Seema Chandra , NDTV, Modified: July 21, 2014 15:54 IST

All my living years I was told that butter was bad, red meat was definitely harmful and if you ate deep fried food you were going to drastically reduce the time it would take to end up in your grave. Now it turns out that all these theories may be turned on their head.

Butter is now considered more than an acceptable companion on the dinner table. Red meat does you no harm if it comes from a reliable source, and you needn’t ask for a lean cut. Certain oils are actually very good for your system. Why this change of heart?

It all began in the 1970s, when the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) decided to first address the role of unhealthy foods, by adding another category with fats, sweets and alcohol beverages that were meant to be consumed in moderation. Then in 1992, the USDA came up with the food pyramid that was supposed to illustrate what foods went into a healthy diet. The base of the pyramid had a large quantity of permissible foods like rice, pasta, cereals and bread. Right at the top, sat the fats, oils and sweets with the message loud and clear – skip fats at all costs. This resulted in a major tectonic shift in the American diet towards low fat food. People were told that fats were bad for them. Saturated fat was the worst of the lot. They were  fats found in butter, cakes, cheese and cream and were said to clog up your arteries and cause heart attacks.


Big Fat Surprise May 11 2015 2

The food pyramid was dismantled in favor of the new and “easier” to understand USDA “My Plate”. Although the graphic has changed, the same dietary advice is still being offered. Even today if you walk into any grocery store, you’ll find food shelves bursting with the Low Fat labels. They’ve sneaked their way into everything from biscuits to cereals to sauces to yoghurts to drinks.

But the problem is that while the low fat label might soothe your conscience into believing that you are eating healthy, chances are that you will not care to read the fine print on the label. I have picked up many so called Low fat items to find that they are high in sugars or high in sodium.

According to nutritionists now, the whole shift towards eating low fat foods has actually resulted in people consuming more processed foods and foods that are high in sugar. For example, the cookie box will scream low fat, but the calories are almost the same as the original, because the low fat version has more sugar. When you end up eating all these easily digestible carbohydrates, your body releases insulin and raises your blood sugar quickly. The result is that, in the long run, you are susceptible to heart trouble as well as diabetes. Also, high levels of sugar may well cause as much damage to your heart as the fats ever did. The same is true for putting on weight. Moreover,  when you cut down on fat, chances are that you do not end up eating the good fats either.

Why are fats now in your good books?

Firstly they are very crucial storehouses of energy. They help the body absorb vitamins. They are also crucial to maintain cell membranes. They also provide a cushion to various organs. But then we have always known that.

The new theory by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that has come to the conclusion: “There is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease.” Aseem Malhotra, a London cardiologist writes in the British Medical Journal that “studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective. The source of the saturated fat may be important. Dairy foods are exemplary providers of vitamins A and D.”

If you want to know the science behind this, you need to understand what cholesterol is. Historically there was HDL, the “good cholesterol” and LDL, the bad cholesterol. All health advice was aimed at reducing LDL and trying to increase HDL. But now it turns out that there are two types of LDL, or bad cholesterol.  One type are small and dense, and they are harmful. The other type is large and fluffy and they are not considered harmful. And saturated fat increases the larger, benign particles. Therefore it gets a green signal.

So what is definitely bad for you?

According to nutritionists, if you eat sugars and processed foods, you will increase the harmful bad particles of cholesterol in your body,  So at any cost, we must avoid refined flour in cookies, breads, pizzas, pastries and cakes etc. In India this will be more of a challenge as our processed food industry hasn’t made even a dent in coming up with whole wheat or whole grain alternatives for these foods.

And when it comes to fat, there seems to be no question that trans fats are definitely no-no. These are fats like partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Studies have shown that trans fats are harmful because they increase risk of heart disease because they raise level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and they lower levels of good cholesterol (HDL).

Fortunately, these are being successfully removed from most ready-to-eat food products. FDA has ruled against them. However, In India, the disappearance of trans fats in the unorganized street food and packaged snack food market is still in the distant future. I have written on trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils before. (More: High time we bid farewell to trans fats)

So new scientific theories will give way to the old.

Today, we might feel less guilty with more butter and cheese on our plates, what we would be wise in doing is staying away from the sugar, processed foods and trans fats. To do that, it all comes back to scrutinizing that nutrition label.

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