The dietary gurus — mostly promoting one diet product or food in interests of their company rather than in the interest of your health — seem to be playing ping-pong. On one side of the table you have the “low fat” diet. On the other end you have the “low carb” diet. And the poor overweight and over wrought American is the fragile ball that is under the control of whichever fad currently has the most primetime coverage and the fanciest looking books on the shelves.
The fact is, most of what we eat is either protein, fat, or carbohydrate. Dieting is not as simple as just cutting out fats or cutting out carbohydrates. There are indeed certain foods in either category that the human race could do without, but although the exclusion of either fats or carbs may result in weight loss temporarily — or may give us a similar effect that seems like weight loss, in the long run we will usually end up right back where we started.
First, carbohydrates include the sugars, starches and cellulose. Without getting too technical, this includes all of the refined sugars, white flour, breads, pastas, and so forth as well as all of the vegetables we can eat. Carbohydrates are converted to sugar in the body for a quick burst of energy. Simple carbs — like sugars, white bread and potatoes are converted very quickly, the rate measured with a “glycemic index,” the highest index being 100. Foods with very high indexes turn to sugar within minutes. A vegetable such as sweet potatoes or green beans will have an index around 40 or so, and will thus turn to sugar much more slowly. Foods that turn to sugar quickly drive your blood sugar up, which causes your body to produce insulin. Your body then has no need to burn fat for energy because of all the readily available sugar in the bloodstream; also, the insulin which is secreted to deal with the sugar sends your body into storage mode, switching off the fat burning mode. It makes sense to limit the simple carbs that quickly become sugar, but to cut carbs to the extreme forces the body into starvation mode, driving the metabolism down and making weight loss even harder. Thus, an indiscriminately low carb diet is not the answer to weight loss.
The other extreme is the low fat diet. Many diets that cut out or extremely limit fats are high in carbohydrates — those things that turn to sugar, remember? Clinical nutritionist Carol Simontacchi refers to low-fat diets as the “politically correct, scientific-sounding, professionally marketed diet strategy that works short-term but is bound to generate diet failure sooner or later.” Like most fads, the low-fat diet contains an element of truth. Americans do eat too much fat, but the problem is, they are the wrong fats. Simontacchi points out that while people do lose weight on a low fat diet, there are health consequences, and the diet does not promote long term weight loss.
While we should avoid trans fats, we need essential fatty acids — which can only be obtained from fat. The body cannot make them, but they perform essential functions, such as: forming 80 to 90% of the membranes of our nerve cells; transmitting messages between cells; participating in the burning of food for energy production; transferring oxygen from the air into the lungs; lowering blood pressure and relaxing coronary arteries; inhibiting platelet stickiness, just to name a few. And some more obvious effects of fats are improved health of skin, hair, nails, and a healthier heart. In fact, you have to eat fat to lose fat. The fats you need are those found in fruits, raw nuts and seeds, vegetables, and animal proteins like fish, poultry and beef.
Finally, neither healthy low glycemic indexed carbs nor healthy natural fats can be blamed for today’s obesity epidemic. We are paying for the poor dietary habits of the fast food generations. Recovering our health means not only losing weight, but also providing our bodies with ALL of the nutrients that nature intended for us.