Low carb dieting can certainly no longer be considered a fad. In fact there are now several good clinical trials showing that the approach can be effective and safe, with some studies showing better results when compared to a low fat diet. But does that mean it’s the way we should all be going? I don’t believe so for several reasons:
1. The studies almost always compare low carb to low fat, but these are not the only options! Why not compare a low carb diet to one with moderate carbs and and moderate fat, from good quality food sources? There are many ways to put together a healthy diet and ultimately help us to control our appetite and eat less, while still enjoying our food.
The second question is what exactly is meant by low fat? We now well understand that replacing fat with lots of refined carbohydrate (think low fat cookies and ice cream) does not benefit our health, but follow a low fat diet based on whole foods, such as the traditional Japanese diet, and the picture is likely to be altogether different. Furthermore when you look closely at the data for these studies you can see that in fact some people did better on low fat, while others did better on low carb. So in other words something else is at play here – genetics or perhaps simply personal food preferences that allowed better adherence to one diet or the other.
2. Similarly we have to look at what replaces the carbohydrate or the fat? Low carb diets usually have a high protein content, but also a high fat content. But where is the fat coming from? Is it high in saturated fats, or high in plant fats, which are mostly unsaturated? A low fat diet can also be high in protein, but keeps the good quality carb-rich foods in there too. All of these diets are very different and may have very different effects on our health and weight control. Certainly many of the high protein diet studies actually have moderate amounts of carbohydrate, suggesting that the benefits are due to the extra protein and not due to avoiding carbs.
3. Going low carb can make it really difficult to meet your fibre requirements. Wholegrains, legumes and fruit are also major contributors to fibre and without them you have to eat an awful lot of vegies, nuts and seeds to meet your daily target. You can do it if you’re very dedicated to packing your meals with vegies, but since only 7% of Aussies are managing to eat the recommended 5 serves a day, it’s a pretty big challenge to get them eating more. Cereal fibre also seems to play a particular role in gut health, as does resistant starch found in beans, firm bananas and cooked and cooled potatoes, pasta and rice. This special type of fibre feeds the good bacteria in your gut, with many knock on health effects. Furthermore large population studies have shown that those who eat wholegrains tend to be leaner with smaller waist measurements. Lumping these "smart carbs" in with all carb-containing foods is just nutritional nonsense.
4. Carbohydrates are the premium fuel for the brain and for powering exercise. The more intense the exercise becomes, the more carbohydrate we need to use. Fat provides a slow steady stream of energy but cannot be burned quickly enough for more strenuous exercise. Low carb diets can therefore make it very difficult to exercise at any intensity – just try going for a run after being on a low carb diet for a few days. You may also find your brain feels a little foggy and concentration is more difficult. Perhaps this abates if you stick with the plan and your brain adjusts to using ketone bodies – made from fat – but why not give your brain the fuel it works best on?
5. Finally, and probably the most important point of all, is that most people find low carb diets really difficult to stick to in the long run. So many foods are off limits, and many of them favourite foods, that it just all gets too hard. And at the end of the day regardless of how effective a diet is, if you can’t follow it for the long term it’s not going to do you much good.
So what is the answer? I don’t totally dismiss low carb diets, and for some they may well be the best approach. Provided it contained stacks of low carb plant foods including vegies, nuts and seeds, and had an emphasis on good fats such as we use on Get Lean, then it can be a valid nutritional approach. If you really can’t exercise, and have no problem giving up bread, pasta, grains, potatoes and so on, then by all means go for it. But it’s not my preferred approach.
I stand by my Get Lean approach as it achieves several things. It reduces the carb content of your diet by delivering an appropriate portion size for your energy needs, and most importantly it focuses on carbohydrate quality. A doughnut or a biscuit with practically no nutrition to offer, is very different from a slice of wholegrain bread or a bowl of quinoa with bags of nutrition. That’s why we first and foremost focus on using whole foods in our menu plan. We don’t judge a food based on its carbohydrate content alone.
The Get Lean plan is high in protein, and importantly that protein is spread over the course of the day. It is not low fat. Instead it focuses on including good fats found naturally in extra virgin olive oil, whole nuts and seeds and avocado. We count oily fish in our protein serves, but it is also delivering essential omega-3 fats.
This gives us the foundations of a nutritious, plant-rich diet that contains a broad array of foods. Then we put them together in delicious ways! This is an essential part of Get Lean - it's about enjoying food and nurturing a good relationship with food and our bodies. For you that means choice. That has to be a good thing and in my experience choice means a way of eating that is sustainable. For you and me, that means we can get lean and, much more importantly, stay lean forever.
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