There was a lot in the news last week about saturated fat, our Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains what it all means.
Is saturated fat helpful or harmful? If, like me, you followed the recent flurry of news stories on the subject you’d be forgiven for being thoroughly confused.
It all began in October 2013 with an article in the British Medical Journal where a cardiologist argued that – contrary to current dietary advice – eating saturated fat that is naturally occurring in foods may not be the major issue in increasing your risk of a heart attack.
But then, just as it looked like we might be being told to put the butter back on the breakfast table, a group of food manufacturers and retailers announced they were going to reduce the amount of saturated fat in popular products like chocolate bars and biscuits. The reason why: to help reduce deaths from heart disease.
Last week saturated fat came back to the top of the news agenda because research we’d helped to fund suggested there isn’t enough evidence to support current guidelines on which types of fat to eat. While the latest study didn’t show saturated fat is associated with cardiovascular disease, it also didn’t show that eating more of it is better for your heart health.
So who’s right? Is saturated fat bad for our heart health or not?
Well the first point to acknowledge is that it’s very difficult for scientists to understand the relationship between our diets and our health. That’s because, unlike drug trials, studies on diet and disease are very difficult to conduct. It would be all but impossible to carry out a research trial where you carefully controlled the diets of thousands of people over many years.
At the crux of this debate is the role of saturated fat in our diet. Diets that are high in saturated fat have been shown to increase cholesterol. A high cholesterol level is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, so that’s why current recommendations emphasise the importance of reducing the saturated fat in our diets.
Replacing saturated fat
Where the issue becomes complicated is what you fill that ‘saturated fat gap’ with.
Eating well isn’t just about making single changes to a food or food group.
Contrary to some of the reporting on this issue, cutting saturated fat doesn’t necessarily mean lowering all fat. We all need some fats in our diet and, over time, the very low fat diets recommended in the past have been put to one side as our understanding of the effect of this nutrient has developed. So, current guidance tells us to switch from saturated to unsaturated fats rather than cutting the fat completely.
However, it is still important to talk about processed foods and what is in them. A lot of the food we eat is pre-prepared, and while sometimes the processing is as simple as canning tomatoes, processed foods also include foods like ready meals, sweet treats or processed meats where food manufacturers can alter the amounts of fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar.
As with our diets, when one thing goes out, something else will take its place. The concern is that when fat or saturated fat is removed, it will be replaced with salt or sugar to enhance the flavour. We know that we are already eating too much salt and sugar on average so, while we welcome changes to reduce saturated fat in our everyday products, we also want manufacturers to be mindful of what they replace it with. As consumers, we still need to keep an eye on food labels to understand what is in the foods we are buying and make the best choices for ourselves, too.
Look at the big picture
All this is a good reminder that individual changes to one nutrient can have a knock-on effect on another. Eating well isn’t just about making single changes to a food or food group. When we are making adjustments to our diets we need to think about the overall balance of the food and nutrients that we are eating.
The answer to a healthy diet isn’t only about whether you eat more or less sugar and fat. We need to consider our whole diet and the amount of salt we eat, how many portions of fruit and vegetables we include and the variety of foods in our diets are all important to make sure we get the right balance.
So, rather than arguing over which is the worst dietary offender, perhaps it’s more helpful to focus on the foods that we want to include more of in our diets. Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, pulses, beans, wholegrains, unsaturated oils and fish means there is less room for the foods high in saturated fat and salt like fatty or processed meats and sweet treats.
Lots of research studies have shown that people who follow this type of Mediterranean-style diet have a lower rate of heart disease as well as maintaining a healthy weight and better quality of life and even though there are still unanswered questions about why this diet is so much better for us, this does seem to be one area where there is agreement.