THE BLOG
11/09/2015 11:56 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 06:12 BST

The Truth About Fats - a Doctor's Perspective

Many people only remember a headline when they look at a newspaper, so what people appear to have taken away from the latest spate of coverage is that they should eat more butter - and high fat foods - in order to stay healthy, which could not be further from the truth.

For as long as I can remember in my years as a GP, the official advice from expert bodies around fats has been to reduce consumption of saturated fat. Currently, this has not changed.

Worryingly, a new YouGov report shows that over a quarter of the British public think it is fine to eat lots of butter even though they know it is packed with saturated fats, demonstrating that the health warnings are not working as well as we'd hope.

Saturated fats are found in butter, red meat, cheese, lard, ghee and as a colleague once said to me, they are also found in all the foods we love to eat - doughnuts, cakes, pies and pastries. What we should be doing is replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, sunflower, rapeseed, and olive oils and spreads. These fats can increase the levels of HDL, more commonly known as "good cholesterol."

But most importantly, all fat should be eaten in moderation, with saturated fat avoided or at least kept to a minimum as it increases LDL (bad cholesterol) in the blood and can lead to heart disease. We need a small amount of fat in our diet to absorb essential vitamins, but the majority of our diet should be lots of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, with some lean meat, fish and also some - ideally lower-fat - milk and dairy foods.

One of the main problems this year with regard to saturated fat is that people have been left confused. A recent study from Canada indicated that there was no link between saturated fats and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and death. Some newspapers went on to suggest therefore that butter could be eaten freely without any detrimental effects on health.

However, the researchers responsible for the study, published in the British Medical Journal, went on to comment that their confidence in the findings were low because of the limitations of the research technique used - a respected and commonly performed one, which involves looking at all the best quality research around a particular subject then reviewing it as one piece of work. With this kind of analysis, however, the findings are only as good as the studies available to include.

Many people only remember a headline when they look at a newspaper, so what people appear to have taken away from the latest spate of coverage is that they should eat more butter - and high fat foods - in order to stay healthy, which could not be further from the truth.

The after-effects are therefore potentially very harmful for public health because while official medical advice remains to cut out saturated fat from the diet wherever possible, many people will rely on headlines and not actually go to reputable sources, such as the NHS and British Heart Foundation websites, where this advice is clearly expressed.

Trans fats are the worst fat of the lot, primarily used to extend shelf life of foods such as biscuits and cakes. They can also appear naturally in meat like lamb and beef, cheese and butter. Margarine, which was packed with trans fats, and was popular in the 1970s, no longer exists. Instead, oil-based spreads nowadays are made from polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to help lower cholesterol when eaten as part of a healthy diet.

I think of all the advice for consumers to take home is to eat sensibly, enjoying a little of what you fancy - including butter - every now and then. Diet and health are about doing the right thing the majority of time and focussing on your diet as a whole, making sure plenty of exercise is there in the mix to keep the heart healthy.