Sunday, March 30, 2014

Are low-carb diets the way to go?

Here's my most recent column, published in the Sunday Star Times on 30th March 2014. 

Compared to many areas of science, the science of nutrition, in the scheme of things, is only in its infancy. That’s probably why it often feels like scientists ‘change their minds’ all the time about what’s healthy and what’s not. Over the years some very plausible theories have been debunked, and new ones have been introduced. And there’s always a new theory around the corner.
One popular theory at the moment – although not new – is that eating a low carbohydrate diet is the key to good health. It’s the basis for the old Atkins diet, and the newly popular paleo-style diets, (although some paleo followers do include more carbs). It’s also the basis for a low-carb diet with a twist – the low carb, high fat diet, or LCHF diet, being proposed by a group of scientists as potentially the key to fighting type 2 diabetes and obesity. On this diet most (about 80%) of the energy comes from fat. That means eating eggs, fatty meat, fish, cream, coconut oil, butter, cheese and plenty of non-starchy veges, topped off with extra shots of oil and butter in your coffee.
Whether that appeals or not, it’s an interesting theory, and it will be interesting to see what comes from research on it, which is needed before we can really know if the theory is correct. At this stage it seems likely that a LCHF diet could work well for some people, although even advocates of the diet say it’s not for everyone, and the long-term effects are not yet known.
A common problem with many dietary theories, whether low-carb-high-fat, or - as has been recently proposed as another ‘best’ diet, high-carb, low-protein – is that it can be tricky to apply them to our real lives. Most of us don’t think of our food in terms of percentages – counting grams of carbs and fat. We think in terms of foods. If the only message we took from a theory like LCHF was ‘eat more fat’ and we didn’t change anything else in our diets – it could be disastrous.
However, there’s little doubt that poor-quality, refined carbohydrates are bad for our health. They’re especially bad when combined with saturated fat and salt - probably the worst case scenario, especially for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. But it’s worth remembering that all carbs are not equal. We could all probably improve our health by looking at the quality of the carbs we eat. Ditch the cakes and biscuits, white bread, white rice and mashed potato. Concentrate on true whole grains (not just things that say ‘wholegrain’ on the packet) and low-GI carbohydrates from legumes and colourful veges. Stick to fresh whole foods and it’s hard to go wrong, carbs or no carbs.
Personally I think I would find a very low-carb life difficult. As a food lover, the idea of a life where I could never eat crisply roasted potato or kumara, fresh sweetcorn, nutty quinoa, or a warm bowl of porridge on a cold morning – feels like a hard life. 

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