Believe what you read?

‘Eat fat to get thin’, ‘low-fat diet bad for your health’ – these headlines were plastered across newspapers following a controversial publication from the National Obesity Forum in the UK. The report claims that the current dietary guidelines are wrong and that they could actually be causing ill health.

The report in collaboration with the Public Health Collaboration then goes on to publish a 10 point advice plan which turns much conventional dietary advice on its head:

1.     Eating fat does not make you fat

2.     Saturated fat does not cause heart disease. Full-fat dairy is likely protective.

3.     Processed foods labelled ‘low-fat’ ‘lite’ ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘proven to lower cholesterol’ should be avoided.

4.     Limit starch and refined carbohydrates to prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes

5.     Optimum sugar consumption for diabetes is zero.

6.     Industrial vegetable oils should be avoided

7.     You cannot outrun a bad diet

8.     Stop calorie counting (calorie focused thinking has damaged public health)

9.     Snacking will make you fat

10.  Evidence based nutrition should be incorporated into curricula for all health care professionals.

Critics have responded saying the new advice could be dangerous and suggesting that the authors have ‘cherry-picked’ their studies to suit their theories.  It’s also been noted that there are no named authors of the paper and it does not appear to have been peer-reviewed (reviewed by other independent experts in the field).

So, let’s take a further look at whether this new advice should be followed:

1. Eating fat does not make you fat.

Athough studies have found that high-fat diets are as equally effective for weight loss as low-fat diets, the bottom line is that high-fat foods contain a lot of calories, and excess calories lead to weight gain – so eating too much fat will make you fat. However, eating healthy fats such as olive oil, avocadoes, almonds and walnuts, seeds and oily fish have been shown to boost levels of healthy cholesterol while controlling overall cholesterol levels – as well as having many other health benefits.

2. Saturated fat does not cause heart disease.

Reports over the last few years have emerged to suggest that there is no link between saturated fat intake and heart disease, although the official government recommendations are still to limit saturated fat intake. Our advice is to limit saturated fat intake in foods like fried foods and junk food, red meat and processed meats – and eat foods naturally high in saturated fats like butter, full-fat milk and cheese in moderation.

3. Processed foods with ‘low-fat’ and ‘lite’ claims should be avoided.

This recommendation makes sense, as many of these so called ‘diet’ foods often contain large quantities of sugar or sweeteners and have little health benefit. Choose naturally low-fat foods instead of highly processed diet products.

4. Limit starch and refined carbohydrates to prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes.

There is a link between refined carbohydrate intake and type 2 diabetes – yet the exact intake linked to an increased risk is unknown. We recommended choosing unrefined carbohydrates as much as possible and limiting added sugars.

5. Optimum sugar consumption for diabetes is zero. 

This has strong scientific backing and the government have recently reduced their recommendations for energy intake from sugars from 10% down to 5%.

6. Industrial vegetable oils should be avoided.

In the US, the use of trans fats is now banned yet in the UK there are no regulations. These types of fats have been strongly linked to increase risk of heart disease and should be avoided.

7. You cannot outrun a bad diet.

While staying active is essential for good health, unfortunately exercise can’t undo the effects of a bad diet on health. It’s also been shown that for weight loss, exercise alone has minimal effects.

8. Stop calorie counting.

For decades, the public health message has focused on counting calories and while the science does support the idea that eating less calories results in a healthier weight, low calories does not always equal healthy. Calories coming from different food sources are processed in different ways and therefore not all calories are equal. We therefore recommend focusing on eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods rather than focusing on calorie content of foods.

9. Snacking will make you fat.

Evidence is still inconclusive as to whether snacking contributes significantly to weight gain. What is clear is that many convenience snacks such as sweets, chocolate, fried snacks and drinks are often high in sugar, fat and calories. If you are going to snack, choose whole foods and avoid sugary or creamy drinks.

10. Evidence based nutrition should be incorporated into curricula for all health care professionals. 

It goes without saying that we agree on this one!

Written by Ruth Tongue
(MSc Nutrition)