This was the fortnight when everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily was turned on its head. First, a damning new study in the British Medical Journal showed that — after all we have been told to the contrary — saturated fat is good for you. Far from being the great risk to our health and hearts, it turns out that most people who eat butter, milk, cream and full- fat yoghurts generally have better heart health, less risk of Type 2 diabetes, and are even slimmer than those who eat fat- free... Now experts are saying instead that carbohydrates are the real killer… So what can we safely eat these days? And what had we better avoid? Here, the experts give their " definitive" verdict...
What the line has been: Avoid butter at all costs and replace with low- fat polyunsaturated spreads.
What we now know: Butter can be good for you in small amounts. " We used to think that if you ate saturated fat, it raised your cholesterol levels," says Dr Michael Mosley, the science journalist.
" It turns out that dairy fats don't work like that in your bloodstream."
Recommended amount: A moderate amount, which may even do you good.
What the line has been: Eggs are full of cholesterol.
What we now know: Eggs are good for you and have no link to health problems.
" Dietary cholesterol does not increase cholesterol levels in the blood," says Mel Wakeman, a senior lecturer in nutrition at Birmingham City University in the UK. " Eggs are full of nutrients and vitamins... They contain protein, so will also keep you fuller for longer."
Recommended amount: You can eat eggs three or four times a week.
What the line has been: Better to drink semi- skimmed or skimmed.
What we now know: Full- fat milk contains a lot of healthy fats and is just as good for you — if not better than reduced- fat versions. " Just because a food is fatty doesn't mean it's bad for you, as there are different types of fat," says Wakeman.
Recommended amount: Up to half a pint of full- fat milk a day.
What the line has been: Olive oil is key to better health.
What we now know: Olive oil is fine on salads but is carcinogenic when heated and should not be used for frying. " For frying, I recommend rapeseed oil, which has similar nutritional benefits, but has a high smoke point," says Dr Glenys Jones, a nutritionist.
Recommended amount: A tablespoon a day.
What the line has been: Carbohydrates should make up 50 per cent of your food intake.
What the line is now: Brown carbohydrates are good, but white are deadly.
" I'm a big supporter of carbohydrates," says Wakeman, " but they must be wholegrain.
White spaghetti, bread and rice are not our friends…"
Recommended amount: Wholegrain carbohydrates should make up 50 per cent of your food.
What the line has been: A small amount of alcohol, particularly red wine, is good for the heart.
What we now know: The benefits of drinking have been over- stated. " It's certainly good for post- menopausal women because red wine makes the blood less sticky and so lowers the risk of heart disease," says Wakeman. " In younger women, however, the research shows that there is an indisputable connection between levels of alcohol intake and breast cancer."
Recommended amount: A small glass of red a day is probably fine, with a couple of days off a week.
What the line has been: Stick to the low- fat variety.
What the line is now: Full- fat may be better. " There is now strong evidence that eating full- fat yogurt is likely to cut your risk of heart disease and diabetes, and is associated with effective weight loss in a way that eating low- fat yogurt isn't," says Dr Mosley.
Recommended amount: Switch to fullfat and you may eat regularly if you like.
What the line has been: There is no such thing as a superfood.
What the line is now: … Certain foods — mostly fruits and vegetables — are extraordinarily nutrient- dense. " Watercress, beetroot and spinach, for example, all seem to deliver a record number of vitamins and micro- nutrients," says Dr Mosley.
Recommended amount: As much as you like.
What the line has been: Fruit juice is good for you.
What we now know: Many commercial fruit juices contain unhealthy amounts of sugar, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons per glassful. " Many fruit juices have a similar sugar content to Coca- Cola," says Dr Mosley.
Recommended amount: Making your own is better but it's a treat, not a health drink.
What the line has been: Red meat is bad for you.
What the line is now: Red meat from grass- fed animals can be good for you. " If you look at American studies, there does seem to be evidence of a small increase of risk to your heart from eating red meat, but when you look at similar studies from Europe there is no link," says Dr Mosley. " This is probably because American meat is reared on concrete lots, fed corn and given a lot of antibiotics and growth hormones, whereas beef in Europe is often fed on grass and hasn't been pumped full of all the bad stuff."
Recommended amount: 100g three or four times a week is fine.
What the line has been: Bread is good for you.
What the line is now: Only wholegrain breads are good for you. " Always make sure you are eating bread made from wholemeal flour," says Wakeman. " Lots of healthy- looking artisan breads are made with white flour, so always read the label."
Recommended amount: Two to four slices a day is fine.
What the line has been: Chocolate is bad for you.
What we now know: Dark chocolate is good for the heart. " Research now conclusively shows a link to eating small amounts of dark chocolate and lowered blood pressure," says Wakeman. " But milk chocolate is… just fat and sugar with very little cocoa in it."
Recommended amount: Two squares of 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate a day.
Dietary advice tastes so much better with a pinch of salt
Food guidelines that we take as gospel are turning out to be guff. Now it transpires the evidence against salt is decidedly shaky, writes OLIVER THRING Butter is back. Last fortnight a major study found that the longstanding official advice in the UK, which said animal fats were bad for us, was wrong.
You will have noticed that we have not been getting slimmer. Rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have soared among the past generation. The authors of the recent study said it was " incomprehensible" that these guidelines had been handed to the public, " given the contrary results from a small number of unhealthy men". Several other specific government food targets — however well intentioned — contain a modicum of guesswork.
" Five- a- day, 14- 21 alcohol units a week, 20- 30g of saturated fat, 18g of fibre: none of these targets has any precise evidence for them," Zoe Harcombe, who co- authored the study, has written.
One of the most staunchly held truisms of modern nutrition is that salt is bad for you. " Salt: the facts", begins a taxpayer- funded website. " Many of us in the UK eat too much salt," it affirms.
" Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke. Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure." It adds that we should eat " no more than 6g of salt per day". " Why six?" asks Harcombe. " I have no idea and nor does the NHS. Why not seven? Why not five? Why have a target at all?" The evidence that salt causes high blood pressure is decidedly shaky and has been repeatedly called into doubt.
It rests for the most part on a couple of not especially recent or thorough trials. In the 1970s a Long Island scientist induced high blood pressure in rats by feeding them sodium that equated to a human eating 2,500g of salt a day. ( Most of us eat around 8.5g of salt a day, or about 1.5 teaspoons.) In 1997 another study was held, ostensibly looking into whether a lowsalt diet could control high blood pressure.
Its participants followed a diet that not only featured minimal salt but also contained fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein and whole grains; it was low in saturated fat and, perhaps most crucially, contained little sugar.
Unsurprisingly, rates of high blood pressure in the group were lower than in the general population. But a lack of salt could not be isolated as the reason behind this. More than that, the lowsalt group had higher rates of bad cholesterol, leading some researchers to call the results " one- sided".
In contrast, the evidence that salt has a negligible effect on blood pressure — at least in most people — is now considerable. In January an international study, which followed more than 1,50,000 people across five continents, found that consuming less than 3g of sodium a day — or about 7.5g of salt — was associated with a 27 per cent increase in cardiovascular disease and death. Eating between 3g and 6g of sodium, which is roughly the amount we normally eat, was associated with a lower rate of heart disease, while consuming more than 7g ( about 18g of salt, or almost three times the UK average) was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and death.
This study has been buttressed by at least 10 others during the past 30 years, collectively following hundreds of thousands of people.
These studies have repeatedly found that low- sodium diets — the same that you are exhorted to follow when you read websites such as " Salt: the facts" — could be more likely to kill you than simply eating the amount of salt that tastes right. We seek out foods that contain salt because without it we die.
" Restricting sodium in the diet to prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease is the greatest con in preventative nutrition and medicine," says James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and an associate editor of the British Medical Journal 's online publication Open Heart .
He adds: " Low sodium stresses the heart. This increases the risk of atherosclerosis, heart failure and hypertension… Restricting sodium is also associated with increased mortality, worsened cognition and gait, increased risk of falling and subsequent fractures, and worsened thyroid function — just to name a few." Despite decades of instructions exhorting people to cut down on the amount of salt they eat, the actual rates of salt consumption in developed countries are thought to have been relatively stable since the Industrial Revolution.
Put simply: people are ignoring the advice not to eat more salt.
Sonia Pombo is a campaign co- ordinator and a graduate in nutrition who works at the Consensus Action on Salt and Health pressure group. She says those studies that fail to show a link between blood pressure and sodium are " limited and methodologically flawed". She adds: " It is evident that salt, in the amounts we eat, is a direct toxin that puts up our blood pressure, which is the biggest cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure and is the commonest cause of death and disability in the UK." " A ' direct toxin'?" says DiNicolantonio. "
Salt is an essential micronutrient that our body can retain or excrete to maintain the perfect amount. The less sodium we eat, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it." I ask Harcombe whether, after butter and possibly salt, any other foods might be ready for rehabilitation.
" Eggs, certainly," she says. " The evidence shows that eating cholesterol has no effect on the cholesterol in our own bodies — the American guidelines were just updated to reflect that." Harcombe also believes that milk, lard and red meat are due to come back into favour. " The media often lump red meat with processed meat as equally likely to cause bowel cancer. The former is one of the most nutritious things on the planet; the latter is probably toxic," she says.