National obesity charity under fire for “irresponsible” advice

Block of butter

UK charity the National Obesity Forum has been criticised for a report which suggests eating full-fat dairy may offer protection against obesity and type 2 diabetes and that the widespread promotion of low-fat alternative foods has resulted in “disastrous” consequences to health and should be reversed.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, a senior adviser to the National Obesity Forum, says: "The change in dietary advice to promote low fat foods is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history. We must urgently change the message to the public to reverse obesity and type 2 diabetes. Eat fat to get slim, don't fear fat, fat is your friend."

Does eating fat make you fat?

The report makes a number of claims that appear to turn conventional dietary wisdom on its head, including that eating fat does not necessarily make you fat, saturated fats do not cause heart disease and the consumption of full-fat dairy products may have protective qualities. The report also argues that snacking between meals may be a leading cause of obesity, calorie counting is unnecessary and that the optimum sugar consumption for health is zero.

Cheeseburger and chips

Advice “irresponsible”

Public Health England’s chief nutritionist, Dr Alison Tedstone, brands some of the advice as “irresponsible”.  She says: “In the face of all the evidence, calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs and ignore calories is irresponsible.”

“It’s a risk to the nation’s health when potentially influential voices suggest people should eat a high fat diet, especially saturated fat. Too much saturated fat in the diet increases the risk of raised cholesterol, a route to heart disease and possible death.”

Dr Tedstone adds that current national guidelines were adopted after extensive analysis of thousands of scientific studies, whereas the NOF report cited only 43, some of which are said to be comment pieces - personal opinion - as opposed to peer-reviewed studies.

A number of other experts have also criticised the report. Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation describes the report as “full of ideas and opinion” but fails to offer the “robust and comprehensive review of evidence” required for the BHF to take it seriously.

He says: ““This country’s obesity epidemic is not caused by poor dietary guidelines; it is that we are not meeting them. Diets that are high in saturated fat have been shown to increase cholesterol. High cholesterol is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease hence why current recommendations emphasise the importance of reducing this.

Blood pressure test and medication

“Confusion and fear amongst the public”

Dr Knapton adds: “Heart disease is a multifactorial condition with a range of risk factors and any dietary and lifestyle advice worth noting should consider the overall impact that our diet and lifestyle has on our health. Focusing on single foods, nutrients or risk factors is short sighted and will perpetuate confusion and fear amongst the public about what they should and shouldn’t eat to protect their heart health.”

Fruit and vegetables

Current guidelines ensure “adequate intake of nutrients”

Professor Tom Sanders, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London says that “dietary guidelines are designed to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients as well as to prevent dietary related disease”. He says the report “wrongly attributes the current obesity/diabetes epidemic to current dietary guidelines” and also fails to recognise that a primary driver for obesity is “our obesogenic environment”. He explains: “The truth is, most people now live in metropolitan areas, spend much time travelling to and from work and eat much more food outside the home. Food is also more widely available, 24 hours a day, portions sizes are bigger and people are less active because of sedentary occupations (especially sitting in front of a computer) and the increased use of the car.

“The harsh criticism of current dietary guidelines meted out in this report is not justified as few people (~5%) adhere to these guidelines anyway.  There is also good evidence that those that do follow the guidelines have less weight gain and better health outcomes.”

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