Insights by Goldie
What we really need from health research

Sound Consumer | April 2006

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

After eight years of a 15-year study known as the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), the first results of dietary research have been released.

The WHI has been promoted as a far-reaching examination of women’s health issues and reportedly has received more federal funds than any other research project. You may recall that researchers stopped the hormone-replacement part of the study last year due to concern for the health of subjects receiving replacement hormones.

In the diet study, nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 were assigned randomly to follow either a low-fat diet or not. The purpose was to evaluate whether low-fat eating would reduce rates of breast and colon cancer and heart disease.

The low-fat group was not instructed to reduce saturated fat or polyunsaturated fat, just to reduce all fat to 20 percent of calories in the first year and maintain that level. They received information on label reading, ways to reduce fat in cooking, and how to order low-fat from menus. The study involved recalling and reporting what they ate.

The decision not to specify limiting saturated fat raised eyebrows since excess saturated fat (especially animal fats) is implicated in heart disease at least. Some argued that polyunsaturated fats (such as corn and soy oil) turn rancid easily and develop free-radicals, suspected in promoting heart disease and possibly cancer.

If polyunsaturates were limited, it would have meant using more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, which do not turn rancid as easily. All oil labels list saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated percentages on the nutrition panels.

Some critics say 20 percent of calories from fat isn’t low enough to drop disease rates. Others argue the percentage was so low that most women would not achieve or maintain that level. In fact, the research found that most on the low-fat diet didn’t lower their fat to 20 percent of calories within the first year and about two-thirds never reached that level.

After eight years, no statistically significant differences were seen in the disease rates between the low-fat eaters and those not dieting. Predictably, media headlines blared “Low-fat diets don’t prevent cancer or heart disease.” Do we know that? I don’t think so. I also don’t think this study is likely to settle things.

How’s the average woman (or anyone else) supposed to evaluate this type of health research? After all, this is our tax dollars at work! Is it relevant?

Some defend the research saying eight years is too short for meaningful results, but it’s unclear whether the study will run the full 15-year term. Is “how much” fat is good or bad really “the issue?” Would it be settled even if the findings were somewhat stronger?

And, is this really what ultimately is likely to motivate most people to plan healthier eating? The answers probably are blowing in the fickle winds of “the next big” diet fad. Meanwhile, I have some “what ifs” to toss out.

“What if” researchers studied not merely the effects of quantity of fats — or any other single factors — but the whole food production system for the factors affecting food quality.

“What if” those scientists designed studies to learn if there are statistically significant differences in the quantities and qualities of nutrients (including fats), and other factors in meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from animals raised in (a) natural and sustainable systems, free to exercise, graze on chemical-free and non-genetically modified grasses, and given no antibiotics or hormones, or (b) confined systems without grazing pasture, lacking exercise, fattened unnaturally on grains, and administered antibiotics and other drugs for fast growth?

“What if” the investigative approach studied the effects of sustainable food production systems compared to the industrialized, chemically based model?

“What if” post-harvest treatments and processing of grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits was studied and compared?

Especially, “what if” serious research was done to identify and assess the nutrients and other qualities lost in reduced plant and animal diversity, compared to that in the vast number of heirloom species?

On a positive note: Grass-fed beef and lamb are winning converts. The most notable aspects are the flavor and healthier fats — for the animal and human consumers — notably omega-3 and conjugated linoleic fatty acids (CLA). Omega-3 eggs from hens that have pasture access and flax in their feed are delicious and heart healthy.

Some reports are emerging, confirming much higher levels of nutrients in certain heirloom vegetables and fruits. But much more of this type of research is sorely needed. It could position our dedicated, family-scale sustainable farmers as true partners in addressing serious health concerns with a healthier diet.

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