This morning, as I do most days, I breakfasted on a three egg omelette cooked in coconut oil, with a whole milk coffee. I enjoyed a wedge of full fat cheese with my lunch, poured a liberal dose of olive oil on my evening salad and snacked on nuts throughout the day. In short, I ingested a fair amount of fat and, as a cardiologist who has treated thousands of people with heart disease, this may seem a particularly peculiar way to behave. Fat, after all, furs up our arteries and piles on the pounds – or at least that’s what prevailing medical and dietary advice has had us believe. As a result, most of us have spent years eschewing full fat foods for their ‘low fat’ equivalents, in the hope it will leave us fitter and healthier.
Yet I’m now convinced we have instead been doing untold damage: far from being the best thing for health or weight loss, a low fat diet is the opposite. In fact, I would go so far as to say the change in dietary advice in 1977 to restrict the amount of fat we were eating helped to fuel the obesity epidemic unfolding today. It’s a bold statement, but one I believe is upheld by an array of recent research.
These days I make a point of telling my patients – many of whom are coping with debilitating heart problems – to avoid anything bearing the label ‘low fat’. Better instead, I tell them, to embrace full fat dairy and other saturated fats within the context of a healthy eating plan. It’s an instruction that is sometimes greeted with open-mouthed astonishment, along with my request to steer clear of anything that promises to reduce cholesterol – another of those edicts we are told can promote optimum heart and artery health.
As we will see, the reality is far more nuanced: in some cases lowering cholesterol levels can actually increase cardiovascular death and mortality, while in healthy people over sixty a higher cholesterol is associated with a lower risk of mortality. Why, exactly, we will come to later.
First though, let me make it clear that until very recently, I too assumed that keeping fat to a minimum was the key to keeping healthy and trim. In fact, to say my diet revolved around carbohydrates is probably an understatement: sugared cereal, toast and orange juice for breakfast, a panini for lunch and pasta for dinner was not an uncommon daily menu. Good solid fuel, or so I thought, especially as I am a keen sportsman and runner. Still, I had a wedge of fat round my stomach which no amount of football and running seemed to shift.
That, though, wasn’t the reason I started to explore changing what I ate. That process started in 2012, when I read a paper called ‘The toxic truth about Sugar’ by Robert Lustig in the science journal Nature. In it, Lustig, a Professor of Paediatrics who also works at the University of California’s Centre for Obesity Assessment, said that the dangers to human health caused by added sugar were such that products packed with it should carry the same warnings as alcohol. It was an eye-opener: as a doctor I already knew too much of anything is bad for you, but here was someone telling us that something most of ate unthinkingly every day was, slowly, killing us.
The more I looked into it, the more it became abundantly clear to me that it was sugar, not fat, which was causing so many of our problems – which is why, along with a group of fellow medical specialists I launched the lobbying group Action on Sugar last year with the aim of persuading the food industry to reduce added sugar in processed foods.
Then earlier this year I had another light-bulb moment. In February Karen Thomson, the granddaughter of pioneering heart transplant surgeon Christian Barnard, and Timothy Noakes, a highly-respected Professor of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, invited me to speak at the world’s first ‘low carb’ summit in South Africa. I was intrigued, particularly as the conference hosts are both fascinating characters. A former model, Thomson has courageously battled a number of addictions including alcohol and cocaine, but lately it is another powder – one she labels ‘pure, white and deadly’ – that has resulted in her opening the world’s first carbohydrate and sugar addiction rehab clinic in Cape Town.
Noakes, meanwhile, has recently performed a remarkable U-turn on the very dietary advice he himself expounded for most of his illustrious career: that is, that athletes need to load up on carbohydrates to enhance performance. A marathon runner, he was considered the poster boy for high carbohydrate diets for athletes – then he developed Type 2 diabetes. Effectively tearing pages out of his own textbook, Noakes has now said athletes – and this goes for those of us who like to jog around the park too – can get their energy from ketones, not glucose. That is, from fat not sugar.
Alongside them were fifteen international speakers ranging from doctors, academics and health campaigners who between them produced an eloquent and evidence-based demolition of “low fat” thinking – as well as suggesting that it is carbohydrate consumption, not fatty foods, which is fuelling our obesity epidemic.
Read more: http://www.menshealth.co.uk/