Is fat a 4 letter word?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 06 Jan, 2017

Fat is certainly a hot topic at the moment! When it comes to weight loss and health, the advice around fat has always been to reduce it in our diet. But recently, some emerging evidence is putting this advice into question. So is fat really all that bad?

What we know about fat

The advice to reduce total fat in our diet comes from two angles:

1) The calorie angle – fat regardless of whether it is 'good' or 'bad' fat, is the most calorie dense nutrient, with 9 kcals per gram compared to 4 kcals per gram for carbs or protein. So cutting down on fat has a bigger impact on reducing calories overal... which is why it's a good approach for weight loss.

2) The other angle is about the type of fat we eat i.e. saturated versus unsaturated. There is long standing evidence that a high intake of saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol levels and so increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Whereas unsaturated fats have been shown to have the opposite effect, and can be good for heart health. So eating 'good' fat is absolutely fine and can improve our health – as long as it's part of a calorie controlled diet.

New research

Results from a meta-analysis of 21 studies have been recently released (meta-analysis being the statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies). The result put the nutrition world into a bit of a spin. No link was found between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk....raising the big question 'is saturated fat as bad for us as we originally thought?

Before we take this new research as gospel, we need to consider all the facts. The meta-analysis in question looked at 21 studies. The official dietary guidelines for fat from the Department of Health are based on reviews of thousands of scientific studies – so the findings of these cannot be discounted. The evidence linking saturated fat and heart disease remains very strong aside from this particular review, so it's difficult to see how this can suddenly be disproven.

Link between saturated fat and cholesterol

High intakes of saturated fat, found in foods such as fatty meats, pastries, butter, cakes and cheese, has long been shown to increase levels of bad cholesterol in our blood. It is this increase in cholesterol levels that can cause fatty deposits to build up in our arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart disease.

Although we do consume some cholesterol from the foods we eat, this type of dietary cholesterol hasn't be found to increase levels of blood cholesterol, for most people. It's saturated fat intake which has been shown to have the strongest relationship with blood cholesterol levels. For this reason the advice around eggs and prawns for example, which are high in dietary cholesterol, has changed in recent years and it's not now considered necessary to limit intake of these foods.

What is most important to track?

Tracking our cholesterol intake from foods isn't hugely necessary for most of us – it's how much saturated fat that we are consuming is more important. Nutracheck now tracks saturated fat as well as total fat, to help give you greater insight into your diet. If you are interested in reducing how much fat you are eating, we recommend following our Lower Fat nutrition guide. You can find this under 'Settings' on the website when on the food diary page. In the Nutracheck App, tap the icon top right corner of your screen when in your food diary.

Final thoughts

The current advice to eat more fruit, veg, wholegrain carbs and fibre, and to consume less sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt still applies. Eating more fat/saturated fat is likely to result in an increase in calories, so if you're trying to lose weight, it could make things harder!

The guidelines on fat intake are up for review by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) with the results due to be published this year. So we may see a change in recommendations...but we may not. It all comes down to what the research says. Watch this space!

Nutracheck now tracks 7 more nutrients. In addition to calories and fat, you can now see how much sat fat, sugar, salt, protein and carbs you are eating.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.