There's been a weighty debate in this country for at least a decade: What makes us fat, carbohydrates or fat?
After years of following alternative weight loss thinkers for my personal knowledge and recently to help people normalize their weight and maximize their health, in my new book Diabetes Dos & How-Tos, I have experienced the answer. My clothes are hanging off of me.
I lost 10 pounds in three months without trying. My goal wasn't to lose weight. It was not to gain it. Last September I had badly sprained my ankle and was suddenly on crutches and then in a boot cast for three months.
Unable to do my daily hour power walk, I decided I would eat a little less so the scale didn't climb up. Having been reading about the paleo diet -- lean meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, eggs, fruit, high-quality fats, nuts, seeds, no grain or dairy -- I decided to follow a modified version: Reduce the carbs in my already low-carb eating plan and add more healthy fat like nuts, seeds, avocados, flax and coconut oil.
Before I go any farther, I have to say what any responsible dispenser of weight and nutrition advice should say: It may be different for you. Our bodies are all different, and there are many complex metabolic processes at play, particularly if you've been on a cycle of losing and gaining weight.
But I believe for many people, if you reduce the refined carbohydrates in your diet -- white bread, bagels, pasta, muffins, scones, cold breakfast cereal, chips, sweets, soda and sweetened drinks -- and add more healthy fats -- nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines, olives, olive, flax and coconut oil -- you'll likely lose some weight, stop the cycle of ravenous hunger, feel more satiated, and have more energy and more stable blood sugars.
It's true 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, while 1 gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories. It's also counter-intuitive to think carbs make us fat more than fat. But as Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories, says in his 2007 article, "Good Calories, Bad Calories," obesity is not due just to calories but the quality of those calories. And it's about how fat and carbs get used in our body.
Storing Carbs as Fat
Taubes and other low-carb enthusiasts say when we eat more carbohydrates than we burn for energy, our body ends up storing them as fat, and that this is the primary cause of weight gain and related ills.
It works like this: Refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar. Your body then produces extra insulin to bring your blood sugar down. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. With more circulating insulin in your bloodstream, your body converts the carbohydrates to fat and stores them -- on your buttocks, thighs, abdomen and hips. If you have diabetes and don't produce sufficient insulin, you either take more insulin, or medication that releases more insulin, to cover the carbs.
Dr. Richard Bernstein, a low-carb advocate and diabetologist who wrote the classic book Diabetes Solution, advocates low-carb eating for glycemic control. He also says, as do low-carb advocates, that high-quality fats, including some saturated fat from animals, is healthy and not the cause of obesity or heart disease. This is particularly significant for people with Type 2 diabetes, since most people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight and two-thirds die of cardiovascular disease.
Sugar-Burners vs. Fat-Burners
When I interviewed Mark Sisson last year, paleo advocate and author of the Primal Blueprint, he explained another factor at play for weight gain and loss. People who eat a lot of carbohydrates he calls "sugar-burners." They burn carbs for energy and need a steady supply of carbs to keep their energy up. Always relying on carbs for energy, they have difficulty accessing and burning their stored fat.
When we eat less carbs, however, said Sisson, people become "fat-burners." The body first goes for carbs to burn for fuel, but after it burns the small amount of carbohydrates eaten, primarily from vegetables, it then accesses and burns stored body fat, which leads to weight loss.
Benefits of Healthy Fat
While we've been taught to think that fat is our enemy, the body needs healthy fats. They help us absorb vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from other foods. They supply energy, help us build cell membranes, and strengthen our digestive, nervous and immune systems. Healthy fats can also reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, arthritis, Alzheimer's, depression, joint pain and inflammation.
Plus, fat and complex carbohydrate foods -- like barley, whole oats, popcorn, bulgur, millet, quinoa, sweet potatoes, brown rice, lentils, quinoa, beans and buckwheat -- satisfy our appetite, so we tend to eat less. Refined carbohydrate foods -- your sweets and chips -- tend to make us more hungry, so we tend to eat more.
How I Changed My Diet
Dietitians will tell you not to eliminate any entire food group from your diet, and I didn't. But instead of eating oatmeal every morning, I ate it four times a week. The other mornings I ate two eggs with a chicken sausage, or cottage cheese with peanut butter or tofu, fruit and nuts.
Instead of putting beans on my dinner plate every night I did it two nights a week and added more non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower the other nights.
I changed my lunch from a salad with falafel and hummus, mostly carbs, to a salad of steamed vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled chicken, a crumble of feta cheese and two healthy slices of avocado with flax oil, herbs, and red wine vinegar.
I saute in coconut oil now and snack during the day on a handful of nuts, and at night on a small bowl of sunflower seeds and a piece or two of premium quality dark chocolate.
I know it's hard to believe carbs can make us fatter than fat. It also defies the seemingly-healthy labeling on food products. But as you're reaching for that "no-fat" yogurt, "low-fat" bread, "fat-free" cookie package, look around you. Are most people fat or slim?
When foods have fat removed, they usually have more sugar added to replace the flavor fat supplies. If you accept that an over abundance of carbs turns into fat in your body, you're not doing yourself any favor to reach for higher-carb, fat-free foods.
The food changes I've made over the past six months, for me, were not gigantic. I already ate a low-carb diet. But eating fewer carbs, which spontaneously led to consuming less calories, along with more protein and healthy fat, the weight began to slide off me. It has also stayed off me because this is how I eat now. And, I'm not hungry.
As for the initial three months I went without exercising, I saw while my daily one hour power-walk is a great way to maintain my weight and my health, it didn't really contribute to weight loss.
I'm not advocating a ban on carbs as a quick weight loss scheme. I don't believe in quick weight loss schemes or diets. But I am convinced, as a nation, we eat too many carbs, especially refined carbs, more unhealthy fats than healthy fats, and that food marketers are selling us a bill of goods making us think fat is bad while hooking us on poor-quality carbs.
For me, the proof is hanging all around me in the clothes in my closet that are a size or two too big.
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Riva's new book, Diabetes Do's & How-To's, is available in print and Kindle, along with her other books, 50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It and The ABCs Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes. Riva speaks to patients and health care providers about flourishing with diabetes. Visit her website DiabetesStories.com.