For at least the past three decades, the word “diet” has been synonymous with “low-fat.” You can spy a dieter by the salad on their plate and the packages in their cart emblazoned with the words low-fat and fat-free, like some promise to the buyer. But over the past decade, we’ve come to realize that low-fat isn’t the end-all, be-all magic answer. In fact, in many ways, it hurts dieters. Cutting the fat in products means replacing the lost flavor and substance with something else, usually sugar or other refined carbs. As this short-fall became more and more apparent, a new front-runner emerged in the dieting world: low-carb. While it first gained popularity with the now well-known Atkins diet, low-carb is seemingly everywhere. But that trend, too, got picked on by experts claiming it inadvertently upped people’s intake of fat, especially saturated fat.
So what’s a dieter to do? Low-fat or low-carb? Or neither?
As it turns out, it looks like low-carb is the way to go. In a recent study, low-carb diets trumped not only low-fat diets but low-calorie diets overall. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise, given the recent turn in favor of saturated fat. Once ousted as an evil, avoid-at-all-means nutrient, researchers and health experts have not only come to terms with saturated fat, but are actually touting its benefits. In this particular study, people following low-carbohydrate diets were able to drop pounds as well as cardiovascular risks. Despite past fears of saturated fat, their LDL cholesterol (the “bad stuff”) didn’t increase in the process. This is good news, considering many people do well on low-carb diets since they’re easier to follow. Setting specific limits on food can be more helpful than just telling someone to “eat less” overall.
So what changed about saturated fat, exactly? Nothing – just the way we examine the facts. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed old saturated fat research and came to a new conclusion: saturated fat doesn’t cause heart attacks. It was a logical conclusion from past research: People who had heart attacks and clogged arteries ate a lot of saturated fat, therefore saturated fat is bad for you. What the research missed was the actual cause and effect connection. While saturated fat does raise bad cholesterol, it also raises the good stuff. This doesn’t mean you should dive in to a plate of saturated fat, though. It simply means we shouldn’t fear it, and we shouldn’t be filling a void left in our diet by swapping fat for carbs.
Before you go shunning carbs altogether, let’s remember why low-carb diets got a bad rap in the first place. If you’re sedentary, your carbohydrate needs aren’t very high, but if you’re active or an athlete, carbs are what give you the energy to keep going, keep training, and keep recovering well. If your carb intake is too low for too long, you risk muscle breakdown, mood and cognitive impairment, and a weakened immune system. If you’re tired and dragging, you’re probably not going to end up losing much weight.
So what are we supposed to do with this information? It all comes back to the much hated word: moderation. Remember that a low-carb diet can help decrease heart-related health risks, but too low for too long can cause problems as well. Bottom-line, if you’re cutting back on one area of your diet, make sure you’re replacing it with something good and not just another ingredient devoid of nutrition (like sugar). Of course news like this brings up the inevitable question about whether experts will just go back and change their minds again down the road. At least we can know we won’t go wrong if we fill our families’ plates with vegetables. Broccoli, anyone?