Dave Shaw

Performance nutritionist, clinical dietitian and health expert, Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: The big fat debate bungle

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There are so many mixed health messages out there, it's confusing for Kiwis, health experts say.
Photo / Thinkstock
There are so many mixed health messages out there, it's confusing for Kiwis, health experts say. Photo / Thinkstock

Did you see the Big Fat Debate last night on Third Degree? It was a showcase of where some academic minds are at in deducing the effects of saturated fat on our health. What a confusing debacle! As I watched with my friend and fellow dietitian, Jess Moulds, we were left scratching our heads wondering how the average Joe is going to pick up and use this information.

Is everyone going to go away and add more cream to their sugar filled doughnut and a heap more butter to their mashed potato? We hope not because that was not the message intended.

Have we all missed the elephant in the room?

The debate was spearheaded by Professor Grant Schofield and Dr Caryn Zinn of AUT University for the pro-saturated fat group while Professor Jim Mann of the University of Otago and Professor Rod Jackson of the University of Auckland led the anti-saturated fat group. Both presented good arguments which were convincing in their own right. However, it seemed the most important message was drowned in the noise of conflicting beliefs and the noise was amplified by Third Degree to boost ratings - this is not an effective way to increase awareness and improve the health of New Zealanders.

After a night of discussion, Jess and I were left possibly more saddened by the fact that the main outcome for New Zealand was likely a case of encouraging nutritional misdemeanour, rather than empowerment. Surely eating healthily can't be this confusing.

The main topic was on saturated fat and whether or not it is harmful. As controversial as this topic is, recent evidence has shown there is no conclusive link between saturated fat and heart disease, which can be boiled down to mean "not harmful". But Third Degree repeatedly shouted saturated fat is "good" for us. Let's get this straight, "not harmful" does not mean "good". And like any nutrient in the dietary kingdom, there is an upper limit to what we can consume. We just may be able to eat some more saturated fat than we previously thought.

Dr Caryn Zinn clearly said we can choose to have the fat on meat (saturated fat), but NOT when we eat a diet high in sugar and refined grains. This was not emphasised enough, so we'll say this again, "we can choose to have the fat on the meat but not when we eat a diet high in sugar and refined grains".

Zinn then went on to say "or we can include other fats into our diet." Amen! Yes we do agree, because when we cut down on sugary and refined foods we need to replace these calories with something else and fat - a combination of both unsaturated and saturated - can be a good way to do this. Preferably eating more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from foods like salmon and walnuts, and more monounsaturated fats from foods like olive oil and avocado.

But when the focus is on one nutrient, you simply cannot give out precise recommendations that will work for a whole population. It is not a single nutrient that makes you healthy, rather a combination of diet and lifestyle. This exact topic was brought up with Professor Rod Jackson and his reaction was priceless; a slight chuckle and declaration that yes, it's impossible to prescribe one diet that will work for everyone.

Now we've mentioned everyone, apart from Professor Jim Mann who is known as a world-wide nutritional genius. I'm sure Mann, like Schofield, Zinn and Jackson, will agree we need to reduce highly processed, highly refined, sugary foods and drinks. In fact, we can guarantee he will because that's precisely what he taught us during our years of study.

Third Degree failed to shout this, another hiccup in their juicy story. So let us shout now, "eating large amounts of poor quality carbohydrate is a main dictator of chronic disease". It's not necessarily the fat people.

So where to from here?

We all agree there is a lot of confusion around saturated fat and you can, most likely, eat more without harm, but only when you cut down on highly inflammatory sugar and refined grains. It's the interaction of nutrients you eat that will decide your health, not the nutrients themselves. We all need to remember this.

Carbohydrate foods don't have to be brushed aside with the irrational conclusion that "they're all bad". Take a deep breath and relax. Grains like quinoa, amaranth and black or brown rice, plus legumes like lentils and chickpeas are nutrient rich and can fit into a healthy diet when eaten in the right amounts. Starchy veg like kumara and potatoes can also be important in your diet. But we're not all the same and our requirements differ based on our activity levels and carbohydrate tolerance - and some of us should be eating far less than what we do now.

We need to eat more non-starchy, nutrient rich vegetables. We've known this for so long it's become boring and the focus has moved on. Let's bring the limelight back on foods like spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. Bottom line, if you want to be healthier, you need to work more of them into your lifestyle.

"Lifestyle" you say? Yes, LIFESTYLE. Any of us can eat one of multiple diets and be healthy, whether it's Paleo, vegan, low carb/high fat or high carb/low fat. To argue against this is a case of close-mindedness, not science. But it must fit within your lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle, and that's one of low stress, adequate sleep, optimal amount of exercise, some sun exposure and the development of relationships with others to create a sense of meaning and purpose in the world.

Can we all please shout this and not just whisper.

* This was co-written by Dave Shaw and Jess Moulds, both NZ registered dietitians.

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