Health

High-fat diet: Good or bad?

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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IS a high-fat diet good or bad for you?

Uncertainty now shrouds the answer to this question following the recent publication of the international Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, which examined the dietary habits of 135,000 people from 18 countries over a period of seven years and was presented at the 2017 European Society of Cardiology Congress and printed in the Lancet Journal.

It included high-income, middle-income, and lower-income countries, and its findings have shaken up the field of nutrition.

The research found that a high-fat intake, which also included the highly feared 'saturated fats', was associated with a reduced risk of mortality (premature death). Healthy fat is found in several components of a diet, including avocado (pear), coconut oil, butter, and cheese.

High-fat diet helps health and longevity

The study found that those people with the highest intake of dietary fat (35 per cent of daily calories) were 23 per cent less likely to have died during the study period than those with the lowest fat intake (10 per cent of calories).

The rates of the various cardiovascular diseases were essentially the same across all the various fat intake groups, but strokes were less common among those with a high-fat intake.

Further, against conventional wisdom, the study found that those individuals with the highest level of carbohydrate intake (77 per cent of daily calories) were 28 per cent more likely to have died than those with the lowest carbohydrate intake (46 per cent of daily calories).

Extrapolating the latter finding to our inhabitants in Jamaica, this means the large majority of us whose diet consists mainly of the less expensive carbohydrates with very little of the more expensive protein and fruits and vegetables (which includes nearly all our inhabitants of lower socio-economic status) are at an increased risk of premature death.

Fruits and vegetables help

Not surprisingly, the study found that increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes had a beneficial effect in reducing mortality, with the maximum effect occurring at three to four servings each day (equivalent to 375-500g daily).

Interestingly, however, no additional benefits were had if higher intakes of fruits and vegetables were consumed. It is also noteworthy that the benefit from fruits and vegetables was higher if they were eaten raw instead of cooked.

One of the researchers in the PURE study from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, therefore recommended that individuals should not feel guilty if they eat fat in moderation. While a very high fat intake, where it accounts for 40 per cent or more of your daily food intake, is regarded as being bad, the average fat intake for many people is around 30 per cent, and this was deemed to be acceptable.

The researcher also proffered that whilst people are afraid of 'saturated' fat, there was no need to be since saturated fat taken in moderation actually appeared to be good for the average person.

A healthy lifestyle

People should also not feel guilty if they do not eat five or more portions of fruits and vegetables daily, since three to four servings each day would probably provide the same beneficial effects. Like everything else, eating all things in moderation was the more crucial issue.

Hence, the general advice is to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Most importantly, individuals should not smoke and should exercise regularly, preferably four to five times each week. Further, individuals should maintain a reasonable weight. People should avoid being too overweight, but also should avoid being too skinny.

We should all eat a balanced die, consisting of a bit of meat, fish, and three to four portions of fruit and vegetables each day. The researcher further advised that you do not need to be a vegetarian or eat an excessive amount of plants to be healthy.

Accepting new research

Like all new research that strongly challenges previously held beliefs, however, the community of scientists customarily wait until the findings have been reproduced by other well-conducted research before accepting the outcome as new knowledge.

One such confirmation has come regarding the health benefits of reducing sugar in the diet, as another recent study found that a reduced-sugar diet lowered the fat stored in the liver by more than 20 per cent.

Processed fructose (simple sugar) is found in sodas, fruit juices and processed foods, and is a major contributor to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition affecting an increasing number of children due to their high consumption of sodas and foods with added sugar. The fatty liver condition can be reversed by removing the fructose sugar from our diet.

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA).

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