Depending on what decade you’re in, the nutrition advice for health and fat loss has varied wildly. First the advice was, “Fat makes you fat and clogs your arteries and if you have butter on your toast or enjoy a nice steak YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!!!!!” Then things swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, and it was, “Carbs make you fat and give you heart disease and diabetes and if you eat an apple or Heaven forbid, a potato, THEN YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!!!!” Hopefully at this point you realize that neither one is actually true, but if you want an objective look at things, keep reading.
Like I’ve mentioned before in this blog post the only way any diet actually works is by creating a calorie deficit. For some reason, diet fanatics have decided that the only way to better health is by completely eliminating one of the macronutrients. This is a bit dogmatic, as you will generally eliminate lots of healthy foods by refusing to consume an entire food group. However, for the sake of argument, let’s look at low carb and low fat diets, and who might benefit from them. I’m not going to discuss low protein diets, because higher protein during fat loss stages will help you keep as much muscle as possible*.
First let’s look at the low fat diet. It’s understandable that the misconception of fat making you fat came about. I mean, if you don’t know any better, wouldn’t it make sense that eating fat would then translate to more body fat? That means you could just cut out or significantly lower the amount of fat in your diet, and you’ll get lean in no time. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Now, if you do want to go low fat, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you’re eating low fat, you’ll need to eat higher carbs in order to meet your energy demands. That said, you don’t want to completely eliminate fats because they play an important role in manufacturing hormones, forming cell membranes, brain, and nervous systems, help absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, and provide two essential fatty acids that the body isn’t able to form on its own. Because of these roles, fats should still make up at least 20% of your dietary intake, even on a low fat diet. If you’re going with a low fat diet, you should be active, not only with strength training, but also cardio and non-exercise activity. With a low fat diet, you want to make sure that you’re consuming carbs from a variety of sources, especially vegetables, fruit, potatoes (all varieties), wild rice, quinoa, and other grains. You don’t have to eat wheat if you don’t want to, but you don’t need to avoid it unless you actually have celiac disease. That said, because of the massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides that get sprayed on these types of crops, I suggest going organic for grains.
Next, we’ll take a peek at the low carb diet. This came about as a bit of a rebound from the low fat diet, since the low fat craze actually ended up boosting the obesity epidemic, not stopping or even slowing it. Again, it’s easy to see where the thought process came from. Carbs boost your blood sugar, which causes an insulin response, and insulin can make you fat. Cut the carbs, lose the insulin response, lose the fat, right? Yet, it’s still not the way our bodies work. A lot of people get into low carb diets because they see pretty immediate results. Without carbs, your muscles will lose glycogen within a couple days of working out, and since each gram of glycogen gone will also take several grams of water, you’ll notice several pounds off the scale in a matter of days. That confidence boost can help people stick with it for a longer period, at which point they’ll get results from being in a calorie deficit. The bigger problem with carb restrictive diets is what happens after the diet ends. Our bodies get so used to running without carbs that they actually forget how to process them. That leads to serious weight rebound once carbs are consumed again, and the cycle of weight loss and gain starts all over. Another issue with low carb is that people tend to go overboard with what they restrict, and end up cutting out fruit and vegetables. They might lose weight, but their health suffers too. There are some perks to the low carb diet. They tend to work better for sedentary people. You can manipulate when you take in carbs to get the most benefit out of them (centered around your workouts). More protein and fat heavy meals are more filling, and they can keep you full for longer. As long as you’re continuing to eat non-starchy vegetables it shouldn’t have a negative impact on your health.
All said and done, both diets can be effective for weight loss, but which one works for you best is going to be a matter of not only individual preference, but individual nutrition requirements. For instance, if you have gallbladder problems, you don’t want to exacerbate them by eating fatty foods on a low carb diet. If you have insulin resistance, you likely want to keep your carbs on the lower side by focusing on protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. Just remember, no matter what you choose to go with, the most effective diet is the one that you can stick with for the long term.
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*If you’re dealing with kidney disease or a doctor has told you that you need to be on a low protein diet, this would be the exception to that rule.