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Anyone who has delved into current theories of nutrition has probably heard that the low-fat obsession of the last few decades has largely proved unhealthy and damaging.
The new culprit in today’s western diet is carbohydrate – more specifically, high glycemic index carbohydrate.
Of course, if you do have an inkling of any of this, you are much more informed than the average punter. You’ve either spent some time finding out, or you’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with someone who has given you good information.
And anyone who has tried to follow an eating plan based on this new thinking about the low-fat myth has probably been subjected to at best, puzzlement and at worst, ridicule and anger.
That’s because the vast majority of people still fervently believe that low-fat diets are the key to good health and weight control. A friend commented recently on a forum:
“I’m known at work for eating strange things at lunch. Yes, chicken breast, broccoli and cauliflower constitutes strange in my office where as the salesman who sits at his desk eating supernoodles on toast is considered normal.”
This struck a chord with me: in my workplace at lunchtime you can’t move for all the supernoodles, pasta, fruit and toast!
Why are low-fat diets unsuccessful?
“A low-fat diet is, by definition, a high-carbohydrate diet”
– Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories
Low-fat diets are often unsuccessful in the long run because to replace the dietary fat, people eat more carbohydrate – often highly processed, sugary carbohydrate – which causes an insulin response resulting in excess carbohydrate being stored as fat. In the long term, this excessive insulin response can also lead to diseases like Type II Diabetes.
Low-fat diets also tend to be lower in protein because many protein sources are also fat sources – meat, fish, eggs, butter and so on – and in avoiding those fat sources, protein is also lost from the diet.
Protein is vital for muscle building and cell repair. Protein, together with fat, also makes it easier to cope with a calorie-restricted diet as it is filling enough to assuage hunger for several hours.
So a low-fat diet can often be a low-protein, high-carb diet. Not a healthy combination, especially for those interested in optimal health and body composition.
But aren’t low-carb diets just as bad?
Low-anything diets are not optimal or sustainable in the long term. But there’s a difference between low-carb and reasonable-carb.
In addition, not all carbs are created equal. Carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (highly processed or sugary carbs) cause a spike in blood sugar which results in a high insulin response but a correspondingly greater fall in blood sugar not long afterwards. Not only does this make you hungry again a short time after you have eaten, but the excess sugars consumed are being stored as fat.
A lot of food that people perceive as ‘healthy’, such as pasta, rice and fruit juice, can cause this blood sugar spike. The healthiest source of carbohydrate is plants: fruit, vegetables, seeds, beans. Some fruit does have a high glycemic index but the nutritional value you get from the fruit in the form of vitamins is worth the small amount of fructose absorbed!
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
– Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food
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It is clear that there is a lot of confusion about ideal nutrition and has been for decades. And when you think about it, this leaves plenty of scope for vested interests to get involved in what people are advised to eat.
It is important to talk about these in the context of diets and food, as today’s revelations may well be tomorrow’s deceptions.
The carb pushers
During the late 20th century, food became more and more productized, convenient and cheap. Having convinced consumers that buying a food product was better than buying actual food, the food industry was well-placed to exploit any attempt by the authorities to get people to eat a certain way, by simply producing a food product that appeared to do the job.
“When the federal government began pushing low-fat diets, the scientists and administrators, and virtually everyone else involved, hoped that Americans would replace fat calories with fruits and vegetables and legumes, but it didn’t happen. If nothing else, economics worked against it. The food industry has little incentive to advertise nonproprietary items: broccoli, for instance. Instead…the great bulk of the $30-billion-plus spent yearly on food advertising goes to selling carbohydrates in the guise of fast food, sodas, snacks, and candy bars. And carbohydrates are all too often what Americans eat.”
– Gary Taubes, The Soft Science of Dietary Fat
The food industry has benefited massively from the growth in junk food consumption and – just when it seemed latterly that junk food consumption might decline – the explosion in low-fat diet products.
What’s the betting that a cornucopia of low-carb products will be coming soon to a supermarket near you? They have been pushed in the fitness and supplements industry for years but have yet to take over the shelves of the local grocery store.
The protein military complex
Otherwise known as the meat and dairy industry (thanks to Physical Subculture for the nomenclature!). If you think the carbs and cereals industry are the only baddies, think again.
“The American Heart Association realized early on that saturated fat was something that raised blood cholesterol levels…Then the advice was to eat less of the sources of saturated fat. And then you were in political trouble, because the main sources of saturated fat in American diets are meat and dairy products, and meat and dairy products have huge lobbies that don’t like the American government or heart association or any health agency telling the American public that American animal food commodities are bad for health.”
– Marion Nestle, from an interview in 2003
A recent diet promoted in Australia has come under fire because it was funded by the meat industry and has protein at the centre of the eating strategy. A critic of the diet, Dr Rosemary Stanton, points out
“It encourages this total preoccupation with protein or carbohydrates, with nutrients rather than food.”
I think that is a very useful concept to dwell on in conclusion: food not nutrients. While I don’t wish to sound too folksy (as the nutrient debate interests me), it certainly helps to take food at face value. A lot of the carbohydrate and fat in our foods is hidden in processed or productized food trumpeted as ‘healthy’ in the marketing material. But when you’re talking about broccoli or strawberries or chicken, you don’t have to worry about the ingredients list.
We can never be sure exactly what has gone into our food unless we grow or raise it ourselves, but taking an active interest in the debate is the best way to progress. People who sit back and say, “I just want to be told what to eat” are, in this politicised age, just asking to be lied to.
Sure as eggs is eggs.
Sickly sweet – an overview of sugar, insulin and the glycemic index
What if it’s all been a big fat lie? – Gary Taubes’ controversial article in the New York Times
Frontline interview with Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
Why I’m a High Carb Girl – the value and benefits of plant and legume carbohydrates by a vegan nutritionist
10 foods you probably think are healthy but aren’t – from Stronglifts.com
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