Are Banters onto something?
We LOVE IT and FEAR IT, CRAVE IT and RESIST IT. Much of the food industry has been re-engineered to save us from it. But the latest science behind the F-word – how much to eat, what types to avoid – suggests that when it comes to your health and your weight, you can be less restrictive. WH investigates
Is there a phrase that gets a brisker workout these days than “healthy fats”? Avo toast rules brunch menus and Instagram feeds, EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) flows like wine over roasted veggies and nut butters whir to the beat of smoothie blenders. But naturally, that brings us to the idea of “unhealthy” fats. What to make of those saturated varieties – the meats, the dairies? The fats that we’ve been told for decades will raise our cholesterol, clog our arteries and, ultimately, cause heart disease? Studies have been accumulating quietly over the past few years which suggest that the truth about saturated fat is more complicated – and less damning – than previously thought. In fact, the saturated stuff may be necessary, even... Healthy. Well, be still our beating hearts.
This new doctrine hit the big time last year, when the journal The Lancet published a decadelong study looking at the eating patterns of 135 000 people from 18 countries. The startling results got the scientific community squabbling and inspired a flurry of incendiary headlines (“LowFat Diet Could Kill You,” for one). The study found not only that those who consumed the least fat and most carbohydrates had a 28 percent higher risk of dying over those 10 years, but also that those eating the most fat had a 23 percent lower risk for death. More pointedly, those results held steady across all kinds of fats – including saturated fats, which showed an additional benefit of being associated with a lower stroke risk. And low levels of saturated fat actually increased mortality risk. Shocking news – and not everyone is on the same page. The American Heart Association still recommends that saturated fat be less than six percent of an adult’s daily kilojoule consumption. In South Africa? No more than 10 percent of energy intake and the intake should be less than seven percent of energy in those at risk of cardiovascular disease according to dietician Anél Kirsten. But altering dietary recommendations can be like turning an ocean liner that’s going full steam ahead: it’s a slow and unwieldy process. “There’s been a lot of discussion on the evils of saturated fats for many years,” says Dr Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and the editor of JAMA Internal Medicine. “Re-education based on new knowledge and understanding takes time.” Meanwhile, our efforts to avoid saturated fats have led us to try to replace them – with mixed results. The first suggestion, carbs, turned out to be catastrophic, with many experts now suggesting it triggered our current obesity crisis. Now the anti-sat-fat camp recommends “replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat as much as reasonably possible,” says Dr Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, who has studied diet’s effect on health for 40 years. But concerns are arising about unsaturated fats as well, particularly one category of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): certain vegetable oils, such as corn and soybean, that are high in omega- 6 fatty acids (as opposed to those high in omega-3s – like olive oil – which are clearly health-promoting). The thicket of conflicting messages is frustrating. But there is a way through the bushes, a path that follows the evidence and weaves in common sense too. Because fat is as essential as it is delicious, we dove deeper into what kind you should be putting on your plate.
Eat a high-fat Mediterranean diet. Reduce stress. Walk at least 22 minutes a day. Take the focus off saturated fat. When Redberg and two other cardiologists published an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last April proclaiming all of the above, the backlash from old-guard scientists was swift and stinging, labelling the advice “bizarre” and “simplistic.”