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Tonight: Eat Fat Stay Fit?

For decades we've been told that saturated fats are bad for us and eating too much red meat, milk, cream and eggs should be avoided.

NHS guidelines state that eating large amounts of saturated fat can increase the cholesterol in our blood, and high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke or narrowed arteries.

Public health advice states that the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day and the average woman should eat no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.

New research, however, claims that the current dietary guidelines with regard to fat might not be the right advice, causing a storm of protests from health bodies and dieticians.

Reporter Jonathan Maitland investigates the controversy and asks whether a high fat diet can ever be healthy for us?

Are fatty cuts bad for our health? Credit: ITV / Tonight

The concept of how fat can affect our health and lifespan started with the pioneering work of American scientist, Dr Ancel Keys, who helped establish the link between dietary fats, cholesterol, and heart disease in the 1950s.

Some academics now argue that the dietary guidance on how much fat we should eat lacks the solid scientific trials to back it up.

Obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe believes that the original advice about drastically reducing fat in our diet is flawed because the original trials were only undertaken on unhealthy men with no women included.

We are definitely better off eating real food than fake food and what we have done by demonising fat and the real foods is drive people down the road of eating more processed foods. It’s not about low carb or high fat its it’s about eating real food.”

– Zoe Harcombe

New York investigative journalist and author of ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ Nina Teicholz subscribes to what Zoe Harcombe is saying and believes more, not less, dietary fat - including saturated fat - is what leads to better health, wellness, and fitness.

There is no reason to avoid saturated fats, if you want to eat bacon and eggs every morning there’s no science to show that it’s bad for your health. We are in the third generation of a universe of researchers who believe saturated fats are bad for health. I do not know exactly what causes obesity heart disease and diabetes, I don’t think anybody does, but clearly there is a growing body of scientific evidence now that points the finger at carbohydrates.”

– Nina Teicholz

Official public health guidance still maintain that carbohydrates such as potatoes, cereals, pasta, rice and bread should make up around one third of the food people eat.

So, what about fat? The British Heart Foundation believe that Zoe Harcombe’s findings should not mean that guidance should be reversed.

We have very good evidence that links saturated fat with an increase in cholesterol levels, that’s one body of evidence, and we also know that having high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease."

– Victoria Taylor, Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation

So can you eat fat and be fit? Endurance runner Terry Conway runs up to 100 miles at a time on a healthy high fat diet.

"There was a long period before I came fully fat-adapted and it wasn’t a case of three or four weeks, it was more 6 to 12 months. Its a long term commitment. The biggest challenge is the cravings. Some things were easy cutting out bread and pasta which I was really surprised about and as soon as I stopped eating them I felt instantly better.”

– Terry Conway

Tonight put five volunteers, male and female, on a diet provided by Dr Arun Ghosh which was high in fats from non-processed foods. This meant eating lots of fat and cholesterol from natural foods such as avocados, full fat milk, eggs, oily fish, meat as well as lots of fruit and veg but easing off the carbohydrates.

The volunteers were on the diet for 7 days and overall everyone had a good experience of eating healthy fats from non-processed foods with and most had some cholesterol and weight reduction.

Dr Ghosh felt that we could not draw too much scientific conclusion from the results but he was interested to see how different people coped with the diet. He was encouraged that some lost weight and saw a slight drop in their cholesterol but the best result was that the diet caused none of the volunteers any harm.

We all need a range of fats in a our diet. Having a little bit less of saturated fat, definitely no trans fats if you can avoid them particularly the artificial ones, and then having possibly a little bit more of the mono unsaturated fats particularly those things like olive oil and rapeseed oil which is also known as canola oil.”

– Dr Duane Mellor RD, British Dietetic Association

I think we also need to remember that coronary heart disease it’s a multifactorial disease and it’s not only cholesterol that’s important, it's blood pressure, whether you smoke, how much physical activity you do. That’s why I think focussing too much just on single nutrients is not helpful in terms of actually reducing your overall risk of heart disease.”

– Victoria Taylor, Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation

The Food and Drink Federation strongly agree that dietary guidance and public health policy should be underpinned by robust and up-to-date science which informs consumer behaviour and industry action.

We know that on average people are exceeding government dietary recommendations for a number of nutrients, including sugars, salt and saturated fats, and not eating enough fibre and fruit and vegetables. But focussing on any one nutrient or food group in the obesity debate, at the expense of promoting the balanced diet within a healthy lifestyle message, is misleading and unhelpful. UK food and drink producers are playing their part to help individuals by providing a wide range of affordable, nutritious food and drinks in a variety of portion sizes – many doing so under the Government’s Responsibility Deal. This includes providing clear nutrition labelling, developing healthier new options and changing recipes to add extra nutrients while reducing salt, sugar and fat.”

– The Food and Drink Federation

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