Low-Carb or Low-Fat Diets: One Size Does Not Fit All
If you’re planning to try to lose weight in the new year, you’re sure to find a fierce debate online and among friends and family about how best to do it. It seems like everyone has an opinion, and new fads emerge every year.
Recent studies provided more fuel for a particularly polarizing topic—the role carbs play in making us fat. The studies gave scientists some clues, but, like other nutrition studies, they can’t say which diet—if any—is best for everyone.
Fewer carbs, fewer pounds?
The idea behind low-carb dieting is that the refined carbohydrates in foods like white bread are quickly converted into sugar in our bodies, leading to energy swings and hunger.
By cutting carbs, the claim is that weight loss will be easier because your body will instead burn fat for fuel while feeling less hungry.
A recent study looked at whether varying carb levels might affect how the body uses energy. Among 164 participants, it found those on low-carb diets burned more total calories than those on high-carb diets.
David Ludwig, a lead author of the paper and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the study suggests limiting carbs could make it easier for people to keep weight off once they’ve lost it. He said the approach might work best for those with diabetes or prediabetes.
Avoid fat to be thin?
For years, people were advised to curb fats, which are found in foods including meat, nuts, eggs, butter and oil. Cutting fat was seen as a way to control weight, since a gram of fat has twice as many calories as the same amount of carbs or protein.
Many say the advice had the opposite effect by inadvertently giving us license to gobble up fat-free cookies, cakes and other foods that were instead full of the refined carbs and sugars now blamed for our wider waistlines.
Nutrition experts gradually moved away from blanket recommendations to limit fats for weight loss. Fats are necessary for absorbing important nutrients and can help us feel full. That doesn’t mean you have to subsist on steak drizzled in butter to be healthy.
Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA, a professor of international health at City University of New York, said the lessons learned from the anti-fat fad should be applied to the anti-carb fad: Don’t oversimplify advice. ”There’s a constant look for an easy way out,” Lee said.
Which is better?
Another recent study found low-carb diets and low-fat diets were about equally as effective for weight loss. Results varied by individual, but after a year, people in both groups shed an average of 12 to 13 pounds.
The author noted the findings don’t contradict Ludwig’s low-carb study. Instead, they suggest there may be some flexibility in the ways we can lose weight. Participants in both groups were encouraged to focus on minimally processed foods like produce and meat prepared at home. Everyone was advised to limit added sugar and refined flour.
“If you got that foundation right, for many, that would be an enormous change,” said Christopher Gardner, PhD of Stanford University and one of the study’s authors.
So, what works?
In the short term you can probably lose weight by eating only raw foods, or going vegan, or cutting out gluten or following another diet plan that catches your eye. But what will work for you over the long term is a different question.
Zhaoping Li, MD, director of the clinical nutrition division at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there is no single set of guidelines that help everyone lose weight and keep it off. It’s why diets often fail — they don’t factor into account the many factors that drive us to eat what we do.
To help people lose weight, Li examines her patients’ eating and physical activity routines to identify improvements people will be able to live with. “What sticks is what matters,” Li said.
Sources: AARP, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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