the joy of strength training


October 1st, 2008 at 12:10 am

The low-fat myth

low fat lunch
Photo by malias

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

baby vegetables
Photo by tobo

Vested interests

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.

Further reading

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

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  • 1


    Nice Article! I’d like to add one book to your reference list. Sweet Poison (just released by Penguin) narrows the culprit down to just one carbohydrate … fructose. The book summarises and compares the evidence for and against the fat myth and its close companion the exercise myth as well as taking a look at all the recent research on fructose and its methods of destruction.


    David Gillespie on October 1st, 2008
  • 2

    …and it’s written by you! Since it’s relevant to the article I’ll give you the blatant plug 😉
    Perhaps you would like to expand on your comments? I mean, why pick on fructose?

    gubernatrix on October 1st, 2008
  • 3

    Pollan’s ‘In Defense of Food’ starts with the line “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Frankly none of the 220,000 diet/nutrition books on Amazon can sum it up better than that.

    Chip on October 1st, 2008
  • 4

    Yes, it’s a brilliant quote. One of the inspirations for this post.

    I remember reading a line (possibly by the same chap) about not eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.

    gubernatrix on October 1st, 2008
  • 5

    Have you ever had indian clarified butter known as ‘ghee’? From a traditional point of view the concept and role of ghee in all major indian religions -hindu, sikh etc- has been an important one. It has been considered as one of the five ‘amrits’ or divine foods/substances. In addition, traditional indian wrestlers include it as a main ingredient in their diet. And though since two decades or so any kind of fat has been discredited in media, slowly and slowly even doctors are realising benefits of ghee.

    I am a great believer and respectful of thoughts of ancient people. I think clarified butter helps in recovery as well as smooth digestive functioning.

    thedistracted1 on October 2nd, 2008
  • 6

    Hi Gobi,

    Very well written article, with which I agree 90%. I would strongly suggest whole wheat bread, and all the healthy fats eg olive oil, fat fish, nuts.
    An excellent non fiction book is Eat, drink and be healthy, from Walter Willet.
    My line of thinking: Food is not chemical substances but valuable nutrients! So it is not only carbo, fat, protein, but bread, oil, fish ….

    Demetre on October 2nd, 2008
  • 7

    @ thedistracted1: very interesting, I did not know that about ghee! I will have to look into that as I currently cook with olive oil but I recently discovered that it is not great for cooking as it has a relatively low smoke point.

    @ Demetre: Good point, it is important not to get hung up on macronutrients and remember that real food provides all sorts of goodness – possibly even things we don’t yet know about!

    gubernatrix on October 2nd, 2008
  • 8

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  • 11

    Hello there! I found your site while I was looking for information on indoor rowers, and I’m glad to have found this post after reading your rowing post. I’m doing a book report for my grad class on Good Calories, Bad Calories. I’m so glad you mentioned him in this post. That quote pretty much sums up the premise of his book. Anyway, great site and I’ll be back!


    Jay on October 14th, 2008
  • 12

    @ Jay: So glad you like the site! Re: Gary Taubes, there is a video of him giving a lecture here:

    It’s long, but he’s an engaging speaker. If you are already familiar with his work, though, you might want to skip the first half hour!

    gubernatrix on October 14th, 2008
  • 13

    I am a nutritionist with a female client who wishes to gain weight but all she seems to gain is muscle and she wishes to enhance her femininity with larger hips, bum, breasts rather than ending up looking like Madonna. Any ideas?

    Robert on August 11th, 2010
  • 14

    Interesting issue Robert – so many things to say here (but will try to keep it concise!)

    Her femininity is what she decides it is, not what other people say it is. It sounds like she really needs more confidence in and love for her own body and some different role models.

    There are many famous ladies out there who have very small breasts and narrow hips but who look fantastic and very feminine. Jessica Ennis ( is the obvious British poster girl for the glamorous athletic look. Or how about Keira Knightley, who in this picture, without any help from corsets or push up bras, shows her real slim-hipped, small-breasted but still feminine self:

    Here’s the reality about the body parts you mentioned:

    Breasts are just fat, so their size has a lot to do with your overall bodyfat levels and genetics. There’s nothing you can do to make *just* your breasts grow (apart from surgery).

    Hip width is a function of skeletal structure so again there’s not much you can do other than pile the fat on. However, the body puts fat on where it wants to put fat on – if you get fatter, there’s no guarantee that it will go to the hips. It might go to the abdomen instead and give you a big gut without making any difference to your hips.

    Bum is a different matter. The bum is full of muscle and can be trained to be bigger and firmer. Hurrah, good news at last! Squats (full depth) are the best exercise for the bum out there IMO.

    So now to your client:

    Is she training like a bodybuilder? Is she doing bodypart splits, 3 sets of 10? If she trains like a bodybuilder and eats like a bodybuilder she shouldn’t be too suprised if she ends up looking like a bodybuilder.

    I would recommend training for strength (not size) by doing compound exercises such as squat, deadlift, pull-up, using low reps – sets of 3 or 5. A basic barbell programme ( like Starting Strength or Stronglifts would give her strength and would build up her bum nicely. She will probably put on a bit of muscle if she is an easy gainer but she will *not* end up looking like Madonna.

    At the same time that your client is strength training, she should be eating a calorie surplus to put on more weight but monitor where it is going on.

    You might want to point her towards my post on femininity and muscle ( where I talk about this whole issue. This is much healthier than dwelling on paparazzi images of Madonna!

    So to summarise, here’s what she can realistically do:
    – put on some body fat all over (it’s not possible to control where it goes) with your nutritional guidance
    – build a nice firm bum with strength training (squats!)
    – get stronger and more athletic
    – look fantastic whatever size she is!

    gubernatrix on August 11th, 2010
  • 15

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  • 16

    I have studied health and nutrition for a few years. The low fat myth is interesting. What is considered “low fat” is NOT. And it is hard to turn carbs to fat. You have to overeat them. Work by Dean Ornish, Nathan Pritikin, John McDougall, Caldwell Esselstyn, Hans Diehl to name a few have shown that, not only can a low fat diet, less than 15% fat calorie, and less than 10% if you have disease, will not only prevent, but will arrest and reverse many of our western diseases. I’m an emergency physician, but for the last 7 years I have studied this in great detail. My wife and I do a 4 week lifestyle class ( we volunteer our time for no pay). We basically put them on a very low fat, plant based diet. The diet is starch centered. It consists of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit. That’s it. A very high, complex carb diet. Even white potatoes are allowed. On this diet, all pre-diabetics are “cured”, 50% of the diabetics are off all meeds, 100% off insulin, huge wt loss without hunger or counting calories or portion sizes. And remember, we only need 5% of our calories from protein, pregnant women 6%, and lactating women 7%. If you get your calories you will easily get 12-15% from protein. As an endurance athlete, I do well, and when I’m between races and strength train, I quickly put on muscle mass, without supplements. Enough said for now.

    Larry on December 22nd, 2010
  • 17

    Interesting feedback, thanks Larry!

    gubernatrix on December 22nd, 2010
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