Less Carbs, More Fat. Could that be the new mantra for the American diet? Possibly, but don't depend on dietary ‘experts" to lead the charge. The push is coming from fitness professionals.
Ask any 10 people on the street, "What's the ideal diet?" Not the one you're living on, of course, but one that offers the ideal balance of foods, calories and nutrients.
Know what 9.99 out of 10 people will say? "Cut back on fatty foods like meat, and eat more whole grains, vegetables and fruits."
Because that's what we've had pounded into our heads for half a century now. It's the reason USDA's food pyramid has devolved from seven essential food groups in the 1960s (one of which was milk, cheese and butter!) to five groups in the 1990s and now with MyPlate, to just four vegetables, fruits, grains and protein, with dairy off to the side.
(If the official dietary recommendations get dumbed down any further, we'll be left with a nothing but a bumper sticker that reads, "Eat Good Food.")
"Fear of fat" is the reason the medical establishment has been on a decades-long anti-meat kick, urging patients to dump beef and switch to poultry and fish (also why the pork industry commissioned the "Other White Meat" campaign). And the "eating fat makes you fat" decree is why, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary (see, "The Big Fat Surprise," as profiled in this space last week), that nutritionists and public health officials have made animal fat and cholesterol Public Enemy No. 1 in the fight against heart disease and obesity.
Now finally revisionist thinking is taking root, certainly among the fitness community. That's because trainers, coaches and athletes aren't interested in theories as much as they're conditioned to embrace whatever works. And if you want to stay lean, get stronger and enjoy better health, the pathway is pretty clear: Cut out the carbs and pack on the protein.
The scientific support
But don't believe some buffed-out fitness trainer. A new study published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine now provides scientific evidence that a diet restrictive of carbohydrates and higher in fat even dreaded saturated fat can make a measurable, positive difference on several critical health parameters.
The National Institutes of Health-funded study, led by researcher Lydia Bazanno, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Tulane University School of Public Health, compared a high-fat/low-carb diet against the fat-restricted diet recommended by the National Cholesterol Education Program.
According to a review by MedlinePlus (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_148148.html), the study involved 148 obese adults who were free of heart disease and not pre-diabetic. Half were randomly assigned to a low-carb diet, while the rest were placed on a low-fat plan. Both groups received dietary counseling, but the low-fat group was restricted to no more than 30% of daily calories from fat, while the low-carb group had a limit of 40 grams of carbohydrates a day.
At the end of one year, although only 82 percent of the low-fat group and 79 percent of the low-carbohydrate group stuck with the diet for the whole year, the low-carb group lost an average of about 12 pounds, versus only 4 pounds for the low-fat group.
There were plenty of caveats to the study's conclusions it only lasted a year, not everyone stayed in compliance, maybe the low-carb group didn't get enough fiber, blah, blah, blah that's science for you. Researchers are supposed to question their findings. They're supposed to actively look for flaws in the data.
But do we really need more research, more studies, more data to feel secure about the obvious conclusion? If we eat the foods that human physiology is best adapted to digest, we tend to stay healthier.
It really is that simple, plus one other critical factor: Geography. It's fine to argue that unprocessed foods are healthier, which they are. It's fine to maintain that a "varied diet" ought to include a variety of vegetables, grains and fruits, which it should. But those choices should also conform to the realities of one's local climate and growing conditions.
Sure, people in northern Minnesota can have tropical fruits for breakfast all winter long. But that doesn't mean it's the ideal choice for someone living in that part of the country. And anyone can blend up some high-powered "meal substitute" loaded with isolated soy protein, but an ideal diet isn't measured only in terms of nutrient composition.
As the American Heart Association would be happy to point out, there haven't been enough low-carb clinical trials conducted long enough to reach what are called "hard end points" ie, heart attacks, strokes and death.
I'll give you a "hard end point." Get on the bathroom scale and tell me you wouldn't be excited about losing weight. Stand in front of the mirror with your shirt off and tell me it wouldn't be a positive development to lose that belly fat.
Yes, there is a dearth of conclusive epidemiological studies "proving" that cutting back carbs in favor of animal foods reduces the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, but guess what? Those studies will never happen. It's virtually impossible to conduct accurate dietary studies that control for the variables of age, gender, heredity, health status and lifestyle not to mention that many people just won't stick to whatever dietary interventions are being studied. Even if such a study could be done, the best conclusion would be that a "strong association" exists between certain dietary components and certain medical outcomes.
Don't wait for scientists to determine what you can confirm right in your own kitchen. If you want to look better, feel better and perform better, try incorporating natural foods meat, milk and eggs into your diet.
I guarantee you'll have all the proof you need.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.