|Get Fat on a Low-Fat Diet|
Want to get fat? Go on a low-fat diet. These diets are simply the wrong approach for most of us, wreaking havoc on our metabolism and leading us further down the path of metabolic syndrome.
"As soon as I found out that I had coronary plaque, I went on a serious low-fat diet because I'd heard that it would reverse heart disease. I eliminated meat, butter, fried foods, and anything from the grocery store that listed oil of any sort on the label."
So declared Ralph, a 57 year old engineer with a heart scan score of 690. At the start, Ralph's LDL cholesterol was 146 mg/dl, HDL 39 mg/dl, triglycerides 188 mg/dl, blood sugar 108 mg/dl. He carried 212 lbs on his 5 foot 11 frame, much of it in his abdomen (a "beer belly," though he wasn't a beer drinker). Ralph committed to this low-fat approach ever since he came across Dr. Dean Ornish's program for heart disease "reversal".
Three months and many meals later of whole wheat bread, bananas, low-fat granola, potatoes, and pasta, Ralph weighed in 6 lbs heavier at 218 lbs. His belly fat was somewhat more pronounced. Lipid values: LDL 134, HDL 35, triglycerides 266, blood sugar 118. His blood pressure, normal at the start, was now borderline high. Although LDL was modestly lower, the combined effects of lower HDL, higher triglyceride, and higher blood sugar were all in the wrong direction. In essence, Ralph's metabolic syndrome had been given a chance to blossom on his ultra low-fat diet.
Does Ralph's coronary plaque "reverse" following this program?
Absolutely not. A minority of people (those with isolated high LDL cholesterol and no other abnormalities) may do better on a strict low-fat diet, as compared to an average American diet of cheeseburgers, French fries, and Coca Cola. But ultra low-fat diets, in our experience, do not yield control over coronary plaque growth. Most people, in fact, do worse, because the metabolic syndrome is given an opportunity to declare itself and fuel plaque growth.
Fats leave you satisfied; carbohydrates make you hungry!
Why does eliminating fat make you fat? Aren't fats concentrated sources of calories compared to carbohydrates and proteins (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram)?
The problem is that, on a fat restriction, 60–80% of calories will come from carbohydrates like pasta, rice, and breads. Yes, you can blunt the sugar-raising properties of carbohydrates by using cruder forms like whole wheat pasta and brown rice, but there's still an enormous excess of sugar. In addition to the effects Ralph experienced on a low-fat diet, small LDL, VLDL, increased C-reactive protein (inflammation) and insulin levels frequently develop. Sometimes the effects are profound. We've seen triglyceride rises of over 500 units, for instance.
Fats yield satiety. They are digested more slowly and thereby provide satisfaction for an extended period. Fats don't raise blood sugars. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, cause blood sugar to skyrocket, then plummet, triggering a "hyperphagic", or overeating, response. Indulging in carbohydrates begets craving for yet more carbohydrates—a vicious cycle.
This was the path of reasoning for the famed Atkins' diet experiment: extreme, indiscriminate quantities of any fat, little or no carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the Atkins' diet took this concept too far. It works as a weight loss strategy and it does indeed reduce features of the metabolic syndrome, but the unrestricted saturated fat and lack of fiber and phytonutrients (especially flavonoids) causes disasters of another sort (cancer, osteoporosis, kidney stones, bladder infections, constipation—just to name a few).
Carbohydrates are not all bad. The right ones can be a significant source of healthy fiber (to lower cholesterol, blunt blood sugar rises, even lower cancer risk and high blood pressure), phytonutrients, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. But too much of a good thing. . . That's what happens when you allow carbohydrates to occupy more than 60% of your daily food choices on a strict low-fat diet.
What are better choices than extreme fat restriction?
Here's a few principles to consider:
* Choose lean proteins—like baked chicken, fish, egg whites, lean red meats, low-fat dairy products (cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese) and include some in every meal.
* Choose healthy fats, avoid unhealthy fats—This means sticking almost exclusively to monounsaturated sources like olive (also flavonoid-rich) and canola; flaxseed. Saturated fat sources to avoid include butter, fried foods, bacon, sausage, other greasy red meats. Avoid hydrogenated fats in processed foods like the plague.
* Choose carbohydrates with low glycemic indexes—This means entirely avoiding refined starches like white bread, cakes, pretzels, candies, fruit drinks, etc. It also means seriously minimizing all wheat products, whole or otherwise, since their glycemic indexes are not much better than refined products. Better choices: oat products, crude fiber containing foods like wild rice, buckwheat, foods that incorporate nuts and seeds. Low-carb pasta (made with soy protein) is a great low-glycemic index alternative to conventional pasta.
The low-fat craze of the '80s and '90s taught us how to create this monster called metabolic syndrome. Take a lesson from this experiment and don't follow any of the low-fat diets.