Be Wary of the Low Fat Message

The perceived correlation between junk food marketing and unhealthy dietary practices of Irish children is currently under the spotlight of the Children’s Commercial  Communications Code.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is currently reviewing submissions of concern from the public and professional bodies, with a mandate to consider imposing advertising restrictions on the promotion of dietary products judged to be harmful to children’s health.

The prevailing perception is that foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) are the chief culprits, with their ubiquitous presence in popular dietary choices underlying the current national health crisis.

The Slane Study (2007) described our current obesity epidemic in terms of 23% of the population being obese and 39% overweight. These figures represent children and adults who are likely to be pre-diabetic, and on the road to a future  of chronic ill health and likely disability.

The popular belief that HFSS foods harbour the potential for chronic ill health has been so widely promoted, that it has become a politically correct slogan for public health spokespersons.

The “ HEALTH STATEMENT”, a special report in the Irish Times ( Oct, 11, 2011), reflects the collective opinions of several spokespersons in the health industry, who repeatedly and consistently vilify “high fat” foods as the cause of our national health crisis and call for a low fat dietary intake.

Paula Mee promotes low fat milk with breakfast cereal, and Maureen Mulvihill, health promotion manager with the Irish Heart Foundation, wants children to be protected from the advertising of foods “high in fats, sugar and salt”.

Dietary excesses of sugar containing products are significant contributers to diabetes and obesity, while a recent study in Rotterdam shows that moderate intake of salt has a negative impact on health in respect of blood pressure or heart disease, and that salt depletion may be harmful in some cases.

Ms. Mulvihill states that the marketing of unhealthy food to Irish children ““undermines the national health eating guidelines and the food pyramid”

Her support for the Food Pyramid is lamentable. The Food Pyramid, a product of the USA Dept. of Agriculture, with its unhealthy promotion of excess carbohydrates, has left a legacy of chronic obesity and morbidity wherever it has been applied, and has finally, and rightfully, been relegated to antiquity.

The traditional food pyramid was a disaster and  should no longer serve as a recommended guideline for daily dietary choices.

The Food Pyramid was replaced on 31 Jan, 2011 by revised dietary guidelines, which includes seafoods, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, without the previously weighted requirements for dietary carbohydrates.

The preference in the revised guidelines of drinking water to fizzy drinks is welcome, but does not go far enough to identify the widely consumed carbonated beverages that contain unhealthy levels of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which represents a hidden risk for diabetes, obesity and several chronic disorders, and as yet overlooked as a major threat to human health.


A major weakness of the revised guidelines is their adherence to the anti-fat dogma, which reflects policy statements of the American Heart Association and The Irish Heart Foundation, based on the false belief that saturated fats are a risk for heart disease because they “raise cholesterol levels”.

These perceptions are repeatedly vocalized in public health messages.

Saturated fats do raise total cholesterol levels, but that is because they raise the very important HDL levels, the so called “good cholesterol” which is heart healthy. But they also lower lipoprotein (a), the substance that increases the risk for heart disease.

The heart actually draws on the fat reserves containing stearic acid and palmitic acid in times of stress, and these are saturated fats.

Furthermore, saturated fats are essential for the maintenance of healthy cell membranes, for bone protection, for immune enhancement, and have important anti-bacterial properties which protect us from possible gut infections.

Some saturated fats have a lower caloric value (medium chain) and are an efficient source of energy for the immediate use by the organs and muscles, and are thus not stored as fat. Thus they do not cause weight gain !

Why would we want to eliminate these vitally important fats from our diets ?

Without these dietary fats children would not be able to absorb the vitally important vitamins A, D, K & E, all fat soluble vitamins, and essential to good health.

Maeve Cormody, a senior HSE dietician condemns the use of  butter and cheese because they “are high in cholesterol” and “increase the risk of heart attack”.

This is an unwarranted fear and not supported by scientific studies.

Trevor White , in his OPINION ( Irish Times Oct, 10) falls into the same trap by implicating dietary saturated fats in the escalation of obesity and diabetes, and refers to the Danish introduction of a tax on foods high in saturated fats.

Such a taxation of foods, which are essential to good health, is a retrogressive step, and should be applied instead to harmful dietary fats such as trans fats, and interesterified fats, which are an insidious intrusion into the processed food industry, as a replacement for the unpopular trans-fats!

The scaremongering approach to fats has deprived our nation of healthy fats, and offered false hopes of health gains by promoting unhealthy alternatives to healthy butter, whole milk and cheese, since they are devoid of supportive nutrients, unless fortified.

The promotion of skim milk and low fat alternatives serve only to deprive consumers of essential nutrients such as palmitoleic acid, which protects against insulin resistance and diabetes, and conjugated linoleic acid, a vital cancer protective nutrient which can reduce the risk of bowel cancer by as much as 41%.

Full fat dairy products have been shown in a study to reduce weight by 30% and also to offer protection against heart disease.

While physical exercise is vital to good health, our reliance on activity programmes will count for naught if we ignore the role of diet and habitual daily nutrient intake.

Dr. Muireann Cullen of the Nutrition & Health Foundation suggests that “exercise offers our best hope of reversing rising obesity” and calls for expanded recreational facilities. ( Opinion, Aug 15).

This approach is not without merit, but ignores the core issues which underlie the explosive epidemic of global and national obesity

Low fat diets are not heart healthy foods, and invariably contain high levels of carbohydrates or polyunsaturated  fats. Consider that your large tub of “low fat” yogurt actually contains 13 times more carbohydrate than fat, and that carbohydrates in excess stimulate insulin production and weight gain, and are a potential risk for diabetes

The anti-fat and anti-cholesterol campaign, promoted by the food industry, and insidiously supported by sections of the health industry, has opened the doors for the widespread consumption of carbohydrates, predominantly in the form of refined grains,  and products high in fructose corn syrup, contributing factors for diabetes and obesity.

The conventional dietary advice which equates “heart healthy” with low fat products, is misguided and contrary to scientific evidence, and has consequently spawned a lucrative industry of “low fat” foods which are not only high in carbohydrates, but also high in vegetable oils  and polyunsaturated fats, creating a dangerous imbalance between inflammatory omega 6 fats and healthy omega 3 fats.

This imbalance invariably leads to deprivation of the essential omega 3  (fish oils) which are essential to the health of children and adults alike.

The low fat campaign has failed the test of time.

The food and health industry should abolish their unscientific propaganda about dietary fats and salt restriction, and acknowledge the findings of critical science with respect to the health benefits of nutrient dense dietary fats.

Dr. Neville Wilson.

Family Physician & Sports Nutritionist.

The Leinster Clinic,

Kilcock Road.







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