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'Three doctors recently claimed saturated fat doesn't clog arteries. Their claim doesn't stand up'

Scientific studies vary hugely in quality, writes dietitian Janis Morrissey.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER diet controversy in the news.

Frequently in recent years we’ve heard competing reports of how saturated fat may or may not be causing heart disease. In the era of fake news it’s no wonder that the public is confused.

Who could blame people for switching off from official guidelines when it seems like those who are meant to be “in the know” can’t even agree on how one nutrient affects our health?

The latest controversy started with the publication of an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by three doctors. They boldly declared that “saturated fat does not clog arteries” and that the answer to avoiding heart disease was in fact to eat “real food”, exercise more and not get stressed. Simple. Or is it?

Do these claims stand up?

These headline-grabbing claims certainly caught people’s attention but do they stand up?

While promoted in some quarters as “new research” the article was actually an opinion piece containing no new evidence. Opinion does not equal fact.

The handful of studies referenced in the article were cherry picked to support the authors’ view and have already been debunked by trustworthy bodies several times. The claims being made are actually misleading and just add to the confusion in people’s minds.

To complicate matters, not all evidence is created equally. The studies included in the article were generally of a poor standard. While realising that most people are not scientists, it’s helpful to realise that scientific studies vary hugely in quality. We can all appreciate that research in lab rats for a week or two may not directly translate to us humans.

Nutrition research is particularly complex

shutterstock_228602452 Shutterstock / Anna Hoychuk Shutterstock / Anna Hoychuk / Anna Hoychuk

However, nutrition research is really complex for lots of reasons. We don’t eat nutrients on their own but as part of a package in food so it’s hard to tease out exactly which nutrient has a certain effect.

Also, we’re looking at people’s dietary behaviour and unsurprisingly, no matter how well research is designed, participants in these studies don’t always tell the truth (or at least the whole truth).

Top quality studies of tens of thousands of people worldwide over decades have proven the link between diets high in saturated fat and high levels of blood cholesterol. They have also clearly shown that high blood cholesterol levels significantly increase our risk of heart disease.

What even is “real food”?

So, what about the call to eat “real food”? On the surface it may sound like sensible advice. But what is real food? There is no definition. It implies that there are also “fake foods”.

Is fruit “real” but cake is “fake”? This description is really unhelpful and feeds into the current trend for clean eating, vilifying certain foods or nutrients while holding others aloft as symbols of virtue.

This message judges people for the foods they choose but in fact all food choices are valid. Food is about so much more than nutrition. We eat it not just for fuel but for pleasure, and for social, cultural and emotional reasons too.

Food and nutrition guidelines need to be grounded in robust science but also in the context of a positive healthy relationship with food and our bodies.

Janis Morrissey is a registered dietitian and has an Honours BSc in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from DIT Kevin St/Trinity College Dublin and a MSc in European Food Regulatory Affairs from the University of Ulster. She is a member and past president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, the professional body for dietitians.  She is Head of Health Promotion and Community Presence with Irish Heart.

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