Fat - the good, the bad and the confusing

Generic eggs and bacon pic.
Generic eggs and bacon pic.

There was a time when the most confusing thing about fat in the diet was its vocabulary. But once we’d figured out the difference between saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, one thing seemed clear. Saturated fat was bad and polys and monos were good.

Now there are conflicting views on fat – including recent headlines suggesting that polyunsaturated fat – the fat recommended to prevent heart disease – could actually cause it.

There’s also a new book by lawyer David Gillespie maintaining that polyunsaturated vegetable oils make us so cancer-prone that ‘every mouthful of vegetable oil you consume takes you one step closer to a deadly (and irreversible) outcome’.

Gillespie’s solution to all this? More saturated fat.

This depends on whose science you’d rather believe. The World Cancer Research Fund (no slouch at reviewing hundreds of studies on diet and cancer) has a different take on reducing cancer risk that includes "limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat, eat at least five serves of vegetables and fruit every day and eat relatively unprocessed grains and/or pulses with every meal.” Its advice isn’t reflected in Gillespie’s "sample day in the life of someone living a seed-oil free, sugar free life" which includes:

Breakfast – untrimmed bacon and egg; morning tea - Anzac biscuit made with dextrose (another name for glucose); lunch: ham, cheese and lettuce sandwiches on Coles Rustic sourdough with butter; afternoon tea: chocolate slice with dextrose; dinner: beef with potatoes broccoli and carrot.

Is it just me or is that a bit light on veg?

I agree with Gillespie’s argument that Western diets include too much sugar and processed food high in vegetable fats - it does. I’m also no fan of margarine and cooking oil made with seed oil (give me avocado and olive oil). But it’s simplistic to imply that fixing chronic  disease is just about cutting out sugar and seed oils and ignoring other issues like the need for more vegetables (and some fruit), more fibre and less sedentary living.

Where Stanton and many others do agree with Gillespie is that diets high in  polyunsaturated omega-6 fats  can upset our balance of dietary fat.  We need a healthy balance of both omega- 6 and omega- 3 fats (from fish and nuts for example) and when it’s disrupted the result is low level inflammation in the body that’s linked to chronic disease.

This may explain why some research has linked diets high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fats to an increased risk of macular degeneration, says Stanton, although the jury’s still out.

So where should we get our fat? If you follow Gillespie, you’ll eat more animal food, including lard and dripping. Stanton’s personal preference is for nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, olive oil and oats.

Me? I’m inclined to take nutrition advice from respected nutritionists, rather than lawyers.

But rather than looking at isolated fats, Stanton suggests we look at foods.

“Milk, yoghurt and cheese contain saturated fat but the evidence suggests these foods do not increase the risk of heart disease,” she says. “The same, sadly, cannot be said for butter where the fat content is high and protective nutrients like calcium are absent. The new Dietary Guidelines still recommend we eat mostly fat-reduced dairy products because they have fewer kilojoules.”

This story Fat - the good, the bad and the confusing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.