one thing I can count on, it’s that popular media will continue to circulate feel-good distortions of the nutrition science literature. This time, we have ‘The Vindication of Cheese, Butter, and Full-Fat Milk’ written by medical doctor and Yale lecturer James Hamblin for The Atlantic.
To his credit, Dr. Hamblin offers a rather timid endorsement of saturated fat, in contrast to the bravado of the click-baity title. Still, I fear even a more nuanced piece like this one will simply be taken as a carte blanche to gorge on high-fat dairy. But before jumping on this bandwagon, consumers should seriously question the evidence presented in the Atlantic article.
Let’s take a look. The crux of the author’s arguments is that blood levels of certain saturated and trans fatty acids found in milk are not correlated with harmful cardiovascular disease outcomes.
Right off the bat, the premise is somewhat flawed.
It’s true that dairy fat contains the saturated fatty acids pentadecanoic acid and heptadecanoic acid, the supposed biomarkers of dairy fat intake. But it’s wrong to assume that blood levels of these fatty acids correlate with dairy consumption per se. Quite to the contrary, these fatty acids are present in the blood of vegans who abstain from dairy entirely. In fact, these fatty acids are also associated with fiber—that is, plant—consumption. Perhaps that is why these alleged markers of dairy fat intake weren’t associated with cardiovascular disease.
Knowing this, we certainly can’t conclude that eating full-fat dairy products are neutral for our health from this one study. We can’t even conclude that these saturated fatty acids in the blood are well correlated with dairy intake at all, considering some dairy products are fat-free. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t even begin to cover all the potential pitfalls of this particular study and the flaws with Dr. Hamblin’s interpretation of the findings.
The Atlantic piece also points to a meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials, which appear to confirm the trends we already know: With respect to cardiovascular diseases, consuming more polyunsaturated fats tends to produce better health outcomes in comparison to consuming more saturated and trans fats.
Many of the trends failed to reach statistical significance, but I would venture to argue that’s more an artifact of both poor study design and data collection. Oftentimes, observational studies simply lack the statistical power to fully tease apart the true effects of different nutrients on our health.
I could keep going, spending another several hours meticulously documenting all the problematic elements of the studies cited and Dr. Hamblin’’s interpretations of the findings. I could painstakingly craft arguments and support them with high quality research.
I could, but I have a more important point to make:
Individuals with medical degrees—who lecture at Ivy League institutions, who benefit from the prestige of their disciplines, whom everyday people turn to for sound health advice, who have the privilege of a highly read media platform like The Atlantic—should not be wasting their efforts trying to convince Americans it’s okay to eat a well-established disease-promoting nutrient that is wildly over-consumed.
As a nation, we eat a lot of saturated fat. We’re also very sick; this is not a coincidence.
Rather, public figures of authority like Dr. Hamblin should look at what is sorely lacking in the Western diet—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—and help consumers understand and attain the benefits of a balanced diet centered around minimally processed plants.
With that in mind, let’s keep our eyes on the ball and focus on how we can leverage policy and institutional power to improve nutrition security and save lives this new year.
Madeline is the Food System and Nutrition Policy Analyst at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes.
You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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