Full Fat or Low Fat? That is the Question

The importance of going low-fat has been drummed into us for decades, but many nutritionists now feel that it is the wrong advice and indeed we may have been harmed by this message.

It was thought that full fat dairy in the diet always lead to raised cholesterol and so to heart disease. However, reviews of meta-analyses, where the results of most up-to-date studies have been combined, have shown no evidence of this progression for most people. Dairy fats, 70% + dark chocolate and eggs all seem to be well tolerated. Even red meat is looking to be safer than previously thought. Processed deli meats like savaloys and vorscht are different, as they can increase the risks of diabetes, heart disease and of cancer if eaten regularly. Often eating large amounts of red meat is also not a good idea, but here we’re back to the usual advice of ‘all things in moderation’.

But can it do any harm to stick with low fat, if that seems to suit you? It depends on what replaces the fat. In many packaged foods the fat is replaced with extra carbs or even by adding more sugar. Sometimes an assortment of additives are used to add back flavour. If you are eating low fat cottage cheese it should be fine but incredibly bland and tasteless. Margarines and low- fat spreads often use refined chemically altered fats and emulsifiers, which might cause inflammation. Bought low-fat dressings may be similar. I much prefer a tasty sliver of a full fat cheese to a larger chunk of low fat cheese. During the Coronavirus epidemic we are learning that inflammation is something to be avoided if possible. Sugar, white carbs and refined oils and fats are the main causes of inflammation in our foods. (Alcohol can also cause inflammation.)

I once thought it might be nice to serve fancy ice cream sundaes at the end of a dinner party. I layered up the vanilla ice cream with fresh berries and nuts and made a sauce from strained strawberries but I completely ruined the dish by buying low fat ice cream. It tasted weird and not at all good. Nowadays, I would be more likely to use full fat Greek-style natural yoghurt, which is delicious and great for your good gut bacteria too. (Also helping to prevent inflammation.)

Some people, especially those who are trying hard to lose weight, or have pre-diabetes or diabetes are trying a low carb, minimal sugar diet. They usually find that when they cut down on starchy carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes, they can have quite high intakes of healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, dairy products, avocados, nuts and seeds and still see their weight falling and the balance of good to bad cholesterol may often improve.

These healthy fats and oily fish are really important for older people (I include myself here.) They help to keep your brain in good condition. They are rich in vitamin E, which is a very potent antioxidant and offers protection against Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. They also help to prevent depression. The omega-3 from oily fish also is vital for brain health. (If you are vegan, you can take algae oil supplements.)

There are exceptions to the saturated fat message. Some people have a condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia. They need to minimise the saturated fat in their diet. Others have the APOE4 gene and again cannot tolerate a lot of saturated fat. We don’t all know our genetic makeup. This is a problem, and it would be nice to have more certainty, but I am still reassured by the recent studies and I’m turning away from those tasteless low-fat foods. Be aware however that current UK national guidelines recommend that women not exceed 20 g of saturated fat daily and men not more than 30g daily.

For more information click here to read an excellent article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. And do read our chapter on A Healthy Cholesterol Level in To Life! Healthy Jewish Food

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