Obsession with low fat diets risking the health of Australians

It appears that Australians are not getting the message when it comes to fat. With many Australians still following the “low-fat” mantra of healthy eating, the nation is facing a growing health risk as a result of people not getting enough of the right type of fat in their diet.

Local and international fat-intake recommendations promote replacing “bad” saturated fats that clog arteries and raise blood cholesterol levels, with “good” unsaturated fats and oils that have proven health benefits and can help to lower risk of developing heart disease1. Yet research suggests that this message is not getting through, with cardiovascular disease still the leading cause of death in Australia.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released its new Australian Dietary Guidelines yesterday, however, leading nutrition experts are calling for the Guidelines to be revised so they place greater emphasis on the need to include healthy unsaturated fats in the diet.

Nicole Senior, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist said: “The proposed guidelines tell us to eat less saturated fats, but do not place enough emphasis on the importance of replacing these with the good unsaturated fats, and in this way are not evidence based. If we don’t get the guidelines right we are missing one of the best opportunities to improve the health of Australians and we won’t get another opportunity like this for a long time”.

“Nutrition recommendations can be confusing for people, especially when it comes to fats and oils. Consuming more fruits and vegetables or less salt is straightforward, but Australians are still confused when it comes to fat. They need clear food-based advice on which fats and oils they should be eating, and how much.

“Australians need to be aware that a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean cutting out fat altogether. Dietary guidelines and nutrition advice should recommend people eat less saturated animal fats and more unsaturated fats in vegetable and plant-based oils and spreads in order to lower their risk of cardiovascular disease. And we need to be more specific rather than saying ‘small amount’, which is too vague.”

The Heart Foundation of Australia states that it is not the amount of fat eaten that is linked to the incidence of coronary heart disease but the type of fat eaten - that is, saturated fat intake vs. unsaturated fat intake2,3. 

However, this simple replacement message is not resonating with Australians. Research4,5,6 shows Australian adults and children are eating more saturated fat and less polyunsaturated fat than recommended by the National Heart Foundation of Australia.

According to Claire Hewat, CEO of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), Australians need clear guidelines on fat intake.

“The low fat message has got through, but that’s not the whole picture. The science tells us it’s not about avoiding fats altogether. We want Australians to replace saturated fat with poly- and mono-unsaturated fats and oils,’ said Ms Hewat.

And she said when it comes to weight control, one old mantra still rings true – energy (or kilojoules) ‘in’ must be less then energy ‘out’.

The challenge for many people, when it comes to putting dietary recommendations into practice, is knowing what to replace “bad” saturated fats with. Nicole Senior said: “There are some simple, but very effective, ways to follow a diet low in saturated fats, but rich in healthy unsaturated fats. For example: 

  • Cook with vegetable oils such as sunflower oil when preparing fresh meals 
  • Replace butter with margarine on your toast and sandwiches as well as when cooking and baking 
  • Choose mayonnaise and salad dressings made with polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, instead of high saturated animal-fat ingredients like cream or butter
  • Include nuts and seeds regularly, as a snack or in cooking (preferably unsalted).

” Unilever today invited health care professionals to hear the latest scientific research on fats and participate in an interactive panel discussion on current recommendations and consumer understanding of fat. The symposium, held at the University of Sydney, was presented by Unilever and hosted by the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA)*. 


About Unilever

Unilever works to create a better future every day. Our company helps people feel good, look good and get more out of life with brands and services that are good for them and good for others.

Unilever is one of the world’s leading fast-moving consumer goods companies, with strong local roots in more than 100 countries. Globally, Unilever has around 163,000 employees, and in 2009 generated annual sales of €40 billion. In Australasia, Unilever employs more than 1,600 people, and has offices and manufacturing facilities throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Unilever’s portfolio features some of the world’s best-known household names. In Australasia, our name brands include Flora, Lipton, Bushells, Dove, Rexona, Vaseline, Omo, Surf, Continental and Streets.

For more information about Unilever and its brands, please visit www.unilever.com

Unilever is the manufacturer of Flora pro-activ, Australia’s leading cholesterol lowering spread.

About DAA

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) is the professional body representing dietitians nationally. Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) is the only national credential recognised by the Australian Government, Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs and most private health funds as the quality standard for nutrition and dietetics services in Australia. For more information visit www.daa.asn.au

Note to Editors:

*Unilever is a DAA corporate partner.

*Symposium speakers included: Professor Paul Nestel (Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute, Melbourne), Professor Katrine Baghurst (formerly of the CSIRO), Ms Barbara Eden (National Heart Foundation) and Ms Nicole Senior (Accredited Practising Dietitian & Nutritionist, Professional Nutrition Services).

1. Jakobsen MU, O'Reilly EJ, Heitmann BL et al. Major types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a pooled analysis of 11 cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89(5):1425–1432.

2. National Heart Foundation of Australia, 2009. Position Statement – Dietary fats and dietary sterols for cardiovascular health.

3. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2003. Position Statement on dietary fat and overweight/obesity. Nutr Diet. 60: 174-6.

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Nutrition Survey: foods eaten. Australia 1995. ABS Cat. No. 4804.0. Commonwealth of Australia, 1999

5. Ref. [Shrapnel B, Baghurst K. Adequacy of essential fatty acid, vitamin D and vitamin E intake. Implications for the core foods and extras concept of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Nutr Diet 2007;64:78-85.]

6. Commonwealth of Australia, 2008. 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey.

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