Low Carb vs Low Fat? It’s Better To Focus On FOOD

Focus on FOOD, not “low carb” or “low fat.”

DON’T BE FOOLED by labels like “low-carb” and “low-fat.” 

You can have, for example, a low-fat diet that’s very healthy – one that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes like beans and peas, nonfat dairy foods, seafood, and lean meat, like the Pritikin Eating Plan. 

Or you can have a “low fat” diet that’s very unhealthy, packed with fat-free cookies and chips and other highly processed, highly refined snack foods that are dense with sugar, hyperprocessed refined flours, and calories.  Low-fat, yes, but very high in calories – and very fattening.

A recent study from Israel amplifies just how confusing — and misleading — low carb vs low fat labels can be.

It involved 322  obese people, mostly male, who were randomly assigned to supposedly follow one  of three diets – low-carb, Mediterranean, and  low-fat.  The authors concluded that the  “Mediterranean and low-carbohydrate diets may  be effective alternatives to low-fat diets.”   After two years, net weight loss from the low-fat diet was seven pounds;  from the Mediterranean diet, 10 pounds; and from the low-carb diet, 10 pounds,  which is not a very effective amount of weight loss considering the length of  the study.

In this study, the “low-carb” diet should NEVER have been labeled a “low-carb” diet because for many Americans “low-carb” means “Atkins-style,” which means butter, cheese, and red meat.  But in this study, a low-carb diet emphasized fats from vegetables, NOT meat.  The low-carb dieters were eating a lot of vegetables and seafood, NOT cheeseburgers without the buns.  (The study, by the way, was funded by the Atkins foundation.)

Low fat?  Not.

It’s also important to stress that the “low-fat” diet in this study was not really all that low in fat.  It derived 30% of its calories from fat, and the daily fiber intake of the “low-fat” group actually dropped over the two years of the study.

This last point emphasizes that we’ve got to look at the FOODS these low-fat dieters were eating.  It wasn’t healthful, high-fiber WHOLE grains like whole-grain hot cereals and brown rice.  Rather, they simply received guidelines to eat “low-fat grains,” which unfortunately would include highly processed, highly refined, calorie-dense grains like dried cereals, white breads and bagels, and fat-free potato chips – all low in fat, but all fiber-stripped, calorie-dense, and fattening.

HDL – Not the whole story

This study also received media attention because it found that the so-called low-carb diet was better at boosting blood levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. 

Again, let’s get our priorities straight.  We should not be focusing solely on what happens to HDL.  Not everything that raises HDL is good for you.  If you increase the amount of saturated fat in your diet by eating a lot of butter, your HDL will go up because it’s trying to get rid of all the butter fat you’ve just put in your body.

But that doesn’t mean butter is good for your heart.  In fact, there is pretty convincing evidence that the function of HDL (removing cholesterol from the arteries) is significantly diminished by saturated fats.

What’s good for your heart is looking at your TOTAL lipid profile – ALL your cholesterol levels, your LDL bad cholesterol as well as your HDL cholesterol, your total cholesterol, your triglycerides, and so on. 

What has been scientifically documented to improve the TOTAL lipid profile is lifestyle-change programs like the Pritikin Program.

Lifestyle

That’s important to stress because ultimately, it’s not just diet that makes the difference in whether or not you lose weight and keep it off, and whether or not you’re taking good care of your heart.  It’s your ENTIRE LIFESTYLE that matters.  And for losing weight, there is ONE EQUATION that matters most of all:  You’ve got to burn more calories than you take in.  The best way to do so is with a LIFESTYLE that includes:

  1. Regular daily exercise,
  2. An eating plan that cuts out calorie-dense foods like fast foods, sweets, snack foods, and calorie-rich drinks, and focuses on healthful, fiber-rich, water-rich, filling whole FOODS like fresh fruits; fresh vegetables; whole grains like oats, brown rice, and whole-grain breads; starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and yams; legumes like black beans, peas, and pinto beans; and moderate amounts of nonfat dairy foods and lean animal protein, especially fish; and
  3. Emotionally nourishing attitudes that minimize stress and maximize our enjoyment of life.

Bottom line: Exercise every day.  Eat good healthy whole food.  Sidestep stress.  You’ll lose weight and keep it off, and you’ll be taking good care of your heart and lowering your risk of many cancers.

And whatever you do, don’t go out and start ordering steaks and Brie. This study from Israel “is seriously flawed,” summed up Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical consultant on the TODAY SHOW on July 17.

Agrees Dr. Danine Fruge, Associate Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center:  “The problems with this latest study are so vast that the results are relatively meaningless.”

* New England Journal of Medicine, 2008; 359 (3): 229.

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