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Eating fat not fattening { September 22 2003 }

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Uproar at claim that fat is not fattening
By Julie Robotham Medical Reporter
September 22, 2003

The amount of fat people consume makes little, if any, difference to their chance of becoming overweight, according to controversial new guidelines from the National Heart Foundation.

But a leading expert has condemned the guidelines as unrealistic and "blinded by science".

The Heart Foundation had already acknowledged a strong link between heart disease and saturated fats, mostly from animal sources. But until now it had no clear position on whether overall fat intake can also cause heart disease by promoting unhealthy weight gain - which itself increases the chances of developing many cardiovascular diseases.

The new assessment concluded that "dietary fat was not an independent risk factor for the development and progression of overweight and obesity".

Instead, they state, it is the energy density of food - the number of calories for the weight of the portion - that makes the difference to whether it will cause the eater to stack on excessive kilos.

The statement acknowledged fatty foods may be more likely to have a high calorie count for their size. But it said the taste of food, the form in which it is served and portion size - and an individual's food habits and genetic make-up - were just as likely to influence total calorie consumption.

There is nothing inherent in fat that increases the risk of weight gain, according to the guidelines, published in the Australian journal Nutrition and Dietetics.

"Overall, the effect of dietary fat was small compared to other risk factors for overweight and obesity, such as physical activity level," it said.

But Tim Gill, director of the NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Sydney, said fatty food did increase the likelihood of putting on weight, and he feared the guidelines might undermine weight-control initiatives.

"If this statement had been prepared and released by any other organisation then it may soon be forgotten," Dr Gill wrote in an editorial in the same journal. "However the National Heart Foundation of Australia has tremendous respect and leverage within community and political dimensions."

Dr Gill said the guidelines were at odds with official dietary advice from the National Health and Medical Research Council for healthy adults as well as the overweight and people with diabetes.

He said reducing fat was a good way of reducing total calories, and fatty food contributed to being overweight because - unlike protein and carbohydrate - it did not make people feel full, meaning they were likely to consume more at a sitting.

The research on which the Heart Foundation had based its conclusions, Dr Gill said, was not relevant to real food choices.

"Policymakers must take care that they are not blinded by science to the realities of the prevailing food environment," Dr Gill wrote.

"Researchers are often required to conduct their experiments under totally artificial situations and deliberately manipulate the composition of foods, which creates a situation where the physical and food environment bears little resemblance to the real world."

He went on: "From a policy perspective it is not important whether the effects of dietary fat on weight gain are mediated through energy density or other mechanisms.

"The more important question is whether dietary fat intake contributes to weight gain and whether reducing total dietary fat assists weight loss and the prevention of weight gain."

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