Bring back butter… and cheese, red meat and whole milk! How our low-fat obsession may harm our health, says nutritionist
By Zoe Harcombe
21:21 GMT, 12 May 2012
21:21 GMT, 12 May 2012
I love butter. Smothered on vegetables or, best of all, melted over a juicy sirloin steak.
And I eat masses of red meat – lamb chops or my favourite, pork belly.
Sometimes we’ll put a piece in the oven at lunchtime, and slow cook it to make the crackling really crunchy by evening.
Spread the word: Butter is a nutritional goldmine says our expert
My only two rules are that the meat has to be good quality and that all the fat is left on.
As a food expert, I spend my working life imploring the public to eat a nutritious diet – so I know these may sound like odd admissions.
What I am suggesting flies in the face of everything you have heard about healthy eating.
But I firmly believe that we all need to eat more fat – including the much-demonised saturated fat. I’m not talking about junk foods but fresh meats and dairy.
There should be a shift back to butter, full-fat milk and red meat – all often labelled high sat-fat foods – as they are nutritional gold mines.
Fat helps you absorb vitamins
All food containing fat contains all three types of it: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. You cannot separate them. So a food naturally high in saturated fat will also contain the other two.
In simple terms, fats are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. We eat fat, it is digested and enters the bloodstream where it transports the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K round the body.
This is partly why I find the idea of removing fat from natural food ludicrous. Take full-fat milk – this contains all four fat-soluble vitamins. If you take out the fat, you remove the delivery system.
I believe our misguided choice of man-made, low-fat versions of natural products – cheese, yoghurts, spreads rather than butter, and the like – is one of the reasons we are low in Vitamin A.
Delicious: The two key rules about meat is that it has to be good quality and that all the fat is left on
According to the most recent Family Food Survey from 2010, the average person’s daily intake of a type of Vitamin A, retinol – vital for the health of the skin, hair, eyes and the immune system, is little over half of what is recommended.
The same survey also shows that we are consuming just two-thirds of our Vitamin E requirement – essential for immune health. Many of these fatty foods also contain vital calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron.
Fat also supplies energy – eating a nice piece of bacon, fat and all, will keep you feeling fuller for longer than the supposedly slow-burning carbs in porridge.
Fat also has a key role in creating the outer layer of all our cells. So put butter on your vegetables – spinach, carrots and kale may contain Vitamin A in the form of betacarotene, but without fat to help it digest, it won’t necessarily be properly absorbed.
The mystery of diet regulations
The Department of Health bases its daily dietary recommendations – for men and women that’s no more than 30g and 20g of saturated fat respectively and about 95g and 70g of total fat – on a report by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA).
This 1984 booklet’s sub-section on fat intake claimed that comparisons between countries had shown those with lower national fat intakes had lower rates of death from heart disease.
This was based on the findings of the Seven Countries Study, published in 1970. It has been criticised for looking only at nations that proved the theory – including the USA, Finland, Japan and former Yugoslavia.
France, Austria and Switzerland were left out, and many argued that was because their fat intakes were high but heart disease deaths were lower than America.
The COMA report admits: ‘There has been no controlled clinical trial of the effect of decreasing dietary intake of saturated fatty acids on the incidence of coronary heart disease.’
Nor is there likely to ever be – it is extremely difficult to measure the effect on the body of fat eaten in isolation, without any other environmental factors or previous health history. It seems bizarre that we are following rules based on such shaky evidence.
Eating fat won't make you fat
In my opinion, there shouldn’t be any limit for fat consumption. But won’t we get fat Not at all. There is little evidence that eating fat makes you put on weight.
A 1956 study gave patients alternating diets of high fat and high carbohydrate. On a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet based on carbohydrates, they all gained weight and on a 2,600-calories-a-day diet based on fat, they all lost weight.
The body absorbs the fat it needs and excretes the excess. I’m not saying don’t eat carbs – glucose is needed to supply the brain with energy.
But we don’t need to eat bread, which causes blood sugar levels to rise and leads to weight gain unless a person is very active soon after.
Junk: Good quality fat is a nutritional goldmine – but junk food lacks vital vitamins and minerals
And low-fat food can contain a ridiculous amounts of added sugars. A 2006 Which report looked at 275 different types of cereals from a range of retailers and manufacturers.
More than three-quarters of the cereals had high levels of sugar, which will make you put on weight.
Back in the Seventies, we consumed more than 50g of saturated fat a day. Now we eat about half that, consuming half the eggs, and one-fifth of the butter and whole milk.
Yet as our fat consumption dropped, a strange thing happened and it defies our dietary assumptions.
By 1999 obesity levels had risen from 2.7 per cent in both sexes to 22.6 per cent in men and 25.8 per cent in women. We are the biggest we have ever been, and yet we have never consumed less fat.
Choose real foods not junk
What nobody should do is rush out and stock up on ice cream and cake. Pure cream is about 35 per cent fat while Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream contains 15g of fat per 100g.
But the sugar content of the former is almost zero, while the latter has a whopping 25g of sugar per 100g.
Any fat left in the ice cream is probably the most nutritious part. It is the carbohydrates and sugar in junk foods that are to blame for massive weight gain.
Red meat has been linked to colon cancer. But these studies didn’t eliminate people with unhealthy lifestyles or high junk-food intake, so no real direct causal link between meat and cancer has been proven.
As a nutrition expert, people come to me complaining of bloating, digestive problems, lack of energy and weight problems.
I tell them to stop eating processed foods and stop basing their diet on starches – bread, potatoes and rice are poor sources of vitamins – and to eat only what I call real foods: meat, fish, dairy and vegetables.
More often than not, they lose weight and feel better. My message is clear: it’s time to return to the old ways and stop treating fat like our worst enemy.