by Zoë Harcombe
Last week the British Medical Journal carried a stinging indictment of decades of dietary advice. ‘Scientific evidence shows that advice to reduce saturated fat intake’ wrote cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, (Saturated fat is not the major issue) ‘has paradoxically increased our cardiovascular risks.’ The article was picked up by UK newspapers and others around the world even though he wasn’t saying anything new.
But for me and other real food and real fat campaigners like American Dr Michael Eades and Jo Blythman over here, who have known this and used it to help people for years, it was like winning the lottery. We all metaphorically laughed and clapped our hands, delighted. Why?
Because it had been published in the British Medical Journal. Because it had been written by a cardiologist – an NHS employee challenging the discredited standard model, which all medics are expected to sign up to. Because it’s just so flipping wonderful to see such common sense about real food when in the real world it is anything but common.
Questioning fat’s bad rap in obesity
Dr Malhotra went further than defending saturated fat and questioned the bad rap that fat gets in obesity because it contains twice as many calories as carbohydrates. He highlighted the link between demonising fat and the idea that the way to stave off heart attacks was by lowering cholesterol with life-long prescriptions of statin drugs and their associated side effects.
But then, normal business was resumed just three days later when Public Health England made this announcement: “Thousands of tonnes of saturated fat to be taken out of the nation’s diet.” Public Health Minister, Jane Ellison, launched the “Responsibility Deal Saturated Fat Reduction Pledge.”
For those of you not familiar with the “Responsibility Deal”, this is the genius government plan to place the food industry in pole position in the attempt to solve the obesity epidemic. The primary cause of the obesity epidemic is modern processed food, so let’s get the makers of this modern processed food at the heart of our obesity strategy.
Get rid of fake foods
Yes – it is just like putting the cigarette manufacturers in charge of smoking cessation policy. Food giants exist to make profit for shareholders. It is not their job to set public health policy. It is the job of government to know this and to set public health policy itself. There should be a serious tension between the Department for Employment and the Department for Health – one trying to protect food industry jobs and the other recognising that the health of the nation would be best served by fake food ceasing to exist.
But with a headline grabbing analogy, the latest public health minister (they change with the seasons), Jane Ellison, announced that “more than one and a half Olympic size swimming pools of saturated fat will be removed from the nation’s diet over the next year…”
This is so ignorant, it’s difficult to know where to start:
Five things that Public Health England should know about saturated fat
1) There are three dietary fats: saturated; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. All fats are made up of chains of carbon atoms (chemical symbol C) with hydrogen atoms attached (chemical symbol H). They have a COOH group at one end (carbon, oxygen, oxygen and hydrogen). It is differences in the way these atoms are arranged that gives each fat its different qualities. The more hydrogen they have the more stable they are.
- Saturated fats have all available carbon bonds filled with (i.e. saturated with) hydrogen. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.
- Unsaturated fats have pairs of hydrogen atoms missing. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms ‘double-bonded’ to each other and, therefore, lack two hydrogen atoms. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
- Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds and therefore lack four or more hydrogen atoms. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at fridge temperature.
Saturated fats are therefore the most stable fats and the safest ones to cook with (this is a factual statement about chemical structure). This is because at high temperatures they are less likely to change structure, creating unwanted effects, unlike unsaturated fats.
2) All foods that contain fats contain all three fats – there are no exceptions. Fat is found in most real food (that should tell us something for starters!) All meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, avocados and olives contain fat, as do some other foods – even grains. Every single food that contains fat contains saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Only the proportions vary. (Food for Thought: Have We Been Giving the Wrong Dietary Advice?)
3) The NHS list of saturated fat is primarily a list of processed carbohydrates. Cakes, biscuits, pastries, pies, ice cream, confectionery, savoury snacks etc are extremely likely to be bad for us, but not because of any natural saturated fat they contain but rather because of the sugar, flour, vegetable oils and myriad of ingredients that you won’t be able to pronounce, let alone recognise. Demonise these fake foods by all means, but stop ignorantly calling them saturated fat.
4) There is only one food group on the planet with more saturated than unsaturated fat – dairy products. Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives – even lard! – all have more unsaturated than saturated fat. Which is not to say that one real fat is better or worse than any other but just to set the record straight.
So if you are going to warn people away from saturated fat you are warning them away from dairy products, which are vital for optimal health. This quickly leads to contradictory statements. At the same time the Public Health Minister was promising to banish swimming pools of fat, England’s Chief Medical Officer was promising action on the re-emergence of rickets in children (Prevention pays our children deserve better). And what might protect against children’s bone problems? The saturated fats in dairy products that contain such priceless bone nutrients as calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D.
5) We don’t even know HOW saturated fat could raise cholesterol, let alone that it does.
Chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network, Professor Susan Jebb said: “…too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels and cause heart disease and premature deaths.” (Jonathan Edwards would be proud of that triple jump!)
But how can saturated fat (actual saturated fat – not cakes, biscuits, pastries i.e. processed junk, which is predominantly carbohydrate) raise cholesterol? Indeed, how can any real dietary fat (saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) raise cholesterol? I’ve totally failed to find a biochemist who can explain this. In fact studies have found that countries that eat more saturated fat have lower rates of heart disease.
It may surprise you to know that the correlation between cholesterol levels and rates of heart disease is also inverse – the higher the population cholesterol levels, the lower the deaths from heart disease and the lower deaths from any cause for both men and women. Here’s the data from the World Health Organisation for 192 countries . (Cholesterol & heart disease – there is a relationship, but it’s not what you think)
We’d love Professor Jebb to explain to HealthInsightUK readers how saturated fat causes heart disease.