Life Health Features

Tuesday 27 September 2016

So is fat really the enemy ?

A controversial new report has questioned decades of health advice that we should eat less fat to get slim. We ask the experts what we should believe

Published 25/05/2016 | 02:30

File photo.
File photo.

Eating fat does not make you fat, a controversial new report has claimed, and following a low-fat diet could be "the biggest mistake in modern medical history".

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Official health advice urging people to eat less 'bad' fat is "resulting in devastating consequences for public health", according to a British health charity yesterday. And you should even "eat fat to get slim", the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration continued, causing consternation among the scientific community which has long claimed that eating less fat is key in the fight against obesity.

Blaming the focus on "high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets" for the country's expanding waistline, NOF Chairman Professor David Haslam said: "Current efforts have failed, the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been and show no chance of reducing, despite the best efforts of government and scientists."

Rubbishing more than three decades of government guidelines, the report called for a "major overhaul" of current dietary guidelines, including a return to "whole foods" such as meat, fish and dairy. It went on to say that saturated fat doesn't cause heart disease and that full-fat dairy such as cheese and milk can actually protect the heart, sparking widespread debate within the scientific community.

So is saturated fat a good thing or a bad thing? We asked Ireland's leading nutrition experts for their views on the row:

Professor Donal O'Shea, consultant endocrinologist and director of the Weight Management Clinic at St Columcille's Hospital in Dublin: "The war on fat was never the right war and it's a historical war based on the very first healthy eating guidelines that came out in the 70s in the States, where there was an overemphasis on 'fat is bad'.

"Fat is an essential part of your diet and needs to make up a significant amount of your calorie intake.

"However I think we have to divide our thinking on nutrition into people who have diseases and then the general population.

"If you're dealing with the population at large then the approach to fat is a lot more relaxed than if you're dealing with somebody who's had a stroke or a heart attack.

"For the general population, you need carbohydrate and you need fat. It's about the total energy in and then how much energy you're burning through physical activity.

"Dairy is going to be a significant source of your saturated fat and total fat, but I think if you can avoid highly processed food, and avoid the combination of high fat, high salt, high sugar, that's what you really need to be doing.

"With the likes of low-fat yoghurts, what you lose in fat, you likely make up in sugar, so the natural product is probably the best - just less of it.

"The medical profession has not been good at giving a clear message around nutrition. The bottom line is that fat is a very important part of your diet. Unsaturated fats are better than saturated fats - but it's all about moderation and it's about portion size."

Aveen Bannon, dietician at Dublin Nutrition Centre: "When I'm doing presentations with kids, I'll ask them 'Are fats good or bad?', just to get a vibe off them, and they'll always say, 'Oh, they're bad!'

"There's no such thing as 'bad' fats. There are fats that are better for your heart, and ones that aren't as good, but we actually need them all in the diet.

"In the past, we wanted people to replace some of the saturated fat in their diet with monounsaturated fat - we didn't want them to stop eating it altogether. Because we were saying to swap it for a different type of fat it got demonised - a bit like sugar is getting demonised now.

"All fats are involved in many processes in body including insulation of the organs and lubrication of the bowel.

"Mainly it's hormone production that fats are most important for. If you look historically at the Irish diet, we would have had a lot of it coming from saturated fat. We would have had a very low intake of monounsaturated fat like olive oil so it's about getting a better balance.

"About 30pc of your overall calorie intake should come from fat and about 8-10pc of that should come from saturated fat.

"If you look at the Mediterranean diet, for example, most of their fat comes from monounsaturated [sources] such as rapeseed oil, nuts, avocado, and that's the better type of fat for our hearts.

"From a dietitian's perspective, I would say have your dairy like yoghurt and milk, even low-fat milk, and a little bit of lean red meat, maybe three times a week, for saturated fat and then for your polyunsaturated fat like Omega 3, eat fish twice a week."

Janis Morrissey, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation: "Our response to this report is that it's really unhelpful and misleading. It's cherry picked particular studies which are flawed and doesn't look at the full entirety of research that's out there in terms of heart disease.

"There is a proven causal link between a diet high in saturated fat and high cholesterol levels and there's thousands of studies that demonstrate that.

"We know that we need a certain amount of fat in the diet and that not all fat is bad. Generally it would be about the 30pc mark for the total amount of fat in the diet. In terms of saturated fat, our evidence is saying as much as possible to choose fresh, unprocessed foods, lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy products.

"Eat less chocolate and pastries, which are the main sources of the so-called bad fats in the diet, and try to eat more of the good fats.

"We still support using low-fat dairy products, which are much lower in saturated fat, and that [message] is consistent with the World Health Organisation and other very reputable national and international organisations.

"The research around fat is obviously ongoing. There is some interesting areas of research and maybe in 10 years time we may be saying something different.

"But we need to look at what the evidence is telling us now - and what it's telling us is not what this report is saying."

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of Human Health and Nutrition with Safefood: "Dietary guidelines here would be similar to the UK. We need fat in our diet, but there is a limit to the amount. The recommended daily amount is no more than 35pc of the daily calorie intake and no more than 11pc saturated fats.

"Some of the science [in the report] may be valid, but there's a problem with the communication. Cooking from scratch and eating less processed food is well accepted. Statements like 'eating fat does not make you fat', however, are unhelpful. For most of us, it gives a very conflicting message.

"Overall, our message is still to limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet - by not having a large amount of visible fat on meat, for example - and have a variety of fat."

"The dietary guidelines here are constantly under review. I know that the Department of Health are about to come out with a new obesity strategy, and part of that will be some clarification on healthy eating guidelines.

"In the meantime, I would absolutely advise people to stick to the current guidelines."

Irish Independent

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