Is it time to bring back the fat? 

In the last couple of days, there have been two media pieces that want us to ditch dietary guidelines, claiming that promoting ‘high carbohydrate, low fat diets’ is to blame for the ‘obesity epidemic’. The first is Channel 7’s news piece from ‘dietitian’ Christine Cronau (not actually a dietitian!) and The National Obesity Forum in Britain.
I have a lot to say but I’ll try to keep it to one or two (or four) points.

  1. These people are not using the best methods of looking at the science.
 Christine is using anecdotal evidence: ie, what works for her. We know that as long as you stick to a diet, you can lose weight for a few months. This includes very low carbohydrate diets like the Atkins diet. This is not news.
The National Obesity Forum looks a little more legit. It references studies! That’s scientific, right? The thing is when you look at individual studies, you can make claims about anything you like. The report looks at 43 studies, which sounds like a lot, but the dietary guidelines examine literally thousands of studies. These giant reviews are much more reliable.

  1. People aren’t following dietary guidelines.
 Less than 4% of adults in Australia are eating the recommended amount of vegetables. There is a great chart in this article. To claim the guidelines are to blame when practically no-one is following them is bizarre. Also, Australia’s Dietary Guidelines are moderate carbohydrate, not high!

  1. Weight is not a good measure of health.
To claim that all thin people are physically healthy and all fat people are not is ridiculous. What truly matters is health behaviours. And remember that there is more to health than physical health. Having a good social life and good mental health are extremely important, and if your way of eating is not helping your to see friends and be happy, it’s not healthy.

  1. There is not one diet that is the best diet for everyone.
 As I wrote in my take on high/medium/low carbohydrate diets, healthy diets do have common features: Lots of fruits and vegetables, high in fibre, has all the energy, vitamins, and minerals you need, and not dominated by highly refined grains, sugar or processed meats. Eat delicious food you love that makes your body feel good.

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We Are Being Lied To About Weight Loss

lies about weight loss

Nothing makes me quite as annoyed as the myths about weight loss. I went through some common ones on the science-side of things.

“It’s simple energy-in, energy-out.”

Our body isn’t an in-out energy machine. As soon as you start to eat less food than you need for your body and brain to work at their best, your brain starts to find ways to reduce your need for energy and increase how much you eat. Because it thinks you’re in a famine.

Things your body may do:

  • ramping up hunger (especially for high energy food)
  • reducing satiety (fullness) signals
  • reducing your metabolism (making you more tired)
  • increasing efficiency of muscles (so you use less energy doing everyday movement)
  • holding onto fat as much as it can
  • reducing adrenaline response (so you can’t run as fast in an emergency)

Which means that any efforts to lose weight by changing energy balance are counter-balanced by your body in an effort to maintain your weight.

“[insert fad diet of the week] is the answer”

Diet gurus try to claim that their diet is the best way to lose weight and keep it off: that somehow eating certain foods in just the right proportions, or cutting out the right food group will somehow overcome your body’s efforts to make sure you don’t starve.

A study found that of all the ‘named’ diets (think Atkins, Zone) worked pretty much exactly the same for weight loss at 12 months, as long as you can stick to them.

“If you fail at weight loss, you lack self-control”

Every single diet study shows that an overwhelming majority of people regain weight. Weight loss maxes out at six months and most is regained by 12 months. Less than 3% of people will have kept all their weight loss 5 years later, and most people will have regained at least 83% of the weight they lost. This is because as long as your body weight is lower, your body is putting in a lot of effort to get you back there. Being on a diet is a risk factor for weight gain. Diets are perceived by your body to be times of famine. And times of famine could come again, so your body stores fat to protect you.

“Diets don’t work, but lifestyle changes do”

This, of course, depends what you mean by ‘work’. Lifestyle changes can make you fitter, healthier and happier. They can also help you lose weight in the short term. However, the changes that your body makes to protect itself from weight loss still happen whether you call the changes a lifestyle change or a diet. It’s still less energy for your body to function.

“You can’t be ‘overweight’ and healthy”

So where does this leave us? Is it all a lost cause? Are we doomed to diet of obesity-related diseases? The answer is NO. Health and weight are not 100% linked. It is true that higher body weight seems to be associated with higher risks of certain disease – but this does NOT mean that they are caused by the weight itself.

Changing your lifestyle by increasing healthy behaviours will increase your wellbeing and increase the odds of living longer, regardless of your weight. Healthy behaviours include:

  • getting enough fruit and vegetables
  • doing some exercise
  • staying socially connected
  • seeing a doctor regularly
  • drinking moderately or not at all
  • not smoking

Good luck on your non weight-focused quest for health!

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Some sciencey reading if you’re interested in some facts behind all this:

Physiological defense of body weight.

All diets are the same.

Long-term weight loss.

Diets predict weight gain.