How to Choose a Diet that Really Works
It seems like everyone’s always talking about weight loss. And amongst the constant, yet ever-changing shoutings of “this diet versus that diet,” are proponents of a low-fat diet heatedly debating supporters of the low-carb approach. So let’s take a closer look at what both of these diets are all about.
What is it?
The low-fat diet became popular after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released their “Diet, Nutrition and Cancer” report in 1982. In their report, the NAS suggested that a diet rich in animal protein and saturated fat increases the risk of developing various metabolic diseases. The media interpreted this suggestion to mean that fat was bad and proceeded to spread the word far and wide that a high-fat diet would lead to weight gain and all its associated health problems. Since then the results of this study have been re-interpreted and fat is no longer demonized in the same way. That being said, there are still potential benefits to following a low-fat diet, especially when it comes to weight loss.
Generally, following a low-fat diet means reduce your fat intake to somewhere between 20% and 30% of your total calories. One of the most popular versions of a low-fat diet is the DASH Diet. Developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as a means of controlling high blood pressure, the DASH Diet focuses on the consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy; and limits the consumption of saturated fat and sugar.
Research has demonstrated that low-fat diets centering on the consumption of whole foods, such as the DASH Diet, lead to weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, lower cholesterol, and lower blood triglyceride levels. How does this works? Consuming a low fat, whole foods-based diet means that you are primarily eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes – all of which are jam-packed with health-promoting phytonutrients. These foods are also rich in fiber. Increasing your fiber intake is one of the best ways to increase your overall health and to shed a few extra pounds without feeling deprived or hungry. Fiber helps keep you satiated, removes cholesterol from the body and increases the diversity of your gut microbiome (a diverse microbiome is protective against obesity).
Aside from the physical health benefits, a new study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago just discovered that following the DASH diet may decrease the risk of developing depression. The study followed 964 participants for six and a half years. Researchers found that the individuals consuming a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes had an 11% decreased risk of developing depression, as compared to those whose diets were low in plant foods and higher in red meat and saturated fat.
Why is this the case? Again, it’s probably because a diet high in plant foods gives you access to their healing and protective properties. Fruits and veggies are filled with antioxidants (for example, vitamin C, beta carotene, and resveratrol) that will help prevent oxidative stress throughout the body and in the brain. They also are rich in vitamins that act as precursors to neurotransmitters. On the flip side, red meat and saturated fat can easily become pro-inflammatory if not processed and/or cooked correctly, and if your diet is heavy in meat and saturated fat there simply isn’t enough room for a high quantity of fruits and veggies.
So in summary, one of the reasons a low-fat whole foods diet is beneficial is because by default you will probably be getting more than your “5-A-Day” of fruits and veggies!
A low-fat diet in itself isn’t necessarily healthy — that is if you aren’t eating whole foods. It’s easy on a low-fat diet to rely on processed low-fat foods, as opposed to taking the time to cook your own meals made with whole ingredients. The problem with these low-fat products is that in order to maintain flavor and texture, manufacturers have replaced the fat with sugar and other additives. It has been well documented that the increased consumption of sugar is associated with an elevated risk of metabolic diseases – including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cognitive decline, and cancer.
Additionally, a diet too low in fat is inherently unhealthy. Your body needs a certain amount of fat in order to absorb certain vitamins, create hormones, maintain heart health and support proper brain function. Specifically, a diet too low in fat will inhibit your ability to absorb fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are highly correlated to the development of osteoporosis later in life. Studies have also indicated that a diet too low in fat could increase the risk of mortality by as much as 25% – especially if the diet includes a lot of processed low fat products in place of fattier unprocessed foods such as meat, eggs, fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and olive oil. While on a low fat diet, avoid decreasing your fat intake to less than 20% of your total calorie intake and look to include some healthy, unprocessed fatty foods into each meal.
What is it?
Low-carb diets aim to reduce your overall carbohydrate intake while increasing your intake of fats and protein (essentially, the exact opposite of a low-fat diet). The logic behind a low-carb diet is that cutting down on carbs causes insulin levels to drop. This allows your body to switch over to fat-burning mode and to start using fat (including stored body fat) as fuel. But does this really work? And is a high fat, high protein diet really good for health?
The newest research indicates that low carb diets are correlated to a number of beneficial health outcomes, including weight loss. Healthline recently did a review of 23 studies comparing low-carb versus low-fat diets and discovered that, generally, participants following a low-carb diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet. Additionally their HDL levels (the “good” cholesterol) increased, blood triglyceride levels decreased, blood pressure decreased, and blood sugar levels improved. Furthermore, a recent study on longevity conducted by a research team at McMaster University found that people eating high-fat diets had a 23% reduced risk of mortality.
Almost seems too good to be true right?! How could all this be possible on a high fat, low carb diet? Well to start, decreasing carbohydrate intake is the best way to improve blood glucose levels. And once blood glucose levels drop so does the risk for a whole host of inflammatory problems (at their core many of today’s chronic diseases are caused by uncontrolled inflammation). Secondly, some fats are actually health promoting. For example, monounsaturated fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, decrease LDL levels (the “bad” cholesterol) while increasing HDL (the “good” cholesterol). So, in summary, as long as you stick to consuming healthy fats and high quality proteins, a low carb diet could lead to numerous health benefits, including weight loss.
Low carb diets are often associated with a decrease in plant foods and an increased intake of meat and saturated fat. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, plants foods are health promoting because of their phytonutrients. Secondly, a diet heavy in animal protein has been associated with an increased risk for obesity, and cancer. And thirdly, a diet rich in saturated fat has been associated with an increase in LDL levels and a decrease in HDL levels.
In order to avoid falling into the trap of over-consuming meat while on a low carb diet, focus on increasing your intake of low carb veggies (e.g., greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, radishes, cucumber, fennel, zucchini, and asparagus) and healthy fats (e.g., avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, and whole eggs). Meat should still be considered a side, rather than the highlight of your meal. Fill ¾ of your plate with veggies that have been lightly cooked in high quality oil (e.g., extra virgin olive oil) and leave only the last bit of space on your plate for meat.
So which is better? Low fat vs. Low carb?
Ultimately, when it comes to weight loss, it’s all about reducing total calorie intake and finding a diet that you can sustain. Real life is more than pure numbers, and in your day-to-day happenings, a low-carb or low-fat lifestyle may help you power through your weak points. For instance, if you can’t control yourself around baked goods, the low-carb diet may help prevent you from indulging in croissants. But if you’re more of a fried food kind of gal or guy, a low-fat diet could help sway you from your danger zone.
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