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Fat or fad?

14 January 2019
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Filling time at Sydney Airport recently ahead of an early flight home, I decided to have a ‘light’ breakfast at Mach2. I clocked other diners tucking into plates of bacon and eggs with the lot provoking my reflex response: ‘unhealthy’, and duly ordered the home-made crumpets with ricotta and berries. Well, all eyes soon turned my way when three enormous crumpets as high as they were wide arrived, peeking out from a mountain of creamy ricotta, berry compote and golden syrup so extravagant my neighbour leaned over to declare “that looks more like dessert”.

Inflight, fending off a food coma from the only crumpet I’d managed, I watched Netflix doco The Magic Pill, which suggests what we’ve been told about nutrition is dangerously wrong; that the fat-based diet eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors is the fuel nature intended for us, not the carbohydrate-based diet the western world has been consuming in recent times. The film tracks people in the US and Australia adopting a protein-based ‘ketogenic’ diet that’s high on fat and very low on carbs to not only lose weight but alleviate chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma,hypertension and autism. Within weeks they all achieve remarkable improvements in wellbeing, losing not only kilos but entrenched drug dependency. Compelling arguments are made for reevaluating the relative position of carbs vs fats in our diet and ridding it of refined oils, processed and low-fat foods, provoking much food for thought: Would bacon and eggs have been the healthier breakfast choice?

Should we be fuelling on carbs or fat?

“Why do humans alone need willpower to control our weight when all other species on the planet (except those fed by us) do so automatically?” asks The Magic Pill producer and narrator Pete Evans, of My Kitchen Rules fame. The carbohydrate-based, low-fat diet that’s been championed since the 1960s is the reason why, his film asserts. Carbohydrates fuel our bodies on glucose, ie sugar. Any chef will tell you fat equals flavour, so low-fat food producers compensate for less taste by adding more sugar. Consuming more sugar than we can process makes it the culprit for escalating rates of chronic illness and obesity, say low-carb diet advocates.

Dubbed Paleo Pete for his fierce advocacy for reverting to only eating the foods available to cave dwellers in the Paleolithic era, Evans has lately embraced the even more controversial ketogenic diet (paleo is so 2015). Eating keto means eating a phenomenal amount of full fat animal foods because proponents argue our metabolism runs more efficiently burning fat for energy - using ketones produced from breaking down fats for fuel -than it runs on glucose.

Evans’ Magic Pill formula is:

eat only wholefoods, primarily grass-fed meat and non-starchy vegetables and fruit, seafood, and eggs;

instead of avoiding animal fats, embrace saturated fats like tallow, lard and butter, along with olive oil, avocado and coconut oils; eliminate refined vegetable oils;

no grains, no bread, no pasta, no cereals, no legumes. Replace them with seeds and nuts.

no processed foods (even the helpful ones like wine and coffee!).

if you must have dairy, only full fat and organic (strict paleo allows no dairy)

High fat pros and cons?

High fat, low carb diets like keto or paleo (or Atkins, remember that one?) replace carbs with healthy sources of fat (naturally occurring plant and animal fats not chemically processed ones) and attract rave reviews for shifting excess weight fast. They also advocate many healthy foods and fats are known to be especially beneficial for our brains.

On the flipside, critics claim too many rules make such diets too hard to follow, that weight loss is hard to maintain long term and living on grass-fed beef and wild, sustainably caught seafood is expensive. But the major criticism of these diets is that they are unbalanced, eliminating entire food groups considered essential to healthy eating.

That’s why, when the Keto Diet was assessed for the first time this year by health experts for USNews & World Report’s annual 40 Best Diets, it ranked last (paleo came in at 37). That’s why the head of the Australian Medical Association called for The Magic Pill to be pulled off air.

I can, however, vouch first hand for the transformative effect of Pete’s diet. Ten years ago, I escorted him on a media famil when he was a host of a daytime cooking show and chef at trendy Hugo’s Pizza Restaurant. While unquestionably good looking then, since turning his back on carbs and leaving pizza making to his brother, Pete now looks way fitter and his complexion and those ultra-blue eyes positively glow (more than any amount of teeth whitening could account for).

Panel: How does keto differ from paleo?

Both are high protein, low carb diets - in keto’s case extremely low carbs - advocating a high intake of animal proteins. While paleo focuses on eliminating certain foods to only eat high protein, low carb food rich in fibre, a ketogenic diet’s primary focus is to change the body’s metabolism from running on sugar to running on fat. To achieve and maintain this state of ketosis, you must radically reduce your carbohydrate intake and replace the vast majority of carbs with fat. This means keeping count of our three macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) to derive 75% of your daily calorie intake from fat, 20% from protein (which rather than being a fuel is a building block) and just 5% from carbs (that’s one banana a day on the typical 2000 calorie diet).

So should we ditch the carbs?

Those children of the 1960s, largely fed on meat and three veg and a message of fat clogs our arteries, have grown into adults consuming pasta, rice, grains and way more processed and convenience foods. Along the way our waistlines have expanded markedly – the average weight gain for NZ women since 1960 is 18.5%, men 17.6% and our rates of obese adults and overweight children are third highest in the world. We asked Senior Lecturer in Sports Nutrition at the University of Canterbury Dr Carl Petersen whether it’s time we lessened our carb intake?

“The reason for increasing rates of obesity and chronic illness is multi factorial and cannot just be put down to the low fat, high carb diet,” he says, as it doesn’t take into account variables like an individual’s activity level, their exercise habits, and how their stress hormones adapt to a diet. He points to a 25 year study of low carb vs high carb consumption, published recently in The Lancet, that found the low carb dieters lived on average four years less (and high carb dieters 1.1 years less) than those eating the recommended moderate level of carbohydrates. Also diets favouring plant- rather than animal-based foods were associated with lower mortality.

He does though agree there is mounting evidence suggesting saturated fat is not the villain it’s been painted to be and rather sugar is. “From a health perspective a sugar tax is a good idea,” he says. “Even as people reduce sugary beverage consumption and companies reduce sugar content in beverages, the savings in government medical expenditure far outweigh the declining tax intake.” Decreased soft drink consumption since the UK introduced its sugar tax in 2016 is forecast to prevent 370 coronary heart disease deaths annually. New Zealand is lagging behind our Pacific neighbours in preparing to take on the sugar peddlers and 48 cities, nations and territories who have imposed taxes so far.

Which diets are recommended?

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has reviewed eight popular diets and recommends either the Mediterranean or the DASH diets (concurring with US News’ 40 Best Diets rating these equal first place). It does not recommend either Paleo or Very-Low Carbohydrate diets.

The Mediterranean diet emphasises eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts; replacing butter with monounsaturated fats, mainly from olive oil; and eating a moderate amount of fish, poultry and dairy products, with little or no red meat. There’s no quick fix – the Ministry says it’s effective for weight loss when a person follows it for 12 or more months - but it’s proven to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.

The DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet helps lower blood pressure and risk of heart disease and cancer with plenty of vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy products, and moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts.

What about commercial programmes?

The Ministry of Health says research has found that on average commercial weight loss programmes result in greater weight loss than self-directed diets and advises these could better suit those seeking more rapid weight loss. But these cost money and it can be hard for people to sustain the benefits once they stop paying for counselling, peer support and monitoring.

WeightWatchers is ranked the best of these by the American study, coming in fourth place after Flexitarian (basically vegetarian, with occasional meat or fish), because it teaches how to incorporate a full range of foods in your diet and because of the support base.

How about a detox?

I’m a flexitarian kind of girl who’s welcomed paleo’s cauliflower rice and life changing bread (google it!), but given that bread and cheese would be my desert-island food, my decades-long aversion to red meat, and voluntary drug dependency on caffeine and alcohol, I’m not going to jump on the keto bandwagon anytime soon. In fact, Dry July, is the closest I’ve ever come to a fad diet.

But in the interests of research I took up Greenroots Juicery’s offer of a three-day Organic Juice Cleanse. Yes, that meant no solid food for 72 hours. Replacing it with seven liquid ‘meals’ a day allows the metabolic organs to rest and renew, says Greenroots’ Chief Wellness Warrior Katie Penelope. The energy the body normally expends simply digesting food is instead focused on absorbing a huge influx of vitamins and minerals (over 1kg of organic produce is pressed into each of the five main juices). Katie says the abnormal amount of toxins we’re now exposed to - not just in what we eat and drink but in the air and skin products - means we can only flush out so much before we start storing them. But rather than a detox, she prefers to describe a cleanse as a ‘reset’ for the body once it’s emptied out the old.

Day one of my reset (aka DIY oil change) went surprisingly well. The raw, organic, cold-pressed juices, smoothies and tonics were without exception delicious –kickstarting with the intensely flavoured wellness shot of turmeric, ginger, lemon, lime wild orange and black pepper. So no hardship there. Nor was hunger a problem, as I’d feared – more than 35serves a day of organic fruits, veges and superfoods charging into my metabolism kept it ticking along nicely.

I did develop a very mild caffeine withdrawal headache that afternoon, which came and went over the next two days. I found myself muddling words, both writing and speaking, and putting food in the fridge rather than the freezer; I suspect for lack of caffeine or fats. And towards the end of the day I got very tired and went to bed early to experience the deepest, longest sleep I’d had in months and even remembered my dreams next day – which I seldom can.

I sailed through day two and was feeling super calm and contented, even though it was one of those dreary wet Saturdays that normally drive me stir-crazy. Not having to plan and prepare meals was bliss. But by now I noticed a sugar build-up on my teeth and that I was falling down in one area – ontop of the prescribed three litres of juice daily, I was meant to be drinking an equal amount of water to - believe it or not - hydrate (between the juice ‘food’). Between sipping on 550ml juices (which take a surprisingly long time to drink) and tripping to the bathroom (very, very frequently), to imbibe a further 300-500ml of water between each juice, as recommended, I would’ve needed gills.

On day three I awoke from another remarkably good sleep and switched from the Live Light to the Signature Cleanse for a slightly different menu. Gone was my breakfast fave Mint Choc Chip Superfood Smoothie (raw cacao nibs, banana, activated cashews, cacao powder, mint, peppermint essential oil, dates) in favour of tangelo, green apple, lemon and beetroot (still yummy, just not as satisfying). By mid-afternoon I was counting how many bottles to go. I longed to bite something. I wasn’t hangry, simply bored, and that made me realise how often I turn to food for entertainment (and we all know what that means: surplus calories). I made do with two chocolate buttons (one white, one dark:you know, balance) and with my reset metabolism it really wasn’t hard to find the willpower to stay on task to the end.

The upshot

Did I lose weight on the juice cleanse? Maybe a little – no doubt through loss of water as is the case initially with all ‘lose weight fast’ diets. Juice cleanses halve the normal calorie intake, but the purpose of a cleanse is not weight loss but enhanced nutrition, says Katie. Did I come out the other side feeling healthier? Absolutely.

After all this research, I reckon I’ll be sticking to the ’eat everything in moderation (in moderation)’ and get enough exercise approach. If I want to eat chips, chocolate and cheese, I will, just not every day or to excess (quality chocolate contains no dairy or the nasty trans fats anyway). I’m not convinced there is a magic pill to losing weight but am certain every one of us would be healthier cutting down on low fat, processed and sugar dense, nutrient poor foods like cakes and soft drinks. And maybe eating a bit more bacon.

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