For decades, dietary advice was based on the premise that high intakes of fat cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and possibly cancer. Recently, evidence for the adverse metabolic effects of processed carbohydrate has led to a resurgence in interest in lower-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets with high fat content. However, some argue that the relative quantity of dietary fat and carbohydrate has little relevance to health and that focus should instead be placed on which particular fat or carbohydrate sources are consumed. This review, by nutrition scientists with widely varying perspectives, summarizes existing evidence to identify areas of broad consensus amid ongoing controversy regarding macronutrients and chronic disease.
Points of consensus.
1. With a focus on nutrient quality, good health and low chronic disease risk can be achieved for many people on diets with a broad range of carbohydrate-to-fat ratios.
2. Replacement of saturated fat with naturally occurring unsaturated fats provides health benefits for the general population. Industrially produced trans fats are harmful and should be eliminated. The metabolism of saturated fat may differ on carbohydrate-restricted diets, an issue that requires study.
3. Replacement of highly processed carbohydrates (including refined grains, potato products, and free sugars) with unprocessed carbohydrates (nonstarchy vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, and whole or minimally processed grains) provides health benefits.
4. Biological factors appear to influence responses to diets of differing macronutrient composition. People with relatively normal insulin sensitivity and β cell function may do well on diets with a wide range of carbohydrate-to-fat ratios; those with insulin resistance, hypersecretion of insulin, or glucose intolerance may benefit from a lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet.
5. A ketogenic diet may confer particular metabolic benefits for some people with abnormal carbohydrate metabolism, a possibility that requires long-term study.
6. Well-formulated low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets do not require high intakes of protein or animal products. Reduced carbohydrate consumption can be achieved by substituting grains, starchy vegetables, and sugars with nonhydrogenated plant oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, and other high-fat plant foods.
7. There is broad agreement regarding the fundamental components of a healthful diet that can serve to inform policy, clinical management, and individual dietary choice. Nonetheless, important questions relevant to the epidemics of diet-related chronic disease remain. Greater investment in nutrition research should assume a high priority.