Low fat diets. Low carb diets. Aside from the occasional cabbage soup diet slipping in, fat-reduced and carb-reduced diets have been the front-runners in the multi-billion dollar diet industry for the past 15 years or so.
Both have proven effective for some of the population, if only for the brief amount of time us weaklings are able to stay away from the delicious goodness greasy burgers and perogies provide us. In the process of pushing these diets, however, all fats and carbohydrates have been vilified to the point where you can scarcely open a menu without being faced with the legend of symbols directing you to low fat and low carb choices.
While both diet choices seem to work, at least in the short term, for helping you shed unwanted pounds, health experts have struggled to grab a few headlines of their own to tell you what else your body might be losing. Sadly, our culture places the look of health (currently defined by chiseled abs and zero percent body fat) above the actual experience of health, and this puts even the skinniest, most toned of us in jeopardy in the long run.
In order to make health decisions that are going to keep us here long enough to admire our toned asses, we need to understand our diet decisions and the role that each component takes in our overall health.
While we relentlessly pursue an ever-elusive dream of tighter butts and abs, we have to eventually start looking at ways that we can maintain this perfect body and protect it from both weight gain and disease. Diets will come and go. Fat will come and go just as quickly until we learn to strike a balance and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The diversity of fats that we consume, and try to limit, is not as easily dismissed as we would hope it to be.
The body is an incredible machine and to eliminate nutrients that are needed means that it cannot run properly. Unlike the Atkins adage that any food is fine, as long as it contains no carbs, there are good fats and bad fats. Eating a Double Whopper with extra cheese and bacon with no bun isn’t good for you. No matter how you look at it. Seriously, are we that stupid?
You may have heard mumbling of late about good fats and bad fats. To get into the biology of it is complex, but here it is, as straight forward as it can be:
Bad fats are primarily found in animal products like beef, veal, lamb, pork, cheese, whole milk, cream, and butter. They are also found in refined vegetable products (mostly products that are refined at high heat) like coconut oil, palm oil, shortening and margarine. If you are a label-reader, avoid foods that have the words saturated or partially hydrogenated.
These foods are bad for you. Not only are they high in caloric content, they can cause heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and an all-around feeling of malaise. Also, avoid fried foods. No good fats stay good at the high temperatures required to fry foods.
Good fats can include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. You will find polyunsaturated fats in corn, sunflower, soybean, and safflower oils. Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews), seeds (sesame and pumpkin), avocado, olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil (also called rapeseed oil) and oily fish like salmon or tuna.
While both poly- and monounsaturated fats lower (that’s right: lower) your cholesterol, the polyunsaturated fats lower both good (LDL) and bad (HDL) cholesterol, while its mono cousin reduces only the bad cholesterol. If you are looking for an oil to cook with, choose olive oil, which will remain stable at the highest temperatures. If you overheat any mono or polyunsaturated fat too much, it becomes hydrogenated and transforms into a bad fat.
Other benefits linked to the healthy consumption of good fats include lower levels of heart disease, healthier skin, and higher levels of Vitamin E consumption. You will hear words like omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants linked to good fats.
Anti-oxidants are believed to prevent certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer, while the omega-3 fatty acids prevent heart disease and have anti-inflammatory qualities. One of fat’s primary jobs in the body is to transport vitamins for absorption into the body. You want to absorb your vitamins, don’t you?
Ah, carbs, how did you become so evil so quickly? Once welcomed at every table at every meal, you have been recklessly tossed out of your place in our lives. Is it warranted?
Like fats, the body has a use for carbohydrates. In fact, carbohydrates have many uses. Also like fat, there are good carbs, which help us, and there are bad carbs, which only hinder our lives and our waistlines.
Bad carbs are pretty easy to identify. Called simple carbohydrates, they can be identified by their sweet, sweet taste. Sugars of any kind—be they brown, white, honey, confectioners (sucrose), and milk (lactose) are two of the most common types. These sugars are quickly and easily absorbed, but contain no nutrients to speak of. They are “empty calories.” You can throw white starches like white rice, pasta and bread into this list of easily converted sugars.
Fruit (fructose) is also on the list of easily converted carbs, but they are far from empty calories, as they contain both nutrients and fiber that the body needs. If you are concerned about them sticking around as fat, eat fruit before activity. That will burn off the fast sugar (and help short-term performance), but retain the nutrients.
Good carbs are called complex carbohydrates. These include veggies, whole grains (in breads or pasta), brown rice, peas, and beans. Two of the primary uses for complex carbohydrates in your body are fiber and energy. Fiber is crucial for keeping your digestive tract working properly, absorbing nutrients as they pass through. It prevents constipation, hemorrhoids, digestive problems, and possibly even colon cancer. A diet that is high in fat and protein, but low in dietary complex carbohydrates can cause constipation.
Carbs are the primary source of energy for your body, and they actually have fewer calories per weight than fat. One gram of carbs contains only 4 calories. The energy that carbs give us goes to aiding not only our energy levels throughout our day, but also to driving our body’s metabolism.
Cutting out complex carbohydrates cuts the fuel that drives your metabolism, causing it to slow. This in fact means that you have to work harder to burn calories than you did before. Carbs change into fuel that the body uses quickly and easily. It gives you energy and provides, and helps the body absorb, important vitamins, minerals and fiber.
As with anything, too much of a good thing is unhealthy. If you eat too many carbs, you are going to have trouble with weight gain because you need to reduce your caloric intake to below your caloric output if you are going to lose weight. That is common sense.
What is not common sense is denying your body the nutrients it needs to function and to prevent illness and disease. So go ahead: don’t eat bad carbs; don’t eat bad fats. But to restrict the innocent victims of overzealous marketing ploys, good fats and carbs, in your diet simply doesn’t make sense if you want to live long enough to enjoy that bod you have worked so hard to attain.