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Low fat vs. Low carb vs. Who gives a crap?

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | September 1, 2015

Food-FightAnother ineffectual salvo was issued in the never-ending “my diet is better than your diet” nutritional Nerf battle this month when a study popped up the journal Cell Metabolism comparing low-fat diets with low-carb diets. This time, low-fat diets won. Kind of. But not really.
Unlike most fat v. carb research, this National Institutes of Health (NIH) study was remarkably balanced. Usually, the methodology goes along the lines of “We compared a low-fat diet to removal of non-vital organs (tonsils, appendix, left kidney, male nipples) and our findings indicate that LOW CARB DIETS RULE! PEACE OUT!”

But this time, 19 non-diabetic, obese men and women stayed at the NIH Clinical Center in Maryland (think super antiseptic fat camp) for 11 days, all doing the same exercises together. For the first 5 days, everyone was fed a balanced diet. For the next 6 days, some people had their fat calories reduced by 30%; others had their carb calories reduced by 30%. Then they did the same thing all over again, switching the diets around.

The low-carbers experienced less insulin secretion and more fat burning–but the low fatters lost more body fat over all.

It took me a little while to wrap my brain around the logic here, since you’d think more fat burning would equate to more fat lost over all. Then I figured out that the low-carbers had more of a need to tap into body fat stores because of their lack of blood sugar and glycogen–but then they had sufficient dietary fat intake to replenish some of those fat stores. So they lost more fat, but they put some back.

Why did the low-fat people burn more fat over all? Well, my theory is that because the body uses carbs as fuel more efficiently than it uses fat, the carbed-up folks had a better supply of energy to hammer the group exercises and therefore burned more calories. (Remember that burning calories via exercise isn’t just a “during” thing. It also applies to calories burned during the recovery process.)

31D53CA0-9A6B-4E50-AA9A-5CE2C531D004Before you chop a hole in the middle of your copy of Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution so you can use it to hide your Twinkies, keep in mind that the researchers also used a “math model of human metabolism” (Neo called. He wants his Matrix back) to determine that despite more weight loss out of the gate, both low fat and low carb diets would balance out in the long term for equal amounts of fat loss. So everyone wins!

As the study showed, low-carbs diets seemed to better aid with insulin management, which may be useful if you have metabolism syndrome. Also, there’s research showing that low-carb vegetarian diets may have several cardiovascular benefits.  With this in mind, the therapeutic benefits of reducing carbs warrants investigation, but if you’re under the impression that wrapping your hamburger in a lettuce leaf is somehow healthy, keep dreaming, J. Wellington.

But if you’re just trying to lose a few pounds, or trying to keep those pound off, what’s the answer? Low-carb? Low-fat? Low-rider? Lo(w) and behold, here’s the low-down on weight loss, in two rules:

  1. Eat less food.
  2. Eat healthy food.

That’s it. And if you think rule #2 is vague, you’re right! That’s the beauty of it. There are countless ways to eat healthy. Vegan. Paleo. Vegetarian. Raw. Whatever. Just pick one that sounds interesting, buy a book on the subject, and try it. You don’t like it? Try another one!

Or if you’re just interested in getting all knowledged-up, here are three great resources:

  1. What to Eat by Marion Nestle. A super-approachable book broken down into short, well-written essays (great read bathroom reading). Subjects include “Organics: Hype or Hope”, “Milk: Subject to Debate”, and “Frozen Foods: Decoding Ingredient Lists”.
  2. You’ll find a ton of edumacatin’ articles in the Resources section of this blog.
  3. Click on the Nutrition section of the Beachboy Blog for tips and more recipes than you can shake a foam roller at.

Happy reading!

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