High anxiety over low-fat diets

Q: I am so confused. I just read about this huge federal study involving 49,000 women that showed a low-fat diet might not make any difference in terms of preventing breast cancer, colon cancer or heart disease.

I’ve been eating a low-fat diet for three years because my doctor told me it helped reduce my risk for all those things.

I’m upset and confused and don’t know what to do. What do you say?

  • L.Y., Gainesville, Fla.

A:Sit down. Take a breath. You’re not alone. Lots of people are confused and upset by the headlines generated by this study, officially known as the Women’s Health Initiative, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
On the one hand, it seemed to discredit what many doctors believed to be true, that a woman could reduce her risk of breast and colon cancer and heart disease by eating a low-fat diet.

However, on the other hand, and this is where women all over the country begin to tear their hair out, some health experts discredit the study because the women on the so-called low-fat diet were eating way too much fat.

The women were supposed to be eating only 20 percent fat - closer to 10 percent fat would be a better bet, critics say - but, in fact, 69 percent of the women were eating more than 20 percent.

Another flaw in the study is that the investigators didn’t differentiate between the kinds of fats the women ate. And that’s considered a mistake, because all fats are not created equal.

There are good fats - olive oil, omega 3s and monounsaturated oils, like peanut and canola - and bad fats - the trans fat found in partially hydrogenated oil and saturated animal fat - and if the women in the study had less saturated fat and more olive oil, fruits and whole grains, the outcome might have been entirely different.

Another misleading conclusion is that a low-fat diet won’t prevent breast cancer when, in fact, there is significant evidence that it can be helpful.

Help, I hear you screaming. I don’t blame you. People are fed up with all this conflicting information about what to eat and what to avoid. And to add to your confusion, the truth is that every person is chemically and biologically distinct, so there is no One Best Diet for everyone. That said, consider the following:

  • If you’re eating a low-fat diet that is based on Real Food - vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and lean meats - and the Good Fats like in the Mediterranean Diet, by all means, continue. You’re eating smart.
  • If your low-fat diet is one that includes lots of cookies, cakes, chips and other processed, unwholesome foods, you’re being foolish and need help.
  • Low-fat eating can be one component of a healthy lifestyle, but just as important, maybe more important, is exercise.

I don’t know how they can call it the Women’s Health Initiative and ignore the role of exercise in promoting a healthy heart and preventing certain cancers.
Are you exercising regularly? I hope so.

Yoga is good for all sorts of things: strength, flexibility, outer confidence, inner peace. And now, a Seattle study involving more than 15,000 subjects found that yoga practice helps check middle-age spread.

The overweight sun saluters who did yoga at least once a week over 10 years lost eight pounds, while the non-yoga group gained an average of 14 pounds over the same time period.

Yoga is no substitute for regular aerobic exercise in terms of fitness training, but it’s a great way to open your mind and your body to a healthier, happier lifestyle. Namaste.

Want to improve your core strength? Say yes, and try this tummy tightener. Lie on your back in front of a chair. Put your heels on the seat in front of you so you form a 90-degree angle at your hips and knees.

Clasp your hands lightly behind your neck, and allow your shoulders to lift up off the ground slowly, not jerking, while pressing your lower back into the floor. Lift and lower with awareness, focusing on your ab muscles. Do each lift perfectly, as many as you want.

“Physical health is not a commodity to be bargained for. Nor can it be swallowed in the form of drugs and pills. It has to be earned through sweat.” Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar said this.

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to