Eat Fat and Lose Fat

11th January 2019

Is it time to unlearn decades of conditioning about the supposedly harmful effects of one of our most important food groups? Lisa Botwright reports…

I’ve spent my entire adult life avoiding fat in my diet. In the 80s, 90s and noughties the low-fat mantra was absolute. I would no more have drunk full fat milk than ingested rat poison; but over the last few years the diet rules have shifted and phrases like ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’ are bandied around with ever-increasing casualness. We’re told to avoid carbohydrates, and eat lots of nuts and avocados. Even butter and cheese, foods that were an-instant-heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, are being rehabilitated, albeit tentatively, into the modern diet.

What’s going on? Based on a growing number of studies by scientists, cardiologists and researchers, evidence suggests that modern, accepted truths about nutrition are no longer as clear cut; indeed, they may even be dangerously erroneous. Is the fact that for the last 60 years our intake of saturated fat has been blamed for just about every health concern from heart disease to obesity just a big fat mistake?

One of the first people to question the diet status quo was health journalist Nina Teicholz, whose 2014 book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, was met with critical acclaim for its sophisticated and meticulous research exposing decades of weak science and bias.

In the 1950s the Seven Countries Study, carried out by American scientist Ancel Keys, compared dietary intake across different cultures and analysed how much saturated fat was consumed, relative to the country’s incidence of heart disease. Keys proposed a clear link – backed up by the US Government – and entrenched as fact so deeply that it became unethical to even think about placing people on high fat diets to further authenticate the findings.

Teicholz’s trailblazing exposé not only demonstrated significant inaccuracies in Keys’ data collection (showing how information was cherry-picked: for example, choosing Lent, the Christian period of abstinence, to take findings from Greece) – but she also unearthed the sinister part the food industry played in promoting the findings. “I got to understand the magnitude of the vegetable oil industry and how important the demonisation of saturated fat was to them. How much they had influenced the science, funded the science. How powerful they were…” Nina has recently observed.

Since the debate began, studies showing what happens when we do eat a high fat diet are increasing; in 2014, research by the University of Cambridge analysed 72 nutrition studies and found no correlation in heart disease risk between those consuming the highest and lowest amount of saturated fat. Moreover, experiments comparing high-fat/low-carb diets with high-carb/ low-fat diets in controlled feeding studies, such as one carried out by Harvard professor Dr David Ludwig, are demonstrating surprising, and counter-intuitive, results – that those on high fat diets are losing more weight than those in the other group. Their consensus is that even more research is urgently needed – meaning that, intellectually, it’s an exciting time for the health industry, but a confusing time for us since the public message is so mixed. NHS guidelines, for instance, still caution us to limit fat in our diet – even while these recent scientific studies are indicating otherwise.

What is becoming more rapidly accepted is that sugar is a far bigger villain than previously believed. Sugar consumption is at its highest level in history – the average UK adult consumes at least 15 teaspoons of it a day – three times the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation. Too much of the sweet stuff causes fluctuations in your body’s insulin levels, leading to those familiar 3pm cravings for chocolatey snacks, and increasing the risk of disease.

The irony is that all those ‘healthy’ low-fat alternatives are often packed with sugar to make them palatable – another persuasive reason for us to pick a full fat yoghurt over the diet version. In the decades that saturated fats have been vilified, chronic illness has risen rather than declined. Type 2 diabetes alone has doubled in the UK over the last 20 years.

Our attitude to carbs is also changing. Carbs are broken down into glucose, and raise insulin in our bodies in the same way that sugar does, but this food group is still needed, for an active adult or child, as part of a healthy, balanced diet. The ‘spikes’ can be avoided by making more nutritious choices and picking foods that take longer to be broken down – wholemeal bread over the white stuff, and porridge over a bowl of Coco Pops.

However, the glucose that isn’t needed to fuel your body immediately is stored in cells for use later, which can lead to weight gain; and so it’s become popular among the weight-conscious to eschew carbs in favour of high protein choices: eggs for breakfast, instead of porridge, and a chicken salad for lunch in preference to a wholemeal sandwich. A high protein diet, that also severely limits carbs, is known to force the body into a metabolic state called ketosis, which burns fat for fuel, rather than glucose. This is becoming an increasingly popular and effective way to lose weight – ‘keto’ was the most searched diet term of 2018 – but the long-term health implications of such a restrictive diet are yet to be understood; and in the short term, at least, can be linked to headaches, weakness, nausea, dehydration, dizziness and irritability.

Only last week food writer Bee Wilson called our protein mania the ‘rich world’s new diet obsession’, flagging up the examples of ‘protein noodles, protein bagels, protein cookies and – wait for it – protein coffee’, and citing the example of Weetabix, who launched a ‘high protein’ version of their classic breakfast cereal and boosted sales by £7m per year as a result.

Our energy sources come from three main macronutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates – but the key problem is that our new-found wariness of carbs is clashing with this generations-old suspicion of fat. In our constant pursuit of better health and slimmer selves, it’s no wonder we’re turning – optimistically – to protein, rather than making balanced choices. And the more we read up about nutrition, the more confusing the facts become. What food choices should we be making?

“Being healthy means you do not neglect any food group, says Peter Gaffney, owner of premium fitness company PGPT. “My advice to all clients is nothing is ever off limits.” He believes that unhealthy choices come from choosing processed food over ‘real food’, including fat. “Processed foods need little preparation time and the lazier as a nation we get the more we rely on quick fixes… Only now is the health community realising the damage this has caused.”

It’s all about getting the balance right. Add fat to your meals, and you increase the amount of antioxidants, like beta carotene and vitamins A and E, that you absorb. Unprocessed red meat is a great source of iron (choose grass-fed, ethically sourced meat where possible, to avoid the chemicals and toxins that mass-farmed animals are exposed to). Oily fish contains high levels of omega-3 fats that promote good brain health.

Portion sizes overall should definitely be monitored, but fat increases satiety, so it’s much harder to over-eat fat than carbohydrates. Since fat slows down sugar production it doesn’t cause the same sudden peaks and troughs in energy that leave you desperate for your next snack. There’s also something called ‘mouthfeel’ – the delicious hit that fat brings, that makers of low-fat foods attempt to emulate.

There are a few sources of fat, however, that we should still try to avoid. Man-made trans fat, which can be found in some baked goods and butter-substitute spreads (often labelled ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’) is known to actively raise harmful LDL-cholesterol, but happily has largely been banned by most UK food companies. We should take care with oxidised fat: old fat that’s been stored incorrectly, or re-used fat, as this creates harmful molecules known as free radicals.

Nina Teicholz relishes juicy steaks, plenty of cheese and lots of butter — and feels at her healthiest, claiming to be effortlessly the thinnest she has been in her entire life. “Everyone marvels at how delicious all this food is that has previously been forbidden. It is an incredible liberation to not be counting calories and to live in a way where food is no longer your enemy. I really would have appreciated knowing all of this when I was a young woman, when I always wanted to be thin and 10 pounds lighter.”

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