Harvard Men's Health Watch

Facing the fat - and the facts

Facing the fat — and the facts

Early in 2006, the publication of three major reports from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) caused quite a stir. They showed clearly that modest reductions in total dietary fat over an eight-year period do not lower the risk of coronary artery disease, breast cancer, or colon cancer in postmenopausal American women.

It's understandable that these findings were greeted with disappointment, confusion, and frustration. Many interpreted the results to mean that dietary fat does not influence health — or that nutrition itself is unimportant. Now that the furor has settled down and several months have passed, we can view the results in perspective.

Men may be tempted to dismiss the WHI results simply because the genders are different. Indeed, heart disease is different in men, occurring about 10 years earlier, sometimes producing different types of blockages, and often producing different symptoms. Colon cancer affects both genders equally, but breast cancer does not. And men have the unique worry of prostate cancer, a disease that's been linked to dietary fat. For instance, in the early 1990s, when the WHI was getting started, Harvard's Health Professionals Follow-Up Study reported that men who eat large amounts of fat are 1.79 times more likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than men who eat less fat. In this study, as in others, saturated fat from animal sources was the chief culprit.

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