Fat, Low Fat Diets and Health

Since the 1970s the message from government and public health bodies has been that dietary fats (especially saturated fats) need to be reduced in the nation’s diets.  Even today the general public health message is that dietary fat is associated with weight gain, cardio vascular disease and possibly a whole range of other problems such as diabetes and certain cancers – however there is an increasing body of science that casts doubt on these claims.

The government watchdog that assesses and advises on the efficacy of medical interventions and public health initiatives (NICE) still advises that at least 50% of our energy from food should come from carbohydrates (sugars), no more than 35% should come from fats (saturated fats should form no more than 10% of dietary energy intake) and 10% to 15% should come from protein sources.

Weight management is still generally promoted through restriction of fats as these are very energy dense foods.  Indeed since the 1980s the food industry in particular has promoted low fat (high carbohydrate) meals and foodstuffs.  Yes still the nation gets bigger, type II diabetes is increasing rapidly and coronary heart disease shows no sign of becoming less prevalent!

However since the millennium researchers have been looking at alternative approaches to a healthier diet. Recent evidence from 2002 onwards (see especially Westman et al, 2007) suggests that a carbohydrate restricted, moderate protein and higher fat diet may be more effective in weight loss, managing diabetes, reducing cholesterol and even high blood pressure than the historic low fat/high carbohydrate diets.

This superficially would make no sense, as fats are far more “energy dense” than carbohydrate.  However higher fat/low carb diets have been shown to  –

  • Lead to reduced amounts of processed food in the diet
  • Perform better at reducing weight loss – especially central obesity
  • Provide increased satiety/satisfaction from food
  • Improve HDL levels (good cholesterol)
  • Reduce plasma levels of fats
  • Reduce blood pressure

Indeed the benefits of higher fat/low carbohydrates diets would appear to be higher for people with insulin resistance.  The Swedish government now recommends high fat/low carbohydrate approaches to tackling overweight and obesity.

So are all fats good?  Well probably not, so it would still be wise to avoid trans fats/hydrogenated fats (man made fats) as these are associated with inflammation in the body.  It is also probably wise to increase our levels of unsaturated fats (from plants or oily fish) more than natural saturated fats (such as butter, cheese, cream, fats in meat etc).

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