So let’s talk fat. Not whether or not we think we are or look fat, but that stuff that makes so many things taste yummy and that they try to strip out of products to bring the calorie count down. We know there are different kinds of fat and we know some of it is better for us than other varieties. It’s hard to avoid and yet we know it’s a crucial thing to limit if we want to maintain a healthy diet.
There’s been some interesting news on fat recently. Firstly, there were mixed responses to the news that Tesco are following suit on several other supermarkets and adding ‘traffic lights’ to their food labelling. Some people have complained suggesting it’s yet another example of the nanny state or it’s ludicrous because look butter will have a red light for fat and bacon will have a red light for salt and jelly babies will have a red light for sugar.
Personally I like the traffic lights and I have found myself noticing and using them more. Of course high fat or high salt and high sugar items that we all recognise will get flagged, but that’s hardly a surprise. Where I use and appreciate the traffic lights is in comparing similar products with hidden fat or sugar. It can be surprising to discover that a healthy looking soup has high salt or your favourite cereal has loads of hidden sugar and I find the little flash on the front of the packs really handy for keeping an eye on that and helping me shop more healthily.
Meanwhile Denmark this week ditched their experiment in the first ever ‘fat tax’. For about a year the country had hoped to encourage people to avoid high fat products by adding a levy to foods that contain more than 2.3% saturated fat which included dairy, meat and processed items.
It’s reported that 47% of Danish folk are overweight and 13% are obese, so at face value the move – like raising duty on alcohol and cigarettes – would seem to be a good one. But the recession is biting in Denmark as it is in many other countries and the increased prices had sent some Danes over the border into Germany to do their shopping, and food producers said it was inflating food prices and risking jobs so the government voted this week to abolish it.
It’s unlikely that taxes – unless prohibitive – actually stop people indulging in the things they love but shouldn’t. So probably this was a scheme that was doomed to failure, particularly in the current economic climate, but if governments want to save themselves a serious amount of money on fighting weight-related illnesses in the future, they really need to get more involved in addressing people’s poor dietary habits right now.
I’ll tell you briefly why I say that. I’ve recently written a series of features about the UK government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal. One of the pledges that a very few restaurants have signed up to is publishing the calorie content of their dishes. Now, I know some people say they don’t want to be reminded about the calories they’re eating when they’re out for a treat, but restaurants like Harvester, Pizza Hut and Pret who are amongst those who have made the bold move, say that most people still choose the foods they enjoy but appreciate the information because it helps them adapt their diets around their treat meal.
Personally I might use the information to help me choose a slightly lower calorie option (or I might not!) but I was surprised when some of the interviewees I spoke with suggested that some customers were deliberately choosing the highest calorie options on the menu, believing they were getting better value for money. Frankly I find that kind of attitude staggering and irresponsible (if not entirely surprising given the way vast swathes of the public seem to approach drinking), and that’s why I think government intervention is sadly probably essential.
Moving on, I want to have a quick look at how the consumption of fat can affect us. A recent report from the University of Aberdeen said that a high fat diet damaged the area of the brain responsible for the balance between the amount of food we eat and the energy we expend. It could help to explain why obese people struggle to lose weight and maintain weight loss, and it suggests that a key to weight loss is a low fat diet, rather than a calorie controlled diet.
In the research, mice fed a high fat and sugar diet were found to have changes in genes and proteins that suggested damage to the hypothalamus – the area of the brain that helps us modify our eating behaviour depending on how much energy we need.
So eating less of an unhealthy diet is not much better than eating lots of it, and rapid weight loss diets that concentrate on higher fat foods like meat and dairy won’t work. The good news is that switching to a low fat diet means the area could regenerate and speed up metabolism. The key is maintaining a healthy diet, and that means occasional unhealthy treats won’t affect your weight.
Crucially it also means that setting up healthy eating patterns in children is essential because steering them clear of high fat foods other than as a treat will ensure they don’t damage the hypothalamic region which will trigger weight gain. And of course it’s easier to maintain good eating habits than to attempt to radically alter eating patterns, as another recent report found that of the 28% of people who start a new diet each month, 45% give up after just a week and nearly 50% cave in after just a month.
A key to more successful weight loss (and 33% of those surveyed said they needed to lose two stone or more) could be to practice good habits before you embark on the diet. A study by the Stanford University Medical Centre in California found that dieters who practiced weight maintenance skills for two months without worrying about actually losing weight were far less likely to regain their pounds once the diet had stopped.
The women tried things like finding low calorie or low fat foods that still tasted good, finding ways to avoid feelings of deprivation, or using strategic weight loss before events like holidays where they’d be more likely to gain weight.
Lead author of the report Dr Michaela Kiernan was reported saying “Losing a significant amount of weight requires a lot of focused attention to what you’re doing, and most people can’t keep up that intensity over the long term. For weight maintenance, we wanted something that would make the day-to-day experience positive while not requiring overwhelming amounts of effort.”
And it worked because a year later the women who’d had the dry run before beginning the diet had re-gained only three pounds, compared with a seven pound or more gain for those who went straight to dieting.
And finally, whilst I don’t want to add to the seemingly endless list of no-nos that form the big stick with which to beat pregnant women, new research has shown that those who eat a diet high in acrylamide – a chemical found in crisps and chips – are likely to have significantly lower birth weight babies, on a level (according to researchers) with cigarette smoking. It’s a troubling – if somewhat alarmist – finding, but nevertheless serves to underline the problems with high fat diets. The lower birth weights coincided with smaller head circumference which in turn can relate to delayed neurodevelopment. So it is an important finding.
My moral to all this is that whilst many of us may feel it’s too late for us, we can still ensure better health and weight outcomes for our children by at least transferring our knowledge to give them a healthier – and lower fat – diet that will serve them (and our NHS) well going into the future.