Why I believe a low fat diet is potentially dangerous
In this morning’s news here in the UK a report from by the National Obesity Forum charity, challenging the sensibility of low fat diet advice, is dominating the headlines. The report basically questions official government-backed guidance that we should all be eating a low fat diet. Instead, the report recommends that we should eat more fat, including saturated fats. It also warns foods marketing as low-fat can be a threat to our health. I believe my own health suffered because I followed a low fat diet and it has improved radically since adopting a low carb, high fat, diet.
This subject is close to my heart because I fell into the category of a Type 2 diabetic 2 years ago. Until then I was a firm believer in a low fat diet. Today, since switching to a low carb, high fat diet after my diagnosis, I have seen a major improvement in my health. While I am still technically a diabetic, I don’t take any medication and my routine blood tests show that my blood sugar is normal. My cholesterol remains normal and I have also lost a considerable amount of weight.
Much criticism of the National Obesity Forum report is being documented in the news. There is some marginal evidence that the report’s presentation is not technically ideal. However, I don’t feel we should be distracted by such criticisms. The National Obesity Forum report is just one of a mounting succession of reports that actually point to carbohydrates, sugar and starches in our diet, being the villain. Fat, the report says. is part of the solution to losing weight and maintaining a normal weight.
My personal experience supports this. The controversy stems from the reaction of health care professionals defending principles that they were trained to believe in. These principles are based on historical research that is now being rapidly discredited by scientists everywhere. My personal feeling is that many who question the report aren’t up to date wit their nutritional science.
Being fat is dangerous but what makes us fat?
There is no disagreement that being overweight is bad. Being overweight is directly linked to all sorts of health dangers. These include cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart problems. We put on weight by consuming more energy than we expend. There is a separate debate about the relevance of food calories in diet but, basically, if you eat too much, you will get fat.
Body fat itself is mostly made from excess glucose (a sugar) in our blood and stored in our cells. It’s excess because there is more than we need for our metabolic processes. Much of that metabolism is in the background. Even if I didn’t move a muscle I would burn up about 1700 calories per day. I estimate my average total calorie requirement is on average 2600 calories per day. The balance of 900 calories required is down to physical activity. Therefore, my aim is to consume no more than 2600 calories and to ensure that I am active enough to burn them all.
The problem with a low fat diet
We can get our energy from carbohydrates, fat and protein. A low fat diet means obtaining most of our calories from carbohydrates in foods like bread, rice, pasta, starchy vegetables, cereals and of course, treats like cakes, biscuits and deserts, as well as drinks, that contain sugar. Many fruits are also rich in sugar. The body usually only converts protein into energy when it needs to; when there isn’t enough energy from carbs and fat.
For a significant number of people who follow a low fat diet, their meals don’t suppress appetite for long enough. This results in snacking and/or larger meals. It becomes a vicious circle. The result is more and more excess blood glucose and this is turned into body fat through the action of insulin.This makes you fat.
It’s also an important factor in Type 2 diabetes. Constantly high levels of blood glucose also cause a vicious circle of high insulin levels and a reaction of the body rebelling in the form of escalating insulin resistance. Eventually, the action of insulin is so impaired that high levels of glucose persist in the blood – you’ve become diabetic. Don’t get me wrong, lifestyle is important too and I am sure I wasn’t active enough when I put weight on in my 30s and 40s. But even very active people can be susceptible to insulin resistance. There does seem to be a genetic factor.
Processed foods labelled low fat are very likely to contain more sugar and starch in order to compensate for the attributes the fat originally provided. These include flavour, consistency and texture. We may not like to think of it but fatty foods are usually desirable. If you take the fat out, you may either be left with more sugar naturally, as in a higher proportion of lactose in low fat milk, or sugar and starch may be added to a food to maintain its palatability.
[nextpage title=”But fat is bad for us, isn’t it?”]
Consuming too much food of any kind will make you fat but the theory is that your appetite is satisfied more easily and for longer with meals that are high in fat and protein. They also don’t boost your blood glucose levels.
Fat has been associated with bad health for decades. The idea that if you eat a lot of fat it will end up clogging your arteries and lead to heart attacks seemed logical, even obvious. It was also easy to believe that eating fat made you fat. Science is now challenging these assumptions.
Studies in the 1960s linked prosperous Americans who ate a lot of meat and dairy products rich in fats to a rise in cardiovascular problems. But these studies failed to recognise the rise of refined sugar in the same diets. Science has moved on and it’s now the sugar that is linked to the health issues originally blamed on fats.
There is no doubt that some fats are bad for you. Trans-fats, mainly artificially hardened hydrogenated vegetable fats that used to be used to make margarines and inexpensive fats for industrial food production have been scientifically proven to be bad for your health. These are now pretty much banned in many countries.
Other fats that are at solid at room temperature, or saturated fats, of all kinds were regarded with suspicion. Now there is now growing scientific evidence that natural saturated fats from meat, dairy and vegetable sources like coconut and palm oil kernels, are not inherently harmful. They also don’t degrade easily to produce toxins while being heated in the cooking process.
All this has proved to be very confusing over time. To add to that confusion there is now some rowing back on more recent recommendations that we consume more vegetable oils of the polyunsaturated fatty acid variety. I can remember the messages as early as the 1980s advising using to use sunflower oil and corn oil and to avoid saturated fats. Today there is plenty of evidence that these same oils are not healthy. They contain too much Omega 6 fatty acids and degrade easily into toxins when heated during cooking.
The Mediterranean diet
Longevity is impressive in some countries bordering the Mediterranean. This has been attributed to typical consumption of a lot of fresh vegetables, fish high in beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids and olive oil, which is low in polyunsaturates. Carbs in the form of pasta and rice are also important but so are meat and dairy products high in saturated fats. The one thing not high on the list is sugar, at least not in the traditional local diet.
The low carb diet
Being a Type 2 diabetic, my body is unable to cope with excess blood sugar. I had two choices; take medication to modify my metabolism or change my diet and physical activity levels to minimise levels of unused blood glucose. I decided I didn’t want medication so opted to restrict my carbohydrate consumption.
In fact I have gone for a fairly radical diet that avoids carbohydrates as much as possible within reason. I no longer routinely eat bread, starchy vegetables, cakes, biscuits, crisps, drinks sweetened with sugar and even fruit. I do eat a lot more green non-starchy vegetables and salads and fish, meat and dairy products. I also take a vitamin and mineral supplement but that’s simply a safety net. Green vegetables actually contain a lot of vitamins, including C, and essential minerals. They also provide dietary fibre.
I have also switched from high Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats like sunflower oil and now use rapeseed (high Omega 3 and low Omega 6) and olive oils as well as butter and coconut oil. I do have a sweet tooth and this was the biggest switch for me. I used to be completely against artificial sweeteners but I now use them every day. My preferred sweetener is sucralose.
My diet is ketogenic. I have minimised, if not totally eliminated, my carbohydrate consumption so that a physiological change kicks in to prioritise the burning of fat to release energy. It’s the basis of the controversial Atkins diet. I used to regard Atkins as extremely unhealthy. Having lived low carb for over a year I am happy to report that I feel better than ever. I have lost 25 pounds (around 10kg) , I feel more alert and I have more energy. This helps me to be more active and I don’t have problems with an overactive appetite.
Despite consuming radically more fat in my diet than before, my blood lipid analysis is virtually the same as before I switched my diet. My total cholesterol, good and bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels are all well inside the normal ranges. In fact my good cholesterol has improved slightly and my bad cholesterol has reduced slightly. My HbA1c figure, an indicator of blood glucose levels over a three month period, is also well inside the normal range.
[nextpage title=”For me at least, fat is my friend”]
One of the critics of the Obesity Forum report today pointed to a reduction in heart disease since the advice concerning lowering dietary fat was brought in. But to me that’s just like the discredited advice heart disease went up because more meat and dairy produce was being consumed. It ignores the impact of increased sugar consumption. Not all the factors are being considered. I do wonder if a lot of new medications now available are preventing, or delaying heart disease, rather than a low fat diet. In other words these are just loose relationships and not scientifically supported facts The Obesity Forum report tallies with lots of more recent scientific research. This research places doubt over the saturated fat danger and places sugar and its precursors – the carbohydrates – as the real threats. The big rise in diabetes is not disputed.
My own example shows that a major switch from a high carb, low fat diet to a low carb, high fat, diet has not resulted in the health disaster the old advice predicted. I don’t suggest for a moment that you can switch from cakes and sodas to steak and cheese every day. However, a carefully considered low carb diet has worked for me.
For further reading on the case for low carb I recommend the work of a couple of people influential people. One is medic, Doctor Peter Attia, who, despite being an amateur athlete, realised he was on the way to becoming a Type 2 diabetic. The second, Professor Tim Noakes, is a nutrition scientist and also an amateur runner. Noakes is fascinating because his early research was very influential in promoting the use of carbohydrates to boost athletic performance. His own life experience later made him realise the danger carbohydrates posed and he now campaigns in favour of low carb, high fat, nutrition.