Debate over saturated fat gets sizzling hot in the UK

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A group called the Public Health Collaboration challenges much of the official dietary advice backed by the government, leading to outrage.

The debate about dietary fat has reached a crescendo in the United Kingdom, where a new paper has been released by a group called the Public Health Collaboration. The paper, titled, “Healthy Eating Guidelines & Weight Loss Advice for the United Kingdom,” is not an official study, but rather a campaign document drafted by people from mixed backgrounds – dieticians, cardiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, GPs, and athletes.

This Public Health Collaboration (PHC) group takes issue with the official government-supported stance on what good nutrition should be. Their paper challenges three main points that are encapsulated in the UK’s Eatwell Guide:

1. The avoidance of foods because of saturated fat content.
2. The dietary reference value of no more than 35% total fat.
3. The quality and quantity of carbohydrates.

The PHC proceeds to challenge each of these statements with evidence to the contrary, and lays out an alternative plan for how to improve individual nutrition and weight loss, focusing mainly on increased consumption of fats and protein and non-processed carbohydrates in the form of fruits and vegetables. The sample plate offered by the PHC (pictured below) is radically different from that of the UK’s Eatwell Guide.

Public Health Collaboration sample plate© PHC -- What a balance plate should like like, according to the Public Health Collaboration's new paper


Not surprisingly, nutritionists and public health experts are enraged. As The Guardian reports:

“A furious Public Health England has come out with all guns blazing. It says this is ‘irresponsible and misleads the public’ and most of the public health establishment agrees.”

Fats, particularly saturated, continue to be contentious. While most experts in the dietary world now agrees that trans fats and sugar are bad for health and should be eliminated from one’s diet whenever possible, saturated fat remains ambiguous – staunchly defended by many, yet continually reviled by most.

The PHC’s paper states: “In retrospect, there was never any strong evidence to recommend reducing total and saturated fat consumption and in the 30 years since the deteriorating health of the UK population suggests such advice may have been a dire mistake, however well- intentioned. Quite possibly if the UK had been advised to go for foods in their natural form instead of unnaturally man-made low-fat foods for the past 30 years then there would not be such high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, nor the associated social and financial costs they incur.”

Journalist Nina Teicholz is another supporter of saturated fats, as explained in her hugely controversial yet fascinating book, “The Big Fat Surprise.” Teicholz argues that saturated fat has been unfairly vilified for decades by a world that is fraught with poor science, loads of industry money, political clout, and bloated egos pushing for specific results that always feature the demonization of fat.

The PHC urges people to stop counting calories, but Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at Oxford, strongly disagrees. Jebb argues that, for most Britons, eating freely will lead to greater weight gain. She tells The Guardian:

“For most people in 21st-century Britain, eating freely – even if only from ‘healthy’ foods – is unlikely to lead to spontaneous weight loss. Losing weight requires some control over total energy intake, which means limiting some foods, not eating them freely.”

Regardless of who’s right, there is something highly attractive about the PHC’s simple message. Its paper wraps up with basic, sensible advice:

1. Eat real food, until you're satisfied. These are foods that are naturally nutrient dense and are minimally altered from their natural state, which will nourish you and satisfy hunger.
2. Avoid fake foods, as much as you can. These are foods that have been highly- processed from their natural state with free sugars, highly-processed oils and fortified nutrients, which do not nourish you and will not satisfy hunger.
3. Be active every day, with an activity you enjoy. Whether it be a brisk walk up the stairs or a vigorous workout in an exercise class, it'll help improve cardiovascular health, mood and sleep.

If only more official nutrition guides would adopt the clear, simple tone of these guidelines, they might have greater success with implementation by the general population. Meanwhile, if you examine the dietary advice that does overlap between the two dietary camps, as The Guardian points out, “it looks an awful lot like the Mediterranean diet.”

Debate over saturated fat gets sizzling hot in the UK
A group called the Public Health Collaboration challenges much of the official dietary advice backed by the government, leading to outrage.

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