‘Eat Butter’ proclaims Time magazine this week. Below this directive sits a voluptuous swirl of butter back lit to look like a yellow gift from the gods. The gist of this cover story, written by Bryan Walsh, is that for decades fat has been labelled an enemy that causes heart disease and obesity. More recently, some scientists have been questioning the responsibility that saturated fats have played in cardiovascular disease and the tide may yet turn against such orthodoxy. The article sets out to explain why scientists were wrong to declare fat the enemy, with sights now set on carbohydrates and sugar.
In the late 70s Americans were strongly encouraged to eat less saturated fats – dairy, red meat and eggs – and to replace these with fruit, veg and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the American population did not fill their plates with their 5 a day, but did take to low fat products and carbs in a big way. So big in fact that 1 in every 3 people in the US is now obese and 1 in 10 has Type 2 diabetes. These are staggering figures. In an attempt to understand how this has happened, scientists have been studying why people on low fat diets have become so fat.
Although their supermarket aisles are jam packed with low fat versions of everything imaginable – as are our own – these products are sweetened to provide taste with the result that the sugar content of these products is often higher than the full fat varieties. Although since 1970 Americans have reduced their calorie intake of refined white sugar by 35%, the calorie intake from high fructose corn syrup has increased by 8 853% - yes, eight thousand eight hundred and fifty three percent. Sugar is sugar no matter the source.
Where carbohydrates go, sugar follows. When simple carbs – like bread and corn - are digested, they turn to sugar in our system. The dean of nutritional science at Tufts University points out that ‘a bagel is no different than a bag of Skittles to your body’. When you eat sugars the body produces insulin which leads our fat cells to over store fats and there go our waistlines. Think about all the sugars we are consuming in low fat products and we begin to see why we may not be losing weight. A study looking at the difference in weight loss of people on low fat, low carb and Mediterranean diets found that those on a low fat diet lost the least.
But putting weight aside – although bear in mind that carrying extra weight can affect your cholesterol level – is it not a fact that saturated fats affect our cholesterol level? What some scientists are now saying is that saturated fat does indeed increase our LDL (the bad cholesterol) but in ways that may be more complex than we have thought. This is because it has been found that saturated fat also raises our levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) which protects us from heart disease. As the HDL clears away LDL in our bloodstream perhaps the two raised levels cancel out the threat of increased cardiovascular disease from saturated fats.
In addition to this, increasing importance is being given to the fact that not all LDL particles are equally threatening to us. We have large particles which do not seem to be harmful to us. These are the particles most elevated by eating fat. The smaller, sticky particles appear to be the ones that are harmful. But if these particles are not affected by eating saturated fat then why has there been unquestionable acceptance of the fact that saturated fats cause cardiovascular disease? This is a question that is now being asked. Some cardiologists are now arguing that saturated fats are not the cause of heart disease and obesity and of course we already know that some fats – olive oil and oily fish, nuts, flaxseeds and so on - are actually good for our hearts. In other words, the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
None of this new thinking on saturated fats means that we should be stocking up on steaks and eating butter and cream on a daily basis. But it does mean that we should think about our consumption of foods promoted as ‘low-fat’ because lurking within those foods are sugars that seem to be more damaging to our health than the dairy fats we are trying to avoid.
So if we should not be eating lots of sugars or carbs – which convert to sugars – where should we be getting our calories from? I believe that the Mediterranean diet is a sensible one to follow. I have not read any research which seems to suggest other than that it is a healthy, balanced way to eat. Perhaps the ultra low-carb brigade would beg to differ, but eating some wholemeal grains does not seem to be to be unhealthy. Of course if you are watching your weight then it is advisable to not load your plate with carbs, but to fill it mainly with vegetables. But if you want to enjoy a steak now and then, you need not fear that it will kill you. This is the new thinking, at least amongst some scientists and cardiologists. You won’t be hearing this from the powers that be who have massive investments in the low fat food industry.
Bear in mind that everything in moderation is the way forward. The Mediterranean diet is not big on red meat which is thought to be related to colon cancer. As for processed meats – sausages, burgers, bacon and the like – it is best to steer clear of these as much as possible as many studies are linking these to cancer and heart disease.
So is life better with butter? It certainly tastes good. Yet reading the research does not quite shake the convictions with which I have been raised. This is partly why, even if the voices advocating a new way of thinking about saturated fats become more vocal, it will take quite some time to convince our low fat generation to change our way of eating. But next time I feel like a scraping of fat on my toast I may feel less concerned. But hang on, toast is carbs right? If one thing doesn’t get you something else will!