Most people equate dietary fat with body fat. This is a mistake, one born of a coincidence of labels we use and reinforced by poor science, misguided government policy, and effective marketing by food companies.
Let me clarify the title claim. Eating dietary fat as part of a low-bad carbohydrate diet is what will help you lose body fat much more effectively than a low-fat diet would, and this is the conclusion of a notable study. (More on this trial soon.) The study also concluded that low-carb diets also make you less likely to have severe coronary heart disease when compared to a low-fat diet.
Whew. I know this information is a lot to take in all at once, so you can take a break.
Back with me? Great. I know this news is shocking to you because your doctor or your parents' doctors and also your friends and family and also "the media" have been telling us for years to eat a low-fat diet. In other words, no ghee and no coconut oil, and it was okay to eat more rice and breads.
Unfortunately, this was wrong. Absolutely wrong. The kind of Indian food we should all eat for the very best health, and to lose body fat, is Indian food that is essentially low in bad carbs.
I am writing on this topic today because of a recent NY Times article that made it to front page (which is not typical of diet-related topics) which is on a recently published clinical diet trial funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Read the NY Times article "A Call for a Low-Carb Diet" by clicking here.
This really is well-written, and the trial is well-designed. Seriously, Times reporter Anahad O'Connor explains the design and outcomes of the trial and why low-carb diet seems to work so clearly and beautifully that I am publishing passages from her article at the risk of being censured by the Times.
That's how important I feel it is for you to read what she reports. The article is also so long I will split the passages and my take on sections into two posts. Moving on...
First, what's great about this diet trial is that the subjects are relatively numerous and racially diverse (so that findings can apply to many kinds of people, not just say white or Indian men). The trial had 119 people (out of 148 initially) limit their amount of dietary fat or dietary carbs intake for 1 year. Their weight and blood biomarkers for cardiovascular disease were analyzed.
Another great thing about this trial is that subjects were NOT encouraged to count calories. This mimics the real world, where most of us do not count calories. Nobody likes to be a bean-counter (i.e., accountant, or in this case calorie-counter) on everything they eat.
I myself tried calorie-counting years ago in college. But I was too busy with real math (calculus) to keep it going beyond a couple months. And it did not make a difference. It stressed me out some. And I found it was more effective to focus on cutting obviously bad food like soda and cookies (but not the pizza admittedly) out completely. I'm in better shape today than I was back then, thanks in large part to eating a pretty low-bad carb diet.
Okay, first passage:
“To my knowledge, this is one of the first long-term trials that’s given these diets without calorie restrictions,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who was not involved in the new study. “It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories.”
Next, the trial's lead author mentions the mistrust and fear many health experts carry in their attitudes against the low-carb diet.
Many nutritionists and health authorities have “actively advised against” low-carbohydrate diets, said the lead author of the new study, Dr. Lydia A. Bazzano of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “It’s been thought that your saturated fat is, of course, going to increase, and then your cholesterol is going to go up,” she said. “And then bad things will happen in general.”
The new study showed that was not the case.
By the end of the yearlong trial, people in the low-carbohydrate group had lost about eight pounds more on average than those in the low-fat group. They had significantly greater reductions in body fat than the low-fat group, and improvements in lean muscle mass — even though neither group changed their levels of physical activity.
While the low-fat group did lose weight, they appeared to lose more muscle than fat.
“They actually lost lean muscle mass, which is a bad thing,” Dr. Mozaffarian said. “Your balance of lean mass versus fat mass is much more important than weight. And that’s a very important finding that shows why the low-carb, high-fat group did so metabolically well.”
The second point is that people lose muscle mass on low-fat diets. Losing muscle is bad in general, but specifically because less muscle means less basal metabolism, which translates to less burning of body fat. Low-carb diets, on the other hand, did not seem to be associated with loss of muscle. Yet another reason to NOT eat a low-fat diet, especially if trying to lose body fat.
Now let's look more closely at what the low-carb (note experts associated with this trial also call low-carb diet a "high-fat" diet) and low-fat groups ate. This section can really guide what you eat if you decide to adopt a low-carb diet.
The high-fat group followed something of a modified Atkins diet. They were told to eat mostly protein and fat, and to choose foods with primarily unsaturated fats, like fish, olive oil and nuts. But they were allowed to eat foods higher in saturated fat as well, including cheese and red meat.
A typical day’s diet was not onerous: It might consist of eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, and some kind of protein for dinner — like red meat, chicken, fish, pork or tofu — along with vegetables. Low-carb participants were encouraged to cook with olive and canola oils, but butter was allowed, too.
Over all, they took in a little more than 13 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat, more than double the 5 to 6 percent limit recommended by the American Heart Association. The majority of their fat intake, however, was unsaturated fats.
The low-fat group included more grains, cereals and starches in their diet. They reduced their total fat intake to less than 30 percent of their daily calories, which is in line with the federal government’s dietary guidelines. The other group increased their total fat intake to more than 40 percent of daily calories.
Both groups were encouraged to eat vegetables, and the low-carbohydrate group was told that eating some beans and fresh fruit was fine as well.
One, the low-fat group ate more grains, cereal and starches, in other words more refined grains (from wheat, rice, corn, etc.). Also, this group's fat intake complied with US government recommendations. Note the trial found the low-fat group did worse, which reflects poorly on refined grains and government recommendations.
Two, the low-carb (also known as high-fat) group had more than twice the percentage of calories coming from saturated fats (probably in some part thanks to butter and eggs) as what is recommended by the AHA. Yet, the low-carb group had better blood biomarkers such as triglycerides than did the low-fat group.
Alright, that's enough analysis of this very interesting clinical diet trial for now. We'll save some more eye-opening analysis of the study and learning somethings new for the next post. Coming soon, so stay tuned!
For more details on the trial, see Bazzano LA et al. Effects of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med. 2014;161(5):309-318.