Don’t get caught up in the “my diet is better than your diet” mentality. Focusing on food quality is more important when it comes to promoting good health and reducing disease risk.
Despite several decades of debate and discussion about the relative merits of low-fat and low-carb diets, there is no scientific consensus on which way of eating is “best,” a fact outlined beautifully in a review article published last fall in Science magazine. “Dietary fat: From foe to friend?” was co-authored by four researchers with a wide range of perspectives on the issue, including Marian Neuhouser of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Together, they identified a few controversies — including areas where more research is needed — and some areas of consensus. Here they are.
While there is clear scientific support for both low-fat and low-carb diets — and populations around the globe who thrive on both — there’s no clear “winner” here. One reason for this is that clinical studies are relatively short-term — a few years at best. When looking at prevention or treatment of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, researchers won’t know the effects of consistently following a low-fat or low-carb diet (including the ketogenic diet) for years — or even decades.
Another lingering question concerns the way our individual genotypes (genetic makeup) and phenotypes (the interaction between our genotypes and our environments) determine what proportion of carbs and fat suits us best. Even though we’re all human, we’re not all identical. For example, last year’s well-designed DIETFITS study, which randomly assigned participants to follow a low-fat or a low-carb diet, did not find an overall difference between the groups. But results were all over the map when researchers looked at individual participants within both groups.
What did the authors agree on? A prescribed carb-to-fat ratio might be warranted for treatment of specific health conditions, but for most people, focusing on food quality is more important when it comes to promoting good health and reducing disease risk. In other words, most of us do well eating low-fat, low-carb, or somewhere in between, as long as our food provides the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber we need. For that, we do need the “right” fats and carbs.
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The authors agreed that unsaturated fats are a healthier choice than saturated fats — and this may be especially true for people who are eating higher-carb diets. Trans fats? We still need to avoid those. Examples of unsaturated fats are omega-3 fats from fish and seafood, along with a variety of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. For people who can’t, or just don’t, eat seafood, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are good sources of plant-based omega-3.
The best carb choices are unprocessed or minimally processed. For example, nonstarchy vegetables (broccoli, salad greens, cauliflower, asparagus, etc.), whole fruit, beans and lentils, and whole or minimally processed grains (examples include brown rice, quinoa, wheat berries, unpearled barley, or bread, pasta and tortillas made with 100 percent whole grains). A healthful low-fat breakfast would be steel-cut oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk topped with fruit, while a healthful low-carb breakfast would be scrambled eggs with vegetables topped with avocado.
The bottom line
Don’t get caught up in the “my diet is better than your diet” competition, and just eat. Eat the best quality food that you can afford, have access to and have time to prepare. It’s important that whatever dietary pattern you choose be sustainable — if you don’t feel good when you eat, you won’t be able to stick to it.