Damn your low fat diet: How a reformed vegan gorges on all the foods his granny enjoyed... and has never felt better
As the kitchen filled with the smell of caramelised meat, my mouth watered in anticipation of the coming feast: a thick cut of tender steak, fried in butter and olive oil. This was not a regular treat. In fact, for the previous 26 years I’d been a vegan, eschewing not just meat but all animal products.
My diet was an extreme version of the NHS Eat Well regime, which recommends lots of starchy foods and smaller quantities of saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar and red meat.
According to government advice, I was doing everything right — and yet my health had never been worse. My weight had crept up over the years, until in 2008 I was 14½ stone [203lb] — which is a lot of blubber for someone who is 5ft 10in — and was classified as clinically obese.
I waddled around, sweating and short of breath, battling extremely high cholesterol and suffering from chronic indigestion. I was always tired and needed to take naps every afternoon. I had constant headaches and swallowed paracetamol and sucked Rennies like they were sweets.
Worst of all, I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which left me feeling as if I had lead weights in my gut. My belly was bloated and distended after every meal. I was, to use a technical term, knackered.
But that was about to change. In 2010, I decided to give up my supposedly healthy lifestyle and embrace good old-fashioned meat.
From that day on, I ate red meat four or five days a week. I gobbled the fat on chops, chicken skin and pork crackling. I feasted on everything we’re told to avoid. The effects were instant.
Twenty-four hours after eating meat again, all my IBS symptoms had gone. As the weeks and months passed, every aspect of my health improved dramatically. I became leaner, shedding body fat and becoming stronger and fitter. My headaches went away, never to return. Even my libido increased.
It felt like being young again, like coming back to life. But though I felt energised, I was also furious. Furious with myself for sticking to the ‘healthy’ eating advice, which was actually far from a sensible diet. But also furious with the so-called experts who have been peddling this low-fat, high-carbohydrate claptrap for so long that no one thinks to question it.
My maternal grandmother would certainly have challenged it. Like my grandfather, she was born into a poor family in East Yorkshire at the turn of the century and their eating regime was simple: meat and at least two vegetables at every meal, lots of butter and full-cream milk (they would have scorned yogurt as little more than ‘off’ milk), bread, potatoes, cake and puddings.
Nothing would have swayed them from that lifestyle. Had a low-fat diet been suggested by a doctor, Gran would have told him to his face that it was all rubbish and that you needed fat to ‘keep the cold out’.
If she could have seen people buying skimmed milk today, she would have thought they had lost their minds. Getting rid of the best bit of milk? Lunacy.
Late in her life, I recall her scorning the advice on limiting the consumption of eggs because of concerns about cholesterol. On one occasion, she watched in astonishment as a celebrity TV chef made an egg-white omelette. ‘He’s a bloody fool, that man,’ she said.
She was right to be sceptical, it turns out. For years the authorities told us cholesterol-rich foods would kill us — but we’ve since learned that is utter drivel.
While Ancel Keys, the scientist whose research in the Fifties first raised concerns about cholesterol levels, suggested that heart disease was linked to large amounts of cholesterol in the blood, he never claimed those levels were linked to the amount of cholesterol we eat.
‘There’s no connection whatsoever between cholesterol in food and cholesterol in blood,’ he said in a magazine article in 1997. ‘And we’ve known that all along.’
Since then, the NHS’s paranoia about cholesterol in food has been replaced by concerns about saturated fat — found in everything from butter, cheese and cream to pies, cakes and biscuits.
They suggest saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. But this is open to debate. France has the lowest rate of death from coronary heart disease in Europe, yet the country has the highest consumption of saturated fats.
Gran survived into her 80s and Grandad into his 70s, despite labouring down the pit his whole working life. Did they achieve this by gobbling low-fat spreads, soya oil or skimmed milk? No, they lived on old-fashioned foods such as butter, lard and beef fat. Indeed, a growing body of opinion suggests that the factory-made products that have replaced these staples — vegetable oils, polyunsaturated margarine and spreads — are the real cause of the degenerative diseases that are so common today.
Findings by the Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit-making research organisation in America, show most cases of heart attack in the 20th century were of a hitherto little-known form known as myocardial infarction (MI) — a huge blood clot leading to the obstruction of a coronary artery.
MI was almost non-existent in the U.S. in 1910 and was causing no more than 3,000 deaths a year by 1930. However, by 1960, there were at least 500,000 MI deaths a year across the country. It surely can’t be a coincidence that this happened as the U.S. embraced a new diet based on increasingly large portions of highly processed foods and vegetable oils?
Similar changes in the national diet took place in Britain during the early years of my life and I can’t help wondering whether my father might still be alive today if it had not been for this shift.
I grew up in the North-East during the Sixties and had no idea about ‘healthy eating’. Those few people who did fret about their diet were thought of as fussy.
No one thought food was a problem, unless the chip shop ran out of battered sausage on a Friday. We ate suet puddings every week, our bacon and eggs were fried in lard, milk was full-fat — I’m not sure skimmed milk even existed in the Sixties — and we ate eggs every day.
Then, in the Seventies, things changed. We got wealthier and food became cheaper. Mam began buying more cakes and confectionery instead of home-baking. We ate more shop-bought food in general.
She also stopped using lard in the chip pan, opting for Spry Crisp ’n Dry instead. Gran wasn’t pleased. She thought vegetable oil was a new-fangled fad — it was, and that was precisely why Mam liked it. She saw it as moving on, modern and fashionable.
Hope for Hep C vaccine
Hepatitis C is mostly a disease of druggies so there is already a good way to avoid it -- stick to legal highs
The disease has caused a 'silent epidemic' in western countries. Figures published yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed more people died as a result of Hepatitis C than from Aids in the U.S in 2007. 'One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection,' said CDC's Dr John Ward.
Left untreated it can cause scarring of the liver and ultimately to life-threatening cirrhosis. The U.S figures revealed there were 15,000 deaths related to the condition in 2007 - three-quarters of whom were middle aged.
The condition is unpredictable - while some may live with the condition their whole lives with only mild symptoms, others can develop serious liver disease even with treatment.
There is currently no vaccine in use to prevent infection in the first place. But, speaking at the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Summit in Vancouver yesterday, Dr Houghton revealed his team is just five years away from creating a useable vaccine.
Dr Houghton and his co-investigator John Law discovered that they could use a single strain of the virus to draw out broad cross-neutralising antibodies against all the different major strains. 'This tells us that a vaccine made from a single strain can indeed neutralize all the viruses out there,' he said.
'It really encourages the further development of that vaccine. This is a really a big step forward for the field of HCV vaccinology.'
Hundreds of thousands of people are infected with hepatitis C annually around the world, with between 20 to 30 per cent developing some form liver disease.
However, Dr Houghton cautions that further testing is required, meaning that it may be five to seven years before the vaccine receives approval.
He added that while it may make some difference in those currently suffering from hepatitis C, the vaccine will mainly be a preventative measure against acquiring the disease.
Lorne Tyrrell, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute at the University of Alberta, said: 'We have a long way to go, but this is a great step.'