The truth about fat

Written by Charlotte Haigh-MacNeil

Every month there seems to be a new message about what we should and shouldn’t eat. For years we were told that low fat was the way to diet, so we stocked up on fruit, salad and skimmed milk to lose a few pounds. We briefly flirted with the Atkins diet – carbs were out, and red meat, cheese and cream were in.

Last year sugar was the enemy and now apparently fat isn’t bad for our hearts and we should all be eating more! So what’s the truth – what should we really be eating to stay healthy?

The heart of the matter

If fat isn’t so bad any more, it might be tempting to fill your trolley with steak, bacon, cream and butter, but that isn’t the answer. “Some people are calling for the dietary guidelines on saturated fat to be changed,” says Professor Bruce Griffin. “But this argument is based on a single study which suggests the original research linking saturated fat and heart disease is flawed.

“This is a big overstatement and there is much more research showing that saturated fat in foods such as sausages, burgers, meat pies and butter raises blood cholesterol and that a diet high in these foods is linked with coronary heart disease.”

But there’s one exception. While scientists used to believe all sources of saturated fat were bad for heart health, there’s evidence that full-fat dairy could actually be good for your heart. “There are substances in milk called bioactive peptides that can lower blood pressure,” says Professor Griffin.

Great news for cheese lovers – scientists have also discovered that cheese doesn’t seem to raise cholesterol. “The saturated fat in cheese combines with the high levels of calcium it contains to form insoluble salts that your body doesn’t absorb and store as fat,” says Professor Griffin. Sadly that doesn’t mean you can eat as much cheese as you like. Cheese and cream are still high-fat, energy-dense foods, which will lead to weight gain if you have too much.

Your fat rules

Swap saturated fats for ‘good’ polyunsaturated fat. The active cholesterol-busting properties found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish could help to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. Reducing saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fat doesn’t mean you should have no saturated fat at all – for example, spreading a little butter on your toast is fine if your diet is generally low in saturated fat.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel have even more health benefits and may help prevent dementia. And a diet high in fish oils has also been shown to help protect your heart.
Post-menopause, women can eat up to four servings of oily fish a week. If you don’t like oily fish or don’t eat enough, you could take a supplement such as Mega Red Omega-3 Krill Oil 300mg (£17.99/30) from health shops.

It’s OK to include some cheese and full-fat dairy in your diet as long as, overall, you’re not exceeding your recommended daily amount of fat and calories. Remember, though, that any food that contains high levels of any fat will be high in calories, too. So avoid eating large amounts, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

What works for weight loss?

So can you eat cheese and still lose weight? Any diet that restricts calories should help you slim. A recent review of studies suggests that a diet high in fat and protein could help you lose weight faster in the beginning than a low-fat diet. But after a year you will have lost roughly the same amount of weight as someone on a lower-fat diet. What’s important is to pick a method you can stick to in the long term.

A diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates may end up being a bit boring – making it harder to stick to. And if you aren’t eating many carbs you may miss important nutrients including vitamins and fibre found in fruit, veg and wholegrain foods.

You may well feel hungry too! Fatty foods aren’t filling. “On the other hand there’s good evidence that shows that protein and fibre help you feel full and stop you eating extra calories that you don’t really need,” says Professor Griffin. Stir-fried chicken with veg and brown rice will fill you up and stave off hunger for longer than a fast-food burger, for example.

Did you know?

Trans fats (often labelled as hydrogenated vegetable oils) used in some processed foods are also unhealthy, but there’s been a recent drive to remove these from supermarket products so we’re not eating as many – on average, half the recommended maximum of 5g.

Reading labels

The traffic-light labelling system used on supermarket foods could help you keep your diet low in overall fat and saturated fat. A high-fat food contains more than 17.5g of fat per 100g, while food high in saturated fat has more than 5g per 100g.

This food would be colour-coded red for total fat and saturated fat. You should keep ‘red’ foods for occasional treats and instead pick mainly foods with amber or green codes for total fat and saturated fat.

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