REMEMBER when chips were deep-fried in lard? When suet gave puddings a silky fullness and vegetables were served with lashings of butter?
For decades, health authorities have urged us to replace these ''bad'' animal fats with the ''good'' fats found in vegetable oils, to avoid heart disease. But some say such advice is killing us.
''There is no real evidence to show that saturated fats, found mainly in animal fats, cause heart disease,'' says David Gillespie, author of the polemical book Big Fat Lies.
AdvertisementGillespie has no medical training but his work has been embraced by followers of new diets such as the ''paleo'' and ''primal'' diets. They hold that the key to good health is eating more like our ancestors - eschewing sugar and manufactured oils and embracing meat and natural fats.
Medical doctors are also among Gillespie's followers, including Melbourne anaesthetist Rod Tayler, who says he lost 11 kilograms in two years by following a more ''traditional'' diet, low in carbs and higher in saturated animal fats.
''I'm with Gillespie; I don't see that there is any problem with animal fat - we've been eating it for the past 3 million years as we've evolved,'' says Dr Tayler, whose daily breakfast is a three-egg omelet with cheese and butter, lardy bacon and yoghurt topped with cream and nuts.
''Since I've been eating this way my good cholesterol is up and my bad cholesterol is down.''
Australian nutrition academics say such diets are dangerous and Gillespie's conclusions are specious. ''He is a purveyor of 'big fat lies','' says Dr Jennie Brand-Miller, creator of the ground-breaking ''glycaemic index'' to treat and prevent diabetes.
''We know that replacing saturated fats with sugar, as they do in low-fat yoghurts, is bad … But that is not to say you shouldn't try to reduce your saturated fat intake and replace it with polyunsaturated fats.''
A former corporate lawyer, Gillespie buttresses his arguments with evidence from dozens of recent scientific studies, including a 2010 American analysis of past ''population'' studies, capturing a cohort of 350,000 people. It found ''no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk [of heart disease]''.
Gillespie also cites several less comprehensive studies, including one in 1996 of Jewish Israelis, whose kosher diets are high in polyunsaturated fats and who have some of the world's highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
''All this suggests that the Dietary Guidelines for Australians, which tell us to avoid animal fat and consume lots of polyunsaturated oils, are actually a recipe for heart disease,'' he says. But nutrition expert Professor Peter Clifton, who co-wrote the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, says Gillespie has cherry-picked evidence.
''His ideas are certainly gaining prominence but they're completely wrong,'' says Professor Clifton, who cites a later, more detailed American study that concluded swapping saturated for polyunsaturated fat meant a 10 per cent reduction in heart disease rates.
He also rejects the Israeli example, saying other lifestyle factors there promote heart disease.
However, different polyunsaturated fats have different effects, says Anastasia Boulais, a Port Macquarie hospital intern with an interest in ''ancestral health''.
''Omega-3, found mainly in fish, is good for us,'' says Dr Boulais. But she says a 2010 study found participants with a higher intake of omega-6 (found in vegetable oils) had an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
While the debate continues, the push towards low-carb, higher-fat diets is gaining pace. Pro-fat cookbook author Christine Cronau this year published The Fat Revolution, with the tag line: ''Why butter and real fats actually make us slim.'' In Melbourne, Palate restaurant in Prahran offers a ''paleo'' menu featuring full-fat dairy and meat, and there are scores of lard-loving, paleo-oriented gyms and clubs.
As the British-born chef at the fat-friendly Duchess of Spotswood says, animal fat never fell out of favour in some quarters. ''It's just honest food,'' says Andrew Gale, whose signature dishes include steak for two, sealed in dripping. ''If you can render fat and use it - duck fat, chicken fat, kidneys, suet or whatever - it keeps your costs down and it's bloody delicious.''
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