Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
You only need to wander down your supermarket’s dairy aisle to realise just how engrained the low-fat diet has become.
From yoghurts promising to be “99 calories”, to pintfuls of skimmed milk, mammoth bags of low-fat cheese, and even butter substitutes – we’ve become overloaded with products which, for years, we thought were good for us.
In fact, the number of low-fat options out there is dizzying. From ready meals to cereals, peanut butter to ice cream, pretty much every food has its own low-fat equivalent. But now, we’re starting to ask questions. Are these so-called healthy substitutes really any good for us? And is the idea that fat is bad for us simply a myth?
Slowly but surely, we’ve begun to question the ‘norm’. We’ve started to doubt the advice the government ‘experts’ were telling us. We’ve started to read the labels on packaging. And, most importantly, we’ve started to say ‘no’ to the processed foods.
With this change in perception now comes a change in tact, with nutritionists and experts even beginning to revise their advice. After decades spent as the dietary outcast, they’re now telling us that saturated fats may actually be good for us.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the government waged a war on saturated fats. They became public enemy number one, with nutritional guidelines changed to encourage us to eat less of them.
In fact, the NHS still advises us to consume less saturated fats, with their Eat Well Plate1 (famously renamed the Eat Badly Plate by nutritionist Zoe Harcombe2) containing little or no fat at all.
In 2009, the Food Standards Agency launched a shocking advert3, which showed a kitchen sink becoming clogged with fat. They liked us to believe that saturated fat had a similar effect on the arteries, but is it really true?
Commonly found in foods such as butter, cheese, full-fat milk, oils and meats, saturated fats were always believed to cause an increase in both ‘bad’ cholesterol and in the risk of heart disease. We were also told that they were linked to obesity, which is why low-fat diets became the rage for decades.
So, why did fats become the enemy? What did they ever do to deserve the bad rep?
Well, it’s all due to one popular study (yep, that’s right – just one study) carried out in the 70s, which linked coronary heart disease4 to cholesterol levels. The study suggested that saturated fat raised levels of LDL cholesterol (or the so-called "bad" cholesterol), which in turn raises cardiovascular risk. Because of this, we were told to swap butter, lard, ghee and coconut oils for olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils and spreads.
We were told to steer clear of products high in fat and to opt for lean meats and trim off excess fat or skin. We were told to use skimmed milk and choose low-fat yoghurt, and to ditch full-fat cheese for their so-called healthier counterparts. Basically, we were told to ditch anything which, historically, we’d always eaten. You know, years before obesity ever became a problem…
As you know, many experts are starting to wake up and smell the coffee; they’re saying that saturated fats may not actually be all that bad for us, after all. Of course, we’d been eating fats for thousands of years (think the caveman diet, rich in red meats), yet it was only when we cut our levels of fat that obesity rates started to rocket.
Coincidence? Probably not…
In fact, in a piece published by the British Medical Journal5, experts have gone as far as to say that saturated fats have been mistakenly “demonised” over the last 60 years.
Contrary to years of popular advice, cardiologist Aseem Malhotra6, challenged the view that foods rich in saturated fat, such as butter and red meat, cause heart disease. It seems that there’s no evidence that fat is fattening.
A leading heart scientist by the name of Dr James DiNicolantonio7 has also recently warned that NHS guidelines may be putting our health at risk. Dr DiNicolantonio says that guidelines need to be “urgently” revised and called for a new public health campaign to admit ‘we got it wrong.’
So, what made him change his mind and speak out? Well, this - experts checked out 72 studies that examined the link between fats and heart disease8.
Yet, despite what we’ve been told for years, they found no evidence that saturated fats increased the risk of heart disease. Yep, that’s right – none at all. They even said there’s no significant evidence that omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats protect the heart.
Dr DiNicolantonio went on to say that NHS guidelines were based on flawed evidence: “One of the lines of evidence that these recommendations are based off of is from a man named Ansel Keys. He published a paper in 1952 where he showed that the more fats calories one ate – the higher the risk of death due to degenerative heart disease. The problem is – he only basically graphed for six countries when data were available for 22 countries.”
Astounding, right? All those years of advice and low-fat diets, and all based on some pretty shaky evidence.
So, now you might be thinking, “What is the enemy? If fats aren’t bad for us, what is?” Well, it’s all pretty simple, really – the real enemy, the real health killer, is processed foods. After reviewing these results, the Dr said: “A public health campaign is drastically needed to educate on the harms of a diet high in carbohydrate and sugar.
“There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has a positive effect on health. Indeed the literature indicates a general lack of any effect, good or bad, from a reduction in fat intake.
“We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonising saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong.”
In fact, low-fat diets are now thought to cause more harm in women in particular. In the 90s, the major Women’s Health Initiative study9 found that a low-fat diet led to no significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, found that when women follow low-fat diets, their levels of “good” HDL cholesterol dropped dramatically.
When fat became the health equivalent of the bogeyman, we turned to other options and changed our diets completely. We bet that you, reading this, are nodding along, having tried the low-fat diet yourself. Still on one? Stop.
Now. You see, it seems we may have been misled. Those foods labelled as ‘low-fat’ are actually packed with artificial ingredients to make up for their loss in flavour. Sugar, salt and tonnes of additives are thrown into them, all of which we unwittingly consume, thinking they’re good for us.
Take, for example, the U.S. Here10, saturated fat consumption has dropped by 11% since the early 1970s, yet the level of carbs eaten has increased by 25%. You’d think that this would lead to a drop in obesity, right? Yet the scales are creeping up and up, with the nation fatter than ever before.
So instead of fats being the enemy, many nutritionists are now pointing to these very same processed foods, rich in sugar and carbohydrates. As author and journalist Nina Teicholz says in her book The Big Fat Surprise: “It’s amazing to think that scientists believed that all these invented foods would restore us to a state of health.”
Our favourite doctor, Dr DiNicolantonio, went so far as to say that it’s been the switch from fat to carbs which has damaged our health. The best diet to boost and maintain heart health is one low in refined carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods, he recommended.
So, is he right? Is sugar the real enemy? Are we slowly poisoning our bodies by consuming processed foods?
Well, you may remember that, just recently, the World Health Organisation advised that we half our sugar intake, with Britain's chief medical officer recommending that we install a sugar tax to slash obesity rates. The WHO said there was “increasing concern” that these same sugars used to replace saturated fats could cause diseases such as diabetes and tooth decay.
In fact, Lucy Beehas already blogged about how damaging sugar11 (did you know that Special K has more sugar than Krispy Kreme doughnut, for instance?) is for our body. Not only is it linked to diabetes and obesity, but it’s also believed to lead to binge eating, and cause certain cancers.
Earlier this month, Public Health England12 even said that the British diet left a lot to be desired. They recommended that our sugar intake shouldn’t exceed 11% of our total energy intake, yet all too often it does. So, sugar’s a big health ‘no no’, but what else? Surely it can’t all be sugar’s fault, right?
Despite the confusion over saturated fats, what most people can agree on is that we should be steering well clear of trans fats. It’s these – along with sugar – that really spell trouble.
Trans fats - artificially produced unsaturated fats - are found in many processed and fast foods to extend the shelf life of products. These trans fats are basically the equivalent of pouring candle wax into our arteries (disgusting, right?) and are bad news for our health. You see, since they can’t be broken down by our digestive systems, they stick around in our bodies, clogging up the heart.
So, should we eat fats, or should we avoid them? What’s good for us and what’s bad for us?
Confused? Well, you should be.
Advice on what we should – and shouldn’t eat is more confusing than ever before, with so much conflicting advice out there. Many, such as those quoted in this article, say we should be embracing fats and consuming more of them.
Yet the NHS official guidelines still recommend that we avoid saturated fat wherever we can. In fact, they advise that the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat per day and women no more than 20g.
Overwhelming, isn’t it? So, what to do? Who to believe, who to trust?
When using coconut oil, remember that in cooking, a little goes a long way and so we always recommend starting with a small amount and add extra as required.
Something that most are now agreeing on is that processed foods are the real enemy. It’s safe to assume that if we go back to eating the way nature intended by preparing fresh, home-made foods, then our feeling of well being should be on the up.
Another tip is to always do your research. Don’t necessarily take advice as a ‘given’ and trust your own instincts.
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Members of the Lucy Bee team are not medically trained and can only offer their best advice. Any information provided by us is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Please note you should always refer your health queries to a qualified medical practioner.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.