Are calls to eat more fat to be believed? A report published by charity, the National Obesity Forum, challenges official UK guidelines and could change the way we see fat for good.
What does the report say?
It questions the notion that eating fat makes you fat and wages war on our ‘low fat,’ ‘low cholesterol’ and ‘lite’ food labelling culture. What’s more, it argues that saturated fat does not in fact cause heart disease and that full-fat dairy potentially also possesses protective properties. It also says that we should stop counting calories and that snacking makes us fat.
Dr Aseem Malhotra, a senior adviser to the National Obesity Forum tells the BBC, “The change in dietary advice to promote low fat foods [in the 1990s] is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history.” He adds, “Eat fat to get slim, don't fear fat, fat is your friend.”
What do the critics say?
Dr Alison Tedstone, government organisation Public Health England’s chief nutritionist says, “In the face of all the evidence, calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs and ignore calories is irresponsible.” She draws attention to the report’s lack of evidence, pointing out that official UK guidance is based on thousands of scientific studies, compared to the 43 (some of which were comment pieces, points our Dr Tedstone) that the new report was based on.
What do our experts say?
1) Government guidelines are old hat
“Some of the healthy eating advice and resources that have been in existence since the middle of the 1990s, (like the ‘Eatwell’ plate and the ‘8 tips for healthy eating’), have not been updated in all this time and are no longer relevant,” says independent dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker . “I certainly wouldn’t eat like that anymore. “For example, one of the ‘8 tips’ was to base your meals on starchy carbs for every meal, something I would never advise now. It would be like saying to have porridge for breakfast, potatoes for lunch and pasta for dinner, which although is fine to eat sometimes, shouldn’t be done three times a day. I don’t know anyone who would be able to do this and not have a problem with their weight.
“Another of the tips for healthy eating was to never skip breakfast. I’m personally not a big believer in breakfast as modern life has changed so much - healthy food is now available all the time. So if this advice is wrong, it could then be said that the advice on fat is also misguided. This doesn’t mean going to the opposite extreme and eating lots of fat, but rather developing relevant advice to suit our modern lifestyles. We don’t live like we did in the 90s, so why are we still using advice from that time?"
We don’t live like we did in the 90s, so why are we still using advice from that time?
2) Saturated fat is not the villain
When it comes to heart disease, have we been misinformed about fat’s true role? According to Dr Zoe Harcombe , obesity researcher and author, we have. “There is no evidence whatsoever that saturated fat raises deaths from heart disease,” she says. “Cochrane studies in 2011 and 2015 found NO significant relationship (let alone causation) between total fat or saturated fat intake and cardiovascular mortality (that's heart disease and strokes).”
She also points out that the original government ‘Eatwell’ recommendations should be read with caution, as the group who assembled the guide included interested stakeholders (“What we call the fake food industry,” she says). “What do the food and drink federation/the institute of grocery distribution etc, know about nutritional science?” Dr Harcombe questions. “They exist to help fake food companies make more money.”
3) The only fats we should avoid are trans fats
“The only fat we MUST avoid are trans fats,” warns Dr Harcombe. “They should be banned entirely, everywhere. There is no telling what damage they can do hanging around in the body (cancer, CHD, Alzheimers etc.) because humans can't metabolise them.”
4) Just eat real food
“Any real fat as found in real food is fine and I would never set an amount,” advises Dr Harcombe. “I think that has been one of the major problems with our dietary advice: 30% this; X grams of that...most of it doesn’t even add up!
“Tear up all the reports ever written by public health bodies and replace them with three words - EAT REAL FOOD! Meat; fish; eggs; dairy; nuts; seeds; vegetables and fruit in season - those should be the staples. Non-wheat grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa etc.) are usually fine for slim/non diabetic people. When you eat real food, the fat intake will be what it will be - don't set a target or you'll miss the point.”
5) Think holistically
“The report is so focused on fat,” says Dr Schenker. “However, I think we need look more holistically and not just pick on a particular nutrient - rather everything, from the types of meals we’re eating to their sizes, timings and what they’re made of. Most people can use their instinct as to whether they’re making the healthiest choice or not.”
6) Some carbs are fine...processed food is the real villain
Instead of singling out food groups, we are better off turning our attentions to the dangers of processed food, says Dr Harcombe. “Processed food is generally high in nutritionally void sugar, inflammatory vegetable oils (dangerous when heated, as they often are), nutritionally poor flour and other nasties, which we often can't pronounce let alone know what they are,” she says. “Some carbs are fine - vegetables are carbs; dairy produce contains carbohydrate; most people are fine with a couple of pieces of fruit a day (not five!!); many people are fine with brown rice/baked potatoes/oats etc. - only the obese and type 2 diabetics need to strictly limit carbohydrate. No one, however, needs 55% of their diet in the form of carbohydrate as the government advises.”
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