I love to travel, but Michael isn’t a fan. (People ask me why and I can’t answer. I suffer from wanderlust in the worst way and don’t understand how anyone else would not want to travel everywhere, all the time, especially when they have a spouse who would happily plan out every last detail.) So it was while I was in Costa Rica over spring break in 2015 when Michael came across a study challenging the prevailing dietary model advocated by the U.S. government. (I’d be lying if I said this came as a surprise, since every time I leave Michael at home when I travel, he immerses himself in self-improvement projects.)
The media had uncovered some research from the 1950s that found that a plant-derived high-fat diet was better for our bodies. At the time, that research had apparently been buried in favor of studies that instead favored a high carbohydrate diet. (Try as I might, I could not find the articles we’d read. Maybe the information got buried again.) The history of the USDA’s nutritional guidelines is based on a complicated web of government agency, corporate, and medical industry interests that has conditioned the public to fear fat. For generations of Americans, food recommendations like the Basic Four and the Food Guide Pyramid advocated eating much more meat, dairy, and starches than research in the 1950s found promoted a healthy lifestyle.
So over time, people started gaining weight and the diet industry started to boom, growing into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. And the food companies followed, taking advantage of the increasing demand for ‘lite’, fat-free, reduced calorie, or whatever product the latest diet trend was encouraging people to eat. But keep in mind that any food that’s been altered to remove fat (or salt, or sugar, or gluten, etc.) needs to have something put in its place to be palatable. Quite often, carbohydrates replace fat, chemicals enhance dulled flavors, and the added artificial sweeteners end up altering our taste buds so that when we do eat plain old sugar, we need a lot more to get the same satisfaction.
The research indicated that a diet rich in plant-based fats was the key to a healthy life. So instead of a ratio of carbohydrates (60%) to fat (20%) to protein (20%) that I had been eating for more than a decade, the research advocated a ratio of carbohydrates (20%) to fat (50%) to protein (30%). It was a scary proposition, ingesting that much fat. After all, I’d been programmed to recoil at fats because fats are what make us fat. Wrong. Well, mostly wrong.
After doing more research to learn about food science, denying this research could actually be accurate, and continuing to fear fat, I decided I’d give it a shot. I was skeptical, but I was still getting hungry within a few hours of eating a meal. By this point, I was well-conditioned enough not to give in and eat more food, but I was frustrated. I felt that since I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I shouldn’t be hungry all the time. So here I was again, back to reading labels.
The Basic Science (Don’t skip this part just because it’s all technical. It’s actually pretty interesting, and definitely important stuff.)
Too much food will make us fat. But, as I discovered, fat is not responsible for making us fat: It’s an imbalance of fat and carbohydrates, since everything we eat is either stored as fat or carbohydrates. Our bodies will store as much fat as we give them, but that’s not the case with carbohydrates, whose purpose is to help fuel us through the day. If we eat more carbohydrates than we can burn in a day, our body converts them to fat and stores them. That’s how we end up with extra, unwanted pounds.
Nutritionally, our bodies (especially our brains) need what complex carbohydrates offer, but in much smaller quantities than what most people eat. And these carbohydrates should come from whole, fresh plants over anything processed-–even whole grains. It takes much longer to break down plant fibers from fresh plants, so it our system works really hard to utilize these calories.
Carbohydrates hold a lot of water, which is why drinking beer and eating pizza will make you feel bloated. This is why eating a serving of pretzels is more immediately satisfying than an equal calorie serving of nuts. It takes longer to process the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the nuts than processed flour in the pretzels. On a low-fat diet, since carbohydrates make up the majority of the calories, we burn through them much more quickly than if we ate more fat or protein alongside them. When I was following a low-fat plan, a common snack for me was pretzels with fat-free cheese, which was just a big carb-fest. Carbohydrates are great because they make us feel much fuller and more quickly satisfied when we eat them, which I expect is part of the reason that the major diet plans have stuck with that formula.
Fats take a lot longer to process than carbohydrates because they’re harder to break down. The best fats are those from plants in their unprocessed state: avocados, olives, seeds, nuts, and nut flours/butters. By opting for these whole foods over the pressed oils, we get the fiber that is otherwise lost in pressing out the oils. Some studies suggest that the fats in coconuts and red palm oil are also good for us, but the research thus far has been inconclusive about how those saturated fats affect us.
What the good fats offer are essential to our health. They nourish our skin, muscles, and organs. The problem is that by eating too many carbohydrates, the excess is converted into body fat. Instead of our bodies going about what they were meant to do, (i.e., efficiently burning the carbohydrates to fuel us through the day and using the fats to condition our organs and tissues), we take in more carbohydrates than our bodies can use, so for lack of something better to do with them, the body converts them to fat and stores them up for future use.
Having extra body weight means that we eat more calories than we burn. Period. End of story. We’ve given our bodies too much to use, so it doesn’t get around to processing fats because they are harder to break down. The fact that we refer to the nutrients we eat as “fats” and being overweight as ‘”fat” only perpetuates the problem, driving the public toward low-fat and fat-free foods that contain even more of an imbalance of carbohydrates and fats.
Protein is also essential to our health, but in much smaller quantities than most Americans ingest. Exactly how much a person needs is actually pretty vague, with the recommendation by WebMD for daily protein intake ranging from 10-35 percent of calories for the day. So if we go with their average recommendation, that’s 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams for men. Consider that an 8 ounce steak has about 50 grams of protein, so that either meets or comes close to the full daily requirement, with most people getting way more than that in a day. It’s really easy to check labels to tally protein grams to get a sense of how much you eat and make adjustments because too much protein leads to kidney damage and other bad stuff.
The End of the Dietary Road?
Michael and I have been eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet now since March of 2015. Switching to the high-fat diet took some work. (Check out the chart below for a comparison.) It required working out calorie intake ratios, figuring out how to make a meal seem like a meal without pasta, rice, or bread, and reworking baking recipes yet again. But it was totally worth it.
I have never felt better. After two annual physicals each, our high-fat plant-based diet has only improved those key indicators doctors look for: good and bad cholesterol, protein, ketones, glucose, etc. I get hungry, but not within a few hours of having eaten like I previously did. Without even trying, I lost some more weight, which leads me to conclude that I had been eating more than I needed because of what I was eating. It seems like I’ve finally found the right food regimen. At least for now…
We occasionally lament over how ruined we’ve become, no longer able to blissfully indulge in the stuff of childhood memories, like Twinkies and Doritos, seek comfort in macaroni & cheese and New York style pizza, or enjoy a Reuben sandwich on crusty rye bread. In our brains, these foods seem enticing, but in reality, they just don’t taste the same anymore.
Every once in a while we get a pizza, eat a doughnut, or have a deli sandwich. What we’ve both found over time, though, is that they just aren’t as satisfying as they used to seem. But because a really important part of a lifestyle change is not feeling deprived, we occasionally indulge only to find out we really prefer the way we eat now. For dietary changes to be permanent, they need to be choices, not dictates, or they’ll just lead to resentment and eventual backsliding.
In case you’re curious, here is a comparison chart of a typical day comparison for me on a low-fat versus low-carbohydrate regimen.
|Low-fat regimen||Low-carbohydrate regimen|
|· Frosted shredded mini wheats, banana, fat-free yogurt (~250 calories)||· 1 ½ oz. nuts (~250 calories)|
|Morning Snack||Morning Snack|
|· Lara-type bar (~100 calories)||· Usually none, but maybe ½ oz. nuts|
|· Boca burger topped with ketchup, mustard, and fat-free cheese on 70 calorie wheat bun, raw carrots, 1 fruit, fat-free yogurt (~400 calories)||· Boca burger topped with Daiya cheese and mustard, vegetable soup, 1 oz nuts, a few raspberries (~350 calories)|
|Afternoon Snack||Afternoon Snack|
|· Fat-free yogurt or pretzels with fat-free cheese, 1 fruit (bt. 100-250 calories)||· 1 oz. nuts, 3 sq. 88% cocoa chocolate, or Beanito tortilla chips with Daiya cheese (bt. 100-200 calories)|
|· Faux chicken breast with BBQ sauce, 3 oz. roasted sweet potato, steamed vegetables with 1 t oil, salad with 2 T. fat-free dressing, fat-free yogurt (~500 calories)||· 3 faux meatballs broiled in 1+ t. oil, spaghetti squash topped with 1+t. oil and 1 T. nut Parmesan, Chinese eggplant topped with 2 t. oil, salad with 1/3 avocado, 1 t. flax seed, 6 olives, and 2 T. low-sugar dressing (~545 calories)|
|Dessert/Evening Snack||Dessert/Evening Snack|
|· ½ Little Debbie Brownie with fat-free Cool Whip, topped with hot fudge and a maraschino cherry (~250 calories)
· Pretzels with fat-free cheese (~150 calories)
|· It depends on what I had throughout the day, I may have 3 sq. 88% chocolate, some potato chips, some high-protein pretzels and/or some cake I make (bt. 100-350 calories)|
|Total- bt. 1,800-2,000 / day, ~ 40 grams of fat||Total- ~1,700-2,000 calories/ day, ~90 grams of fat|