Fat lies and thin truths - investigating health implications of fat in our diet!

15 Oct 2015

According to a 2014 report commissioned by consultancy firm McKinsey and Company, Obesity related health problems cost the UK economy at least £6 billion a year in medical costs. Government bodies around the world have urged us to reduce our fat intake to a maximum consumption of 11% saturated fat intake of our total daily energy consumptioni, but the incidences of obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome have continued to rise inexorably.

One important contribution to this has been the development of 'Low fat' or 'No fat' ranges of processed foods which in fact have a higher calorific content than their full fat alternatives. They also have a high content of refined sugars. Ironically, it is fructose, rather than dietary fat, that is the human body’s fuel of choice to build its visceral adipose deposits!

Replacement on a like for like calorie basis of refined carbohydrates with lipids appears to be beneficial to heart health, particularly if those lipids are unsaturated. The global agri-business giants, supported by government health advice, have thus been keen to champion greatly increased intakes of vegetable oils containing polyunsatured fatty acids (PUFAs). The result has been a many fold increase of intake of PUFAs over the last hundred years. Some commentators says this has been a major factor in the reduction of heart disease, but it is more likely this has been due to a wide range of other factors such as reductions in smoking, infections and stress, and increase in pharmacological interventions. Furthermore, excess PUFA intake may actually be deleterious to health as it could upset the natural lipids balance of Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids in our bodies.

Over the last few years, there have been a steady stream of academic papers challenging the conventional wisdom that saturated fat intake was bad for your cardiovascular health. This work has been very well summarised in a very recent meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal by De Souza et al.ii. The key findings of this study reveal that trans fats, which are artificially created fat molecules that do not occur naturally, but NOT saturated fats, are significantly associated with all-cause mortality. Hence, manufacturers of industrial food fats have almost entirely ceased production of hydrogenated, artificial trans fats.

With this much conflicting information and advice in the public domain, it is difficult to know what we should be consuming and what we should be avoiding.

Indeed fat is an important and enjoyable part of our diet. It provides flavour and texture to foods. It is a carrier of the essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Yes, fat is a major source of calories, but it is so much more. Isn’t it time you looked a bit more carefully at this macronutrient?

SCI’s Lipids Group is hosting a two day conference between Monday 16 and Tuesday 17 November 2015, on current controversies with regards to dietary lipid intake, entitled: Lipids and Health: Risk, Reward and Revelation. The conference will explore the scientific basis behind the many beliefs, myths and paradigms that have come about in the last half century relating to lipid consumption and their effect on health.

This event has attracted international speakers across the corporate, regulatory and health sectors and some key highlights of the conference will be: a review of current science in relation to the health implications of the consumption of the various different types of fat, the relative risks of contaminants frequently found in commercial fats and oils including an assessment of their nutritional contributions, beneficial aspects of Omega-3 fatty acids and the need for alternative Omega-3 sources other than oily fish, as well as research into the relative contribution of dietary fats and refined sugars to the obesity crisis.

Related Links

iNational Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) data; released 14 May 2014 by Public Health England (PHE)

iiDe Souza, R. J., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., Cozma, A. I., Ha, V., Kishibe, T., Anand, S. S. (2015). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ, h3978. http://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h3978

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