Fat is fine after all, study proclaims

Fat has long been considered one the most unhealthy parts of our daily diet. But new research suggests the warnings were wrong all along. Whose nutritional advice can we trust?

For decades, British people have been taught to think of fat as public health enemy number one. In 1983 a health campaign drew on research into the risks of consuming fat to advise Britons that no more than 30% of their calories should come from fat, and only 10% from saturated fat.

Now, 30 years on, many nutritionists suspect that our fear of fat has been misplaced all along. A report published yesterday argues that the research behind the low-fat mantra, leading to millions cutting down on fatty foods, was groundless. They concluded that the ‘flawed’ trials lacked ‘sound nutritional knowledge’, and that the guidelines they inspired should never have been introduced.

But these conclusions are controversial. Some scientists call the report misguided, even dangerous. At the time of the 1983 health campaign a heart disease epidemic was sweeping the nation. This, as well as the scientific research, led policymakers to advise people to cut their fat intake. Critics say that the new report should have taken this context into account.

These criticisms reflect the broader conflict around fat. In part this stems from the variety in types of fat, with some dieticians warning against undermining the risk of saturated fats. There is substantial evidence to link heart disease with fat, and cases have fallen since the campaign. Others blame the initial study for turning people away from fat towards sugar and carbohydrates, contributing to an increase in obesity from 2.7% in 1972 to 25% by 2012.

The debate around fat is not unique. There’s long been conflicting dietary advice in the media on everything from coffee and superfoods, to sugar and fruit.

These clashes can leave us confused and indifferent, rather than more informed. One study found that more than 71% of participants said they hear moderate to high levels of contradictory information about nutrition. The author of the study said this may make people more likely to ignore nutritional advice.

The lead researcher behind the new findings, however, gets to the crux of dietary advice: to avoid confusion, we should just ‘eat real food’.

Widening communication

The truth about how foods affect us is complicated, but it would be wrong to ignore advice that can help us live healthier lives just by making small changes. Health advice can be a bit confusing, some say, but we have to trust what the experts say.

Disagreements over food’s impacts can last for decades — and both sides of the debate are often strongly advocated by medical professionals, making it harder to know what to believe. Many would rather just trust their instincts than change behaviour on advice that could be proven unhealthy in ten years’ time.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to pay attention to ever-changing health advice or just follow our instincts?
  2. Are we 100% responsible for our own health and wellbeing?

Activities

  1. List all the advice you’ve been given recently about what foods are healthy and unhealthy. How much of it have you followed?
  2. Imagine you’re the lead researcher in this new study. Write a press release stating your findings on the studies into fats and the recommendation that followed, but make sure not to suggest fats are healthier than once thought, or encourage anyone to eat more of them.

Some People Say...

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”

Winston Churchill

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I still eat fat?
Research still states that a diet low in saturated fats is healthy. The British Heart Foundation stands by its recommendation of keeping fat intake at 30% of your diet, and saturated fat at 10%. This doesn’t mean you should cut anything out of your diet — it just means enjoying fattening foods in moderation.
Do people ever really listen to health advice?
The five-a-day campaign, launched by the government in 2003, has had partial success, and a campaign to lower drinking in teenagers had similar, tepid results. One group of people we do listen to though, is celebrities. A study looked at how celebrities gain credibility as medical advisers, and concluded it was a mixture of our instinct to copy others, and celebrities’ alluring nature.

Word Watch

Saturated
Unsaturated fat’s unhealthy cousin, saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in our blood, which can lead to heart disease.
Superfoods
A trend that surfaced a few years ago, superfoods are a supermarket favourite. There’s no official definition of a superfood, and the EU has banned the word on packaging unless it is backed by scientific evidence. ‘Superfoods’ are said to bring increased health benefits, with more antioxidants than other foods. Claimed superfoods include blueberries, goji berries and broccoli.
Sugar
For a long time sugar has had a bad name and been associated with tooth decay and diabetes. But in recent years its reputation has plummeted even further, and it’s been pitted against fats as the number one enemy in our diets.
Fruit
Some experts warn against eating too much fruit. It contains fructose (fruit sugar), which can damage your teeth and isn’t very good at making you feel full.

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