Is fat really that bad?

Myth Debunked– first featured in the Times of Malta –10 August 2019

Eating fats make you fat. It seems so obvious, right? Well actually, it turns out that fat might not deserve its bad reputation.

We are taught from an early age that fats are an essential part of our diet, remember that food pyramid? We need it for lots of reasons, nerve cell development, cell growth, the production of hormones, and as an energy store, just to name a few. It is a vital part of our diet, always has been, always will be. So, what has changed? Why are many countries now facing a dangerous rise in obesity rates? It turns out it may be that sweet tooth you have!

In the wild, sugars are far less common than you might expect. You may stumble upon a fruit tree on your travels, but that is nothing in comparison to the amounts we now find in most of our diets. Many everyday foods have lots of sugar added. Think about the amount of sugar you had yesterday. Was it less than 50g? That’s the recommended daily amount. To put that 50g into context, there is about 52g of sugar in a 500ml soft-drink bottle.

So, what’s the big issue?  Well we all know that sugars are not good for your teeth but eating more sugar than you need is also a problem for the rest of you. This extra sugar is transported to your liver, where it is transformed into fat. This rise in the amount of sugar in the average diet supports the idea that heart disease and obesity are caused by excess sugar, rather than the fat in your diet.

TIME MAGAZINE COVER IMAGE, 1961

So where did the idea that fat was so bad for us come from? The short answer is because of bad science and aggressive marketing. It all started in the 1950’s, when US doctors started to observe an unprecedented rise in patients suffering from the previous rare condition of heart disease, and after President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, the nation wanted answers. In stepped the charismatic scientist, Ancel Keys, who once appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine. This unscrupulous character was happy to cherry pick research that supported fats as the cause of this health epidemic and actively renounce any research of the contrary, along with  a hefty cash injection from sugar lobbyists the blame was laid at the feet of fatty foods. Eventually this idea of fat being bad for you became ingrained in people’s psyche, culminating with a low fat diet eventually being recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1980, which flooded the market place with low fat alternatives. This may have seemed like at least a small victory, but as you may have noticed, low fat foods sometimes are not the tastiest things on the menu. So to combat this food companies often load these products with added sugar. 

So next time you are looking at the nutritional information on your food and you are looking for the healthiest options, you might want to take a second look at the sugar content.


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