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Elizabeth Cohen: The skinny on 'good fats'

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen  

(CNN) -- The debate over what is the best diet has been ongoing for decades. It's an evolving science that keeps researchers busy and consumers confused about the best way to lose weight.

An article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine highlighted some renegade thinking where dietary fat is concerned.

CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen discussed the implications Monday with CNN anchor Kyra Phillips.

PHILLIPS: For years, we have been told to eat low-fat foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables in order to stay thin. So is it possible that Dr. [Robert] Atkins, the ridiculed king of carb cutting, was right all along? ...

COHEN: Let's talk a little bit about this New York Times article, which has gotten so much attention. ... The premise of this article ... is that there is this group of prominent researchers who are beginning to say: "You know what? Maybe Dr. Atkins was right. Maybe the way to go is to eat pork chops with a big hunk of butter on top. Maybe we have been wrong, and maybe he has been right."

So, we called three of the researchers who were quoted in this article. These are three folks, all of them at Harvard. And we said: "Do you really think Dr. Atkins is right? Do you really suggest that your patients eat this pork chop with butter on top?"

And they all said: "Oh, no. We do not suggest that to our patients." They said: "What we think is that maybe Atkins is on to something when he says fat is not that bad. But" -- and here is the big but -- "but we tell our patients to eat 'good fats.' We don't tell them to eat butter. We don't tell them to eat whole-fat milk, and we don't tell them to eat cheeseburgers, which is what Dr. Atkins suggests. We tell them to eat fish. We tell them to eat nuts. We tell them to eat olive oil."

And those are the kind of fats that come from omega-3 and monounsaturated fat. So they were very clear that they do not support the Atkins diet, even though the article says that they are embracing his notion.

They said, "We just encourage people to eat the good fats rather than the bad fat, that fat is OK, but you have to eat the right kind." And that's a huge distinction.

PHILLIPS: Yes, I know. It's like, how do you find the right kind?

COHEN: You know, it is saturated -- I will tell you the technical answer. Then I tell you the easy answer.

PHILLIPS: OK, please.

COHEN: The technical answer is that there are saturated fats and trans fats, and that those are considered by many researchers to be bad. You want to avoid them. Those are the kind that are found in red meat. Those are the kind that are found in most kinds of dairy [products].

However, there are also the good fats. And good fats would be, as I said before, monounsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids. And that's fish, nuts, olive oil and those kinds of foods -- the kind of foods that are actually prominent in what is called the Mediterranean diet. So again, the difference would be between eating lots of red meat, lots of dairy and foods like fish, nuts and olive oil.

PHILLIPS: All right, Dr. Atkins is totally anti-carbs.


PHILLIPS: So, these influential researchers with whom you spoke, what do they say about that?

COHEN: They are not anti-carb. And that's another interesting difference. Again, these are researchers who are quoted in the article as being part of a group that is beginning to embrace the notion that he is right.

Well, Dr. Atkins says that carbs are bad. What they said is: "You know what? Just like fats, there are good carbs and there are bad carbs." And they said: "We agree with Dr. Atkins that you want to avoid the bad carbs. You want to eat minimal amounts of white bread. You want to eat minimal amounts of pasta, for example, or potatoes, things that are just starches and don't have much else going for them."

But they said: "You know what? There are a lot of good carbs out there. There's fruit. Fruit has carbohydrate. There is, for example, whole-grain bread. That's a kind of carbohydrate. Bean is a kind of carbohydrate" -- so, again, the distinction between the good carbs and the bad carbs. And it is really pretty easy -- good carbs: beans, whole-grain bread, that sort of thing.

PHILLIPS: That doesn't sound very tasty, though.

COHEN: No, well, see, that's the thing. Why did Dr. Atkins sell so many books? One is because people really, truly did lose weight on his plan.

But another thing is, how can you not buy a book that tells you to eat cheeseburgers, pork chops, butter and bacon? How can you say no to that? But the folks who I talked to said: "You know what? We don't like that kind of fat. We don't think that's good for people. Eat the good fat. Eat fish. Eat nuts," very different from what Dr. Atkins pushes.




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