Confused about Fat?


Confused about what are good fats and bad fats? I'm not surprised with headlines such as these and the fact we have no clear answer yet!

Eating more saturated fats raises risk of early death, says US study

Pass the butter: Cutting saturated fat does not reduce heart disease risk, cardiologists say

ANOTHER U-CHURN Butter is bad for you again as new study proves link between dairy and early death

Eating cheese does not raise risk of heart attack or stroke, study finds

Saturated fat is not good for your heart.

Butter is back!

Come on, keep up! :-D

On the plus side, we've come along way in our understanding of fats but we can no longer put all fats in the same bag; THEY ARE NOT THE SAME!

In the last 90 years scientists discovered a fat transportation system in the body that had an impact on blood cholesterol levels. We have learnt there is 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol and that too much bad cholesterol in the blood is linked to heart disease and early death. And then it starts to get messy! 

Our body needs cholesterol to funtion; we make hormones, Vitamin D and cell membranes from it. For these reasons, we have the ability to make our own cholesterol and we do this in the liver. Now there are certain foods that are rich in cholesterol (eggs, liver, kidneys, and seafood such as prawns) but funnily enough they don't appear to increase our blood cholesterol levels, in part because we can self regulate. When we consume more cholesterol in our diet, the liver turns down its own production a bit like a thermostat, helping to keep it at safe levels.

Then there is saturated fat and this is where most of the confusion lies. Until fairly recently, scientists believed that all saturated fat behaved in the same way; that they were all bad, increased blood cholesterol levels and were also linked to heart disease. We now know that is no longer the case; not all saturated fats are created equal. Whilst some do appear to have a harmful effect, several have no effect or a positive effect on health (particularly heart disease and type 2 diabetes). The problem is that different foods contain different amounts and mixtures of fats. There is no blanket answer.

This is especially true in diary products and I've recently got access to some new research on cheese, milk, butter and yoghurt. Interestingly our current policies recommend we cut dairy consumption to help reduce our saturated fat intake (to cut the risk of heart disease), yet the evidence is now suggesting that doing so may have no effect or even a detrimental effect on disease.

One thing to think about here is if you are going to cut down your intake of something, what are you going to replace it with? More veg, fish and whole grains.......great! Sugar????

The other important issue then is that fat is only one dietary factor; we can't isolate single food groups and then blame them entirely on a disease; our diet consists of multiple food groups so we must take a whole diet (and lifestyle) approach to our health. 

Now I've never been a real fan of using the word 'bad' to describe a food or nutrient. You have to put it in context. So it's bad compared to what? It's just relative. If we take the good fats for example - polyunsaturated (your omega 3 and 6 you get from oily fish, seeds and nuts) and monounsaturated fats (olive oil) have been shown to improve heart health. So taking a slightly different perspective, saturated fats are worse relative to the unsaturated fats, they are not really bad. 

So it doesn't help when the media over-simplify these new research findings - it just isn't that simple. The fat headlines also tend to focus on general health outcomes which can be very broad. What you also have to remember is that fat is fat as far as calories are concerned so all types will add to our waistlines. At more than twice the number of calories found in protein and carbohydrates we must remembered to use all fats sparingly. I'm afraid the recent hype around coconut oil acting as an appetite suppressant and metabolism booster hence aiding weight loss is actually unfounded. Coconut oil is so en vogue right now and everyone is on it for all sorts of reasons. Unfortunately the evidence is still fairly weak so don't get sucked in to its promises yet (I'm already writing my next blog on this!).

The bottom line is a single food is not going to completely change your future health. I'm not yet convinced that going all out on butter, cheese and coconut oil is the future for heart disease or diabetes prevention, partly because the calories you'll consume through eating more will outweigh any possible benefits. My recommendation is go for moderation and if you are going to have more of something, make it less processed, greener and switch to polyunsaturated fat! We are just going to have to watch this space until we get more evidence to inform our decisions on saturated fats. Until then, eat well :-)

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  • Mel

    Thanks Lesley! To be honest it makes my head hurt ? I know I’ve done my job if you get some good take away messages. I hope the coconut blog does the same!

  • Lesley

    Very interesting piece. Will be reading your next blog about coconut oil with interest. It’s fascinating how the advice can change from one year to the next and getting a balanced view from you is invaluable.

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