Sunday, 25 November 2012

Fat lot of good !

For years we've been told saturated fat is bad for us. Now experts suggest that it is actually healthy to eat.

I was hovering over the nuts display in the supermarket, wondering which to buy. I had just interviewed Oliver Selway, a radical diet-and-fitness coach and proponent of a food regimen that does not fear fats. He had told me macadamias were by far the most nutritious nuts to eat, a nut that any dieter will know is forbidden as it is astonishingly calorific. “They’re the fattiest nuts, you know,” a woman next to me said. “They are so bad.” Cheerily, I repeated Selway’s nutritional proposition: that animal and other natural saturated fats from whole foods are good for us. They are what human bodies have known for millions of years, and we can successfully lose weight not just on a high-fat diet, but on a diet that is high in saturated fat. She was beyond incredulous, and her hysterical reaction illustrated how emotional and deeply entrenched our belief is that fats — and saturated fats in particular — are unhealthy and make us obese. I bought some walnuts, made my excuses and left.

Selway’s Instinctive Fitness plan modifies the largely meat-based paleolithic diet, and includes potatoes, wild rice, parsnips, quinoa and buckwheat. “What’s not up for negotiation is avoiding sugar and wheat,” he says, “and the total rejection of processed foods.”

The strict paleo diet belongs to the health-freak category, the sort who doesn’t drink and, like Matthew McConnaughey, a vocal paleo, exercises with rocks, in bare feet. What is interesting about it, as with Atkins previously, is its acceptance of something that has been demonised for a generation. Saturated fat has for years been presumed and, it is claimed, scientifically proven to cause high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, strokes and big bottoms. Opinion is changing, though, and not just among diet kooks. For every paper that says eating fats causes all these modern diseases, there are as many that say they are not and might even protect us.

Dr Alison Law, a GP, is an exponent of the sat-fat diet, even though she is supposed to advise patients differently. When she was looking for “a quick fix to lose post-pregnancy flab”, she went on a high-fat diet. “We are taught that a diet low in saturated fat and high in carbs is good for patients. Low-carb, high-fat diets are viewed sceptically by the medical community,” she says. “But after reading the physiology behind the sat-fat diets, it made sense.” Law has stuck with this “semi-paleo” diet. A typical meal for her is roast butternut squash with parma ham and rocket, or steak with roast veg. She has the occasional pigout on cakes and pudding, but mostly confines sweetness in her diet to 85%-cocoa chocolate.

I spoke to others who claim to be “sort of paleo”, including neolithic wine, butter and cheese in their menus; their rejection of starchy and processed carbs, however, is total. There’s no doubt about it, these people are shrugging off department of health guidelines and braving the dangers of eating saturated fat in far greater quantities than the government says is good for them. And while sat-fat makes its way back onto the menu, the processed-food manufacturers are under increasing attack. The heavyweight lawyers in America who won hundreds of millions of dollars for their clients from the big tobacco companies have filed lawsuits against some of the biggest players. Their argument is not about excessive fat content in processed food, but the misleading labelling.

Professor Tom Sanders, head of diabetes and nutritional sciences at King’s College, London, sees a logic to people who let their gut decide their diet rather than government guidelines. “Fat intake has fallen in Britain,” he says. “There’s been a 50% reduction in the past 10 years, and yet obesity and diabetes are rising. If you like a marbled steak, fine — saturated fat from the source is not evil — but trim the fat off your meat and give it to the cat.” Not because it will harm you, he says, but because it will make you fat. “It’s not meat that is harmful — it’s the rubbish in processed meat products.”

All natural fats have functions for health; they are not inherently bad. They carry many vitamins that cannot be absorbed in any other way, as well as flavour. Sanders calls margarine “the devil’s semen” and is glad butter has overtaken it in popularity again. Man-made trans fats in margarines and processed foods such as cakes, biscuits and pastries are made from artificially hardened, partially hydrogenated fats, and have been banned in Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and parts of the United States, notably California and New York.

Emma Cannon, a respected traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner and fertility expert, says we have been reducing our fat intake for more than health reasons. “There are many people who would benefit from more fat in their diet,” she says. “I see a lot of women who say they are committed to having babies, yet I often find they are more committed to being thin. We’ve got some really crossed wires on healthy eating. In TCM, pork fat is used as a tonic.”

While people have been told for decades to cut saturated fat from their diet, they have replaced it with what some studies suggest is more harmful: refined carbohydrates. One Australian study found that a high-fat, low-carb diet was no more likely to cause heart disease than a high-carb, low-fat one. However, it was a more effective means of weight loss and less likely to cause diabetes.

The largest ever controlled study of diet, conducted by the University of Copenhagen in 2010, concluded that “current dietary recommendations are not good enough to prevent overweight persons from gaining weight. You should cut down on finely refined starch calories such as white bread and white rice”.

Zoë Harcombe, an obesity researcher and author of The Obesity Epidemic, says forgetting about calories and eating a diet of real food is the best route to healthy weight and good nutrition. Natural foods and grass-fed meats have a beneficial mix of all the different types of fats, and to isolate saturated fat is irrational because nowhere in nature does it exist alone. Even lard is only 39% saturated fat (compared to butter, which is 63%), the rest being mostly monounsaturated fat. Cheese is especially high in saturated fat. However, it is what Sanders calls “micronutrient dense”. “You get a lot of nutrients per calorie.” “Similarly, oily fish such as smoked mackerel is high in saturated fat and salt, but you won’t go on eating it long after you’ve had enough, unlike Pringles.”

It is this nutrient density that makes Harcombe believe “real” food cannot harm us. She’s not anti oats, as a paleo would be, but, “an egg for breakfast, cooked in butter, spanks porridge nutritionally”. The University of Wales at Newport has banned any mention of her in its nutrition class because she won’t stick to official guidelines. “It astounds me that I am seen as radical,” she says, “because all I’m saying is eat real food. Meanwhile, the fake food, like sugary cereals, has an army of dieticians to recommend it.”

Sanders offers a word of caution on fatty binges, particularly at this time of year. He describes an unusually high number of heart attacks in middle-aged men after the Christmas blowout. “Then again,” he chuckles, “that could be about exposure to family.”

The sat-fat revival


Large skinny latte with sweetener
Tuna niçoise with low-fat dressing
Sliced turkey breast
Reduced-fat hummus
Müller Light
Skinny popcorn
Snack a Jacks
Steamed cod
Processed low-fat ham
Lean steak, grilled
Diet hot chocolate


Omelette and herbs
Peanut butter
Americano with cream and cinnamon
Avocado, chilli, lemon and olive oil
Roast pork and crackling
Unpasteurised cheese
Greek yoghurt, mixed berries
Toasted sunflower seeds
Cashew nuts
Pan-fried salmon
Organic, unsalted bacon
Sirloin sautéed in butter
Piece of dark chocolate with hot, full-fat milk

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