Fat still matters

Last week I wrote about some recent research suggesting that low-carbohydrate diets may be better for weight loss that low-fat diets. For many, this study reinforced the notion that traditional recommendations are wrong and that the key to good health is to eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The recent study did show that people lost more weight and experienced beneficial changes in blood lipids when they followed a low-carbohydrate diet compared to those who ate a low-fat diet. However, this does not mean that low-fat diets aren’t effective for weight loss or that they are “unhealthy.”

In fact, low-fat diets have long been used effectively to promote weight loss, reduce heart disease risk, and lead to healthier eating in general. This is supported by the results of hundreds of research studies as well as the practical experience of health professionals and real people. Here are two reasons why fat still matters when it comes to health.

First, reduced-fat diets have been shown to improve blood cholesterol and lower the risk for heart disease. Eating a diet low in fat, especially saturated and trans fat, has been the foundation of nutrition recommendations for decades. The fact is that these diets are effective for weight loss, reducing cholesterol, and otherwise improving heart health.

One famous study demonstrated that following a low-fat diet contributed to a reduction in the severity of atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries that leads to many heart attacks. Literally hundreds of other studies have shown similar beneficial results.

This isn’t some magical effect of eating less fat, though. The health benefits are likely due to eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as much as they are to reducing fat intake. The point is that adopting a low-fat diet can lead to better nutrition overall.

Second, reducing fat intake is a good way to reduce calories. This is true because fat contains nine calories per gram, more than twice that of carbohydrates and protein, so cutting fat is an effective way to cut calories. Limiting fat intake also reduces calories indirectly because many high fat foods are also high in sugar and calories (think of most desserts).

It is important to mention that simply reducing fat intake won’t always lead to weight loss; total calories must be lower, too. This is a mistake many make when they reduce fat intake, but increase the amount of calories from other sources, typically carbohydrates. Many low-fat foods are actually relatively high in calories due to added sugar or people tend to eat more of them (the SnackWell Effect).

The effectiveness of low-fat diets for weight loss has been demonstrated in research studies (like this one) and countless weight loss programs. In one notable study, a diet low in fat even led to weight loss in people who weren’t trying to lose weight. And don’t forget that in the recent study about low-carbohydrate diets, the subjects that followed the low-fat diet also lost weight.

For some people, cutting carbohydrates as a way to lose weight is reasonable; for others, reducing fat intake makes sense. For most people, though, doing both to some extent is the best option, but going to extremes is unnecessary.

Eating less added sugar and avoiding foods with added fats (such as French fries) are good recommendations for almost everyone. That said, there is little evidence for the benefit of limiting carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits or the fat in meat and dairy.

The bottom line is that the quality of food we eat is more important than the specific amounts of the nutrients it contains. Eating low-carbohydrate or low-fat diets can help steer you toward making healthier choices, but so can avoiding processed foods in favor of wholesome, nutrient-dense “real” food.

Good sources of protein for your low-carb diet

Thanks to a recent study and media coverage (including me), low-carbohydrate diets are a popular topic of discussion. For many people, cutting back on carbohydrates is a good way to reduce calories to promote weight loss.

Most low-carbohydrate diets also emphasize protein intake. But finding healthy protein sources is important for promoting weight loss and good health.

This recent discussion about the best protein for optimal weight loss  on the Train Your Body show on RadioMD should help.

The diet wars continue

If you are confused or frustrated by the conflicting claims about whether a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet is the best, you are forgiven. First we were told that eating a low-fat diet was the best way to lose weight and improve heart health. Then, research suggested that low-carbohydrate diets were better. And back and forth it has gone for years.

During this time, the prevailing recommendations have suggested that a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates was best. But more and more research has supported the notion that cutting carbohydrates, not fat, would lead to greater weight loss. Although this has been supported by some research, critics pointed out that eating more fat would raise blood cholesterol and other risks for heart disease.

According to a recent study, though, low-carbohydrate diets seem to have benefits for promoting weight loss and improving some indicators of heart health over low-fat diets. But you should hold off on shunning fruits and vegetables in favor of cheeseburgers! Here is a practical interpretation of the research and some common sense recommendations, taken from my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

The study, published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reported on 150 men and women who either restricted the amount of carbohydrates or fat they ate. After one year, the group that ate a low carbohydrate diet lost over 7 pounds more than the subjects on the low-fat diet. Additionally, the low-carbohydrate diet promoted greater improvements in blood lipids than the low-fat diet.

This is important for two reasons. First, this wasn’t a weight loss study; the researchers were simply following the subjects to see what would happen as they followed either diet. The fact that the low-carbohydrate group lost more weight suggests that it is relatively easier to cut calories following this type of diet.

This is consistent with other research showing that eating more carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates and sugar, can actually make people feel hungrier and eat more. Indeed, other studies have shown low-carbohydrate diets to be more effective for weight loss than low-fat diets (although a more recent study suggests there isn’t such a difference).

Second, the greater decrease in triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase in “good” HDL cholesterol in the low-carbohydrate group were different from what might be expected. Conventional wisdom holds that a low-fat diet should have a greater effect on blood lipids. Since weight loss can have a big effect on blood lipids, the improvement in the low-carbohydrate group may be due to losing more weight, not a direct effect of the diet.

It is important to note that the low-fat diet also led to weight loss in this and numerous other studies. The critical component of any weight loss diet is that it is relatively low in calories, regardless of what nutrients supply those calories. Really, almost any diet will lead to weight loss as long as it contains less energy than what is expended, but a low-carbohydrate diet may be more effective for weight loss than the traditional low-fat diet.

The bottom line is that the best diet is one that emphasizes eating wholesome foods, not on cutting carbohydrates or fat. That said, limiting carbohydrates in the form of refined grains and added sugar is an excellent way to reduce calorie intake and improve the overall nutritional value of what you eat. And shifting toward more monounsaturated fats (think olive oil and nuts) rather than worrying about the total amount of fat you eat is also a good idea.

Being mindful of eating habits, according to Shannon.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Shannon earlier this week that fit with the topic of being mindful of health habits. (I have written about Shannon previously, but not for some time) 

She was telling me that one recent evening she drove to three fast food restaurants to get dinner for her family. Apparently, she wanted food from a different place than her husband, neither of which worked for her kids. As they sat down at the dinner table she became mindful of how ridiculous this was.

First, she spent almost an hour driving to fetch the food. This was time she could have spent doing any number of things, including actually preparing a meal for her family. Second was the cost, including the food itself and the gas required to drive to three different restaurants. Third, looking at the food they were eating made her realize that it wasn’t healthy. In fact, their meal included no fruits or vegetables (beyond french fries) at all!

What struck me was that the quality of the food they were eating was the last thing Shannon mentioned to me, almost as a afterthought. What got her attention was the time and money she sent on the food. Cooking at home could have taken less time and certainly would have cost less. It would have been healthier, too.

At least they ate dinner together

 

Being mindful of eating habits, according to Shannon.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Shannon earlier this week that fit with the topic of being mindful of health habits. (I have written about Shannon previously, but not for some time) 

She was telling me that one recent evening she drove to three fast food restaurants to get dinner for her family. Apparently, she wanted food from a different place than her husband, neither of which worked for her kids. As they sat down at the dinner table she became mindful of how ridiculous this was.

First, she spent almost an hour driving to fetch the food. This was time she could have spent doing any number of things, including actually preparing a meal for her family. Second was the cost, including the food itself and the gas required to drive to three different restaurants. Third, looking at the food they were eating made her realize that it wasn’t healthy. In fact, their meal included no fruits or vegetables (beyond french fries) at all!

What struck me was that the quality of the food they were eating was the last thing Shannon mentioned to me, almost as a afterthought. What got her attention was the time and money she sent on the food. Cooking at home could have taken less time and certainly would have cost less. It would have been healthier, too.

At least they ate dinner together

 

Mindfulness matters for health.

According to a TIME magazine cover article from earlier this year, we are in the midst of a “mindful revolution.” Beyond being a trendy topic, mindfulness is important for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. 


Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health. Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life.

 

Thinking about your actions and the effect they have on your health and the health of others can be good for you and those around you. It turns out that we engage in many health behaviors that are driven more by habit than conscious decision-making. This includes what, when, and how much we eat as well as how active we are, two of the most important determinants of health.

 

When was the last time you thought about what you were eating? Not just which restaurant to go to or what time to eat, but really thought about what and how much you ate? Chances are, at least some of the time you eat when you aren’t hungry or keep eating even when you are full. You probably also eat foods you know you shouldn’t or don’t intend to, sometimes without even realizing it.

 

This concept was explored in depth by Brian Wansink in the 2006 book, Mindless Eating. Based on his research, this book helped to explain the hidden reasons behind what, why, and how much we eat, often without being aware of it. This includes marketing tricks as well as environmental factors, many of which operate outside of our consciousness, that drive our food choices and prompt us to eat. 

 

This is where mindfulness comes in. By making an effort to be cognizant about your own thoughts and sensations as well as the environment you are in, you can prevent overeating and poor food choices.

 

Furthermore, we should be aware of how our food choices influence others around us. Research shows that children of parents who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to eat more of these foods than kids without such influence. Mindful eating includes accounting for how our actions and choices can influence the decisions of other family members and friends.

 

 

The same is true for how active or sedentary we are. Being active is a choice, sometimes a difficult one, that is influenced by other people and the environment. Most people spend the majority of the day sitting at work and at home, often without thinking about it. This sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and heart disease, so it is relevant.

 

 

Sure, it feels good to sit on the couch to watch television. Think about it: is that really the best way to spend your time? At work, taking short breaks to get up from your desk and move can make you feel more alert and energized. Isn’t that worth it?

 

 

Similar to eating, our activity choices can influence the actions of those around us. A suggestion to walk to lunch can increase your own activity and that of your friends. Planning to go for a walk or bike ride with your family after dinner is a great way to share the benefits of activity.

 

 

When it comes to health, mindfulness matters. Being mindful about what you eat and make a choice to be more active allows you to have a positive effect on your health and the health of those around you.

 

 

My kids will be thrilled to learn that they don’t have to eat vegetables anymore!

According to this video from SCI CODE’s Coma Niddy (via The Kid Should See This), there is no such thing as vegetables.  What we think of as vegetables are really fruits, roots, stems, and leaves.

That said, these formerly-known-as-vegetables are still really good for us and we should eat them.

While my kids will thrilled to learn that they don’t need to eat “vegetables” anymore, I suspect they will be less amused by a plate full of tubers and legumes.