Fatty foods such as cheese, butter, and cream are often considered culprits of heart disease – but according to a new study, a diet high in saturated fat could in fact bring significant health benefits.
Eating more naturally high-fat foods while limiting the amount of carbohydrates consumed did not cause an increase in harmful cholesterol, researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway found.
Simon Dankel, who led the study, told The Independent the research showed the human body “can do perfectly well with fats as its main energy source.”
“People will say: ‘you can’t lose weight, you can’t go on any diets with saturated fats, no matter what’,” said Dr Dankel.
“But in this context, we see a very positive metabolic response. You can base your energy in your diet on either on carbohydrates or fat. It doesn’t make a big difference.”
NHS guidelines advise people to eat less saturated fat, because a diet high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in the blood. Men are recommend men eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day, and women no more than 20g.
Around 40 obese men took part in the study, which Dr Dankel said was more strictly controlled and therefore more reliable than previous research into low-carb diets.
Half were given a strict low-fat, high-carb diet, while the others ate fewer carbohydrates but doubled their intake of saturated fats, with 24 per cent of their entire energy intake for one day coming from butter alone.
“We emphasized dairy fats especially. The people were eating cream and butter, and some coconut oil,” said Dr Dankel, who stressed the diet didn’t include processed fats found in junk food.
Both groups ate plenty of vegetables and neither exceeded an intake of 2100 calories a day.
By the end of the study, both groups had lost an average of 12kg, most of which was body fat, lowering their risk of obesity-related diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Dr Dankel said the new research questioned “the alleged strong adverse effect of saturated fats on health, which hadn’t been tested as directly before”.
“It’s not the fat per se, or on its own, that’s driving a negative health response. You can have just as good a health benefit on this high-fat diet as a low-fat diet in this context,” he said.
The research could help to explain the so-called ‘French paradox’, in which low rates of heart disease in France occurs alongside diets relatively rich in saturated fats.
Reduced-fat foods have become popular in the last few decades, said Dr Dankel, but manufacturers have “added sugar to replace the tasty fats”.
“Many people would say this has been a major experiment to our diet. During this time we’ve had the most increase in obesity and related diseases.”