Low carb or low fat diets, which is best?

Are low fat or low carb regimes really the answer?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
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22 March 2019

Fad diets in 2019

As 2019 is well underway, it’s become clear that fad diets don’t seem to be on the way out. The problem is, the particular type of diet in the limelight seems to be constantly changing, which unsurprisingly, can be confusing or even upsetting for those who have recently embarked on a new regime and then end up doubting if it’s the right thing.

For a number of years, low-fat diets were the go-to and many assumed this was the best approach when it came to losing weight. In recent times, low-carb regimes have hit the headlines again with the ketogenic diet being particularly topical.

Here I run through some of the evidence behind some of these diets to help decide if low-fat or low-carb diets might be preferable...

How the low-fat trends first came about

The low-fat trend stems back as far as the 1970s and it’s very much something which is proving hard to shift. ‘Low-fat’ is still a major marketing term which many people assume means ‘healthy’ and products such as skimmed milk are still routinely bought by many who are struggling to manage their weight...

So is all the hype justified?

Are there potential benefits of low fat?

There may be some promising results for weight loss

When it comes to low-fat regimes there have been some promising results for weight loss, however, when we compare this to low carbohydrate diets, the results are comparable if not, slightly less impressive.1,2 

More good quality carbs and protein?Let’s hope so!

With any diet omitting certain food groups or macronutrients, we need to remember that we’ll be then including more of others instead. As there are only 3 main macronutrients; fat, carbs and protein, if we’ve gone low-fat we’ll have to be including more protein and carbs naturally. Protein and good quality, complex carbs will help to supply us with nutrients, essential amino acids and fibre, all of which are healthy and can help to keep us feeling fuller for longer.

Problems with low fat...

We need fats!

Contrary to popular belief, we actually need good quality fats to help support weight management processes in our bodies. We need fats to support the absorption of key nutrients, the production of hormones and to help keep us feeling fuller for longer. To back this theory, there has been copious amounts of research on the beneficial effects of good fats such as olive oil and coconut oil on weight management.3,4 For more information on this, read more in my blog on how fats can make you thin!

More carbs can be risky.

Whilst the theory that low fat, meaning more protein and carbs is promising, in reality, the proportions of carbs people are opting for may not be quite as impressive as we’d hope. In reality, good quality sources of protein are pricier and often lose out to cheaper, lower quality alternatives. Then, when it comes to carbs, the story is similar. Take ‘low-fat’ products for example, they very often have a higher proportion of sugar in, which is the very type of carb we don’t want to be loading up on!

Not forgetting the low-carb trends...

More recently, low carb and higher fat diets such as the Ketogenic diet have sparked some attention and many people are opting for these instead, in a desperate bid to shift some excess weight. So are there some benefits with this approach?

Potential benefits of low carb?

There may be some promising results for weight loss here too

When it comes to weight loss comparison studies, low carb studies seem to come up favourably versus low fat diets and over the years the Atkins diet, and the more recently the Ketogenic diet, have produced some resounding success stories.5 This could be down to some of the positive effects they can have on insulin and blood sugar responses. However, just like anything, the effects may not be so favourable long-term, especially if the diet isn’t sustainable and reverting back seems to be a common occurrence.

More fat and protein can be helpful.

Luckily, we’re gradually changing our way of thinking and appreciating that fats, as well as good quality protein, are essential nutrients for supporting a healthy body composition and satiety. By reducing our intake of carbs we can work on including a wider variety of these other nutrients – plus plant-based varieties of both are thought to be especially beneficial. Research has also suggested that people that include a higher percentage of fats in their diet, (think the Mediterranean style diet with lots of oily fish and olive oil), have been associated with more positive health outcomes (remembering that higher fat intake, generally means lower carbs in comparison).5

Problems with low carbs

We actually need carbs

Although we should perhaps be a little concerned by the types of carbs we’re opting for in more recent times (refined carbs are proving harder to avoid amongst the high quantity of packets that now line of our shelves), actually, generally we function well on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates fuel our brains and our working muscles and without them our bodies needs to switch to other, secondary means of energy production.

We definitely need fibre

By drastically dropping our intake of carbs we risk significantly reducing our intake of dietary fibre too. Fibre not only helps to keep us fuller for longer, but it’s also responsible for feeding the bacteria in our gut, regulating our digestive functions and managing cholesterol levels. 

Potential problems with too much meat

Naturally, if we’re aiming to decrease our intake of carbs, our consumption of meat-based products are more likely to be on the increase. There have been a number of concerns around this over the years, and they don’t seem to be going away. From a health point of view, meat is more taxing on your digestive system, but more recently we’ve learned that meat products could also have adverse effects on our gut bacteria levels.6 Meat products are also considered pro-inflammatory in the body, which in excess, could have some longer standing problems.

What’s the best approach?

Taking this all into account, here’s my verdict when it comes to the carbs vs. fat debate:

1. Balance is key

It might not be what you want to hear, but as there seem to be so many cons for cutting either carbs or fat from your diet, my advice is to stick with both. However, what instead is important to focus on is the types of these macronutrients you are including, plus how much. Firstly, quality is key. We want to include complex carbohydrates including wholefoods such as peas, beans, legumes and other wholegrains from quinoa to barley, plus sources of good quality fats including olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and oily fish. Then, portion sizes are also important to consider too. However, I don’t want you to get too caught up on this (read my blog for more info), as I can guarantee if you’re eating a wider variety of well-balanced wholefoods (plus making the effort to eat slower which is another top tip), you’ll be satisfied sooner, and will be less likely to feel hungry so quickly.

2. Remember you’re human

Unfortunately it’s pretty tricky to trick your body! Your body is primed to manage a range of different nutrients and, more to the point, keep you alive. In simple terms, if we deprive our body of certain nutrients, or calories generally, your body make metabolic switches in a desperate bid to conserve energy and do everything in its power to keep you functioning optimally. For the most part, this is why fad diets don’t tend to work; most of us find we have to revert back as a result of the demands made by your poor body, and just in case you pull that trick again, your body is more likely to store a little extra weight once it’s all over, just in case. Balance really is key to help keep everything ticking along nicely in the long-term. 

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3. Processed foods may be the problem

Personally, rather than carbs or fat specifically, my thoughts are that processed foods are the biggest issue. Processed foods are most likely to include the worst types of both fats and carbs (the heavily refined versions), plus be more calories dense (although lacking in nutrients), and heavier in unwanted additives – definitely not a good combo for your waistline!

4. Extreme changes often aren’t sustainable

Here at A.Vogel we believe that simple changes are the key to good health. Unfortunately when it comes to fad diets, they’re often pretty strict, involve complicated regimes and religious calorie counting can be pretty tiresome and hard to stick to in the long-term. This means we often end up where we started, or even worse off. My advice is to make simple changes. Try cooking more at home, reducing your portion sizes slightly, or drink more water and you could be surprised at some of the changes you experience.

 

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15181047

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15148063

3. https://www.nature.com/articles/ejcn2009106

4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267214015913

5. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa022637

6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28864332

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