Opinion

Don't fear the Chipotle burrito

The Times says burritos are full of saturated fat and salt. So what?

This week, The New York Times mustered its formidable graphical skills to dog on Chipotle for its nutritional content, noting that the average meal there has more than 1,000 calories and a lot of salt and saturated fat.

The point about calories is a fair one. Generally speaking, Americans should probably be eating less (though as Matt Yglesias points out, it's the snacking, not the meals, that seems responsible for the overall increase in calorie intake).

But the Times is on much thinner ground when it comes to salt and fat. As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty recently pointed out, many of the traditional health guidelines promulgated by the government have been axed of late. Cholesterol has now been removed as a "nutrient of concern," and he predicts that saturated fat will be the next to go.

In fact, there is good reason to think so — and not just saturated fat, but salt, too.

The idea that salt and saturated fat are Bad For You is so thoroughly entrenched in the American psyche that everyone just takes it for granted. That why the Times can just use them as shorthand for unhealthy food.

But the evidence to justify this is thin indeed. Studies have generally not supported the anti-saturated fat view. Some have found a link, but the biggest randomly controlled trial ever done on low-fat diets found they did not significantly decrease the risk of chronic heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular disease. Another study on weight loss found that a higher-fat diet seems to be a healthier way to lose weight.

If anything, the anti-salt evidence is even thinner. Aaron Carroll has been howling himself hoarse about this for years now. Studies show that while very high-salt diets are associated with negative health outcomes, the amount of salt is very large — over 7 grams per day. Meanwhile, a very low salt diet, one under 3 grams — which is actually more than the daily recommendation cited in the Times article — is associated with even worse outcomes than the high-salt one! There is simply no evidence to support the very low sodium intake recommended by lots of official organizations.

There is a toxic interaction between journalism, some parts of science, and industrial capitalism that makes trying to eat healthy incredibly obnoxious. Kukula Glastris described how it happened with fats in an excellent piece for Washington Monthly. Industry groups seized on preliminary research and got the government to endorse highly suspect findings. Consumer groups, with industry support, convinced the media to propagandize in favor of the guidelines and shouted down anyone who disagreed. Hey presto, cultural consensus.

Only now, decades later, is the "saturated fat is the devil" consensus beginning to crumble. And you still see hundreds of products in the supermarket advertised as low-fat or fat-free. It's infuriating.

This raises the question of how consumers should think about this stuff, given the cacophony of contradictory claims.

I quite like the crude heuristic that Michael Pollan deploys in his book In Defense of Food. He observes that historically, humans have eaten all manner of stuff. Masai herders thrived for generations on practically nothing but red meat and dairy, while the San people got most of their calories from gathered nuts. Back in the day at least, both peoples were quite healthy. He argues that the whole nutrient-first approach — focusing on particular chemicals, like fats or carbs — is fundamentally flawed. He concludes (in line with good science) with this motto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Above all, don't freak out about the latest diet or nutrient trend Dr. Oz is peddling on his terrible show. If you just stick to what your great-grandmother would eat, and get regular exercise, you'll be fine. A rice-and-beans burrito definitely counts.

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