Could vegetable fats and artificial sweeteners be bad for you?

We’ve got some contrarian research results this week, which just goes to show you: take nothing for granted when it comes to conventional nutrition wisdom.  Things that make sense may actually not be true.

1. Artificial Sweeteners are a bad mix with alcohol

Alcoholic beverages have calories.  Drink mixes have calories.  Soft drinks have calories.  So some people might conclude that a really easy way to save calories would be to use artificially sweetened mixers.  That could be a really bad decision.  A new study shows that when people drink alcoholic beverages mixed with artificially sweetened soda pop, they end up with much higher breath alcohol compared to consuming drinks made with sugar-sweetened mixers.  In other words, you end up feeling the effects of the alcohol faster and in more concentrated form.

Why would this happen?  Do artificial sweeteners somehow make alcohol more potent?  No, as the study authors speculate, it more likely that sugar-sweetened mixers act like food, slowing digestion so the alcohol is absorbed more slowly.  That gives your system a chance to metabolize it.  Mixing alcohol with artificially sweetened soft drinks is like drinking straight shots on an empty stomach.  The alcohol quickly dumps right into your blood.  There’s nothing to slow it down.

This is especially bad news for women.  They’re most likely to choose artificially sweetened drink mixes; they’re physically smaller than men and they metabolize alcohol more slowly.  Result: women are at risk for getting intoxicated really quickly.  The effects could be dangerous, all to save 100 or 200 calories.  One piece of expert advice: if you’re that worried about calories, you shouldn’t be drinking much alcohol anyway, as it’s packed with calories.  And so far, no one has invented calorie-free alcohol.

2. Vegetable fats not so healthy after all?

Now this study is rather weird and sure to bring out the diet crazies on both sides of the issue.  Researchers in Australia dug out results of a 50-year old study comparing fat intake to heart disease.  They re-analyzed the data using new information on fats in foods.  The original study looked at the health effect of unsaturated vegetable fats.  Conventional wisdom says vegetable fats are healthier than saturated fats, although some people argue the exact opposite: that saturated fat is just fine and it’s the unsaturated fats that are wreaking havoc with out health.

In the original study, men with a history of heart attack were divided into two diet groups:

  1. switch to consuming 15% of calories as unsaturated fat from safflower oil and margarine, while limiting saturated fat
  2. make no diet changes at all

Results: the group eating all that supposedly healthy unsaturated fat had a higher risk for death from heart attack and other causes.  The results certainly seem to validate the pro-saturated fat argument.

But in my opinion, that’s not entirely clear.  For one thing, the recommendation to get 15% of calories from unsaturated fat is almost twice as high as current recommendations.  That’s a lot of unsaturated fat, and such a high intake could cause unrecognized adverse effects, leading to the higher risk for death.  Another problem: this study was done before the dangers of trans fats were known.  And back then, margarine made from unsaturated fats would have contained significant amounts of trans fats.  Nowadays, trans fats levels are much lower, because they’ve been linked to heart disease risk.

What does this study tell us?  At most we can conclude that you can get too much of a good thing, even a Health Halo food like vegetable oil.  We can also conclude that we need a better study to clear up the confusion.  Meanwhile don’t gorge on any type of fat: they’re all high calorie.

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