Why we need fats
Fats have been demonised for 40 years, but could red meat, eggs and full-cream dairy be the ticket to better health? Dilvin Yasa investigates
If nutritionist Christine Cronau, author of Bring Back the Fat, had her way, each one of us would start the day with lamb chops, eggs and toast laden with butter. In fact, it’s this diet to which Cronau attributes her 25kg weight loss. Not to mention the reversal of myriad health conditions such as chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, insulin resistance and hypoglycaemia – conditions she maintains were the result of eating a “healthy” diet.
“I’m a key example of how the low-fat era has been disastrous for our health,” she says. “It was only once we got rid of saturated fats in our diet that we started eating more of the foods that are actually harming us, such as excess sugar and carbohydrates, and this is what has made our health issues worsen.”
Cronau’s convictions might be a world away from the official government party line that eating a diet rich in saturated fats pose serious health risks, such as high cholesterol and an increased incidence of heart disease and stroke. However, Cronau is just one of a rising number of nutritionists and researchers who believe that we might have gotten things very, very wrong.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, saturated fats are still something to be limited. Current recommendations suggest we replace butter and cream with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as oils, spreads and nuts for better health. But a recent spate of studies challenge the notion that a diet rich in polyunsaturated fats is indeed better for us.
Dr Christopher Ramsden from the US National Institute of Health recently analysed two decadesold studies. The first was the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968 to 1973), which showed that while patients on the polyunsaturated fat diet had significant drops in cholesterol, they were at higher risk of death, due to the negative effects of the vegetable oil used. The second was The Sydney Diet Study, conducted in the 1960s by the University of NSW. Males who replaced saturated fats in their diet again lowered their
cholesterol, but were more likely to die from a heart attack than those who ate more saturated fat.
Add to this the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that a low-fat diet showed the sharpest drop in energy expenditure and increased insulin resistance (a known precursor to diabetes) compared with a low GI or low-carb diet. And lastly, there’s the staggering increases in obesity, even though we’re more enthusiastic about low-fat products than ever before (63.4 per cent of our population – compared with 56.3 per cent back in 1995 – is now overweight or obese). So what's going on?
UK cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra says we’re suffering the impacts of the flawed Seven Countries Study. When published in 1970, it appeared to show a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease among close to 13,000 men in seven countries. The biggest problem? The authors left out the data from the remaining 15 countries they had profiled – nations whose populations followed diets with high levels of saturated fats and had little heart disease. This has led many medical experts to call both the study and the consistent dietary advice which has since followed “one of the greatest medical errors of our time”.
The results have been devastating, Malhotra says. “In addition to dairy foods being an excellent source of nutrition and a source of energy, there’s a strong association that full-fat dairy protects against type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” he says. “[Removing saturated fats] has resulted in an increase in the consumption of refined carbohydrates and industrial vegetable oils which are strongly linked to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and dementia.”
Cronau agrees, explaining that women who “often try to do the right thing” are hit harder than men. For your body to function well, it requires a certain amount of fat to help build cell function, improve immunity and encourage effective liver function, she says. So is it time to bring back the fat?
Before you load up with sausages and cakes, it’s worth noting that the number-one rule to enjoy the health benefits of fat is to only ingest quality, natural fats. “It’s about spending a little more on quality butter, coconut oil, steaks and salmon and avoiding foods that have been processed or marketed as ‘cholesterol-free’,” Cronau says.
Malhotra agrees, adding that while trans fats – such as those found in processed foods including biscuits, pastries and smallgoods – should be avoided, naturally occurring saturated fats are fine for heart health. “We can all eat non-processed meat two to three times per week with no problems, and full-fat cheese and yoghurt to our heart’s content.”
The only (minor) obstacle, it seems? The contents of your purse.