Fat Fight
11 February 2015

Pretty much everyone understands the basic guidance of a healthy diet: low fat and lots of fruit and veg. But this week, scientists writing in the journal Open Heart have brought into question the UK dietary guidelines introduced in 1983 which stated that everyone should aspire to a daily calorie intake of no more than 30% fat and within that only 10% saturated fat. It seems the evidence on which that guidance was based was flawed. Firstly it was drawn from only a handful of small studies, with just over 2000 people involved, all men, and most with pre-existing heart disease. To put that into perspective, a new medicine on the market would have been researched on tens of thousands of people, in many countries, over a decade. When researchers put all the studies together, in what we call a meta-analysis, they found no evidence to support the guidelines. Men on a saturated fat diet were no more likely to die of heart disease than those who weren't.

So, does this give us license to eat as much fat as we like, or as Jeremy Vine put it to me on Radio 2 on Tuesday, can we now spread butter on our toast like it was jam? And like so many things, the answer has to be about balance. Yes it does seem that saturated fat (mainly from animal products) is no more harmful than unsaturated fats (vegetable products). But whatever the source of the fat, it still contains the same number of calories, 9 calories per gram, and it's still the case that if we consume more than we expend we will gain weight. And even then the "new" evidence isn't crystal clear. Experience in Finland shows a direct association between dietary fat and heart disease. Just after World War 2 the Finnish people were starving. So they bred cattle which were super fat, and in due course the population gained weight. But they also gained heart disease. A change in policy lead to leaner cattle, and guess what, heart disease decreased too. A diet of too much saturated fat was certainly not healthy for the Finnish. And in the USA, the Center for Disease Control keeps a data base of successful "dieters" and the predominant approach of those thousands of successful slimmers was, guess what, a low fat diet.

So, that brings me back to "balance". There is no doubt that too much carbohydrate leads to weight gain. But so clearly does a diet which contains too much fat. The inescapable truth, despite what diet gurus and the latest fad offering will try and tell you, the only way to lose weight and maintain it is through a balanced diet and activity approach, where we can enjoy the social pleasures of eating and regular physical activity, where nothing is "black-listed" or demonised, and we are at one with ourselves in food, body and mind.