Fad Diets: Low-Carb the New Low-Fat?

What do you think? Is the standard American diet a problem? Now, I’m no health expert, but I can answer that—with a resounding YES! Just look at yesterday’s post The Standard American Shockwave, and you’ll see that everything the standard American diet touches turns bad. So then, what makes it so terrible? Dr. Fuhrman explains in Eat to Live:

The reason people are overweight is too little physical activity, in conjunction with a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet. Eating a diet with plenty of low-fiber, calorie-dense food, such as oil and refined carbohydrates, is the main culprit.


As long as you are eating fatty foods and refined carbohydrates, it is impossible to lose weight healthfully. In fact, this vicious combination of sedentary lifestyle and eating typical “American” food (high fat, low-fiber) is the primary reason we have such an incredibly overweight population.

Now if you consider the exercise component, the standard American diet becomes more complex. So, perhaps it should be more aptly named the standard American lifestyle. But, for the purposes of this post, let’s stay focused on diet and ignore the lack of sufficient physical activity. I know, kind of hard to overlook, but try.

Okay just diet, so let’s look at what we’ve got: high fat foods and various refined fare. Let’s start with the refined foods. What’s the problem with them? Well, Dr. Fuhrman will tell you, all the fiber and nutrients have been stripped out of them until they’re basically just empty calories. For more on this, I refer to Michael Pollan’s recent article on nutritionism. In it, he talks about the ebbs and flows of processed food. Here’s a peek:

The typical real food has more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism, if only because something like a banana or an avocado can’t easily change its nutritional stripes (though rest assured the genetic engineers are hard at work on the problem). So far, at least, you can’t put oat bran in a banana. So depending on the reigning nutritional orthodoxy, the avocado might be either a high-fat food to be avoided (Old Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (New Think). The fate of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather, while the processed foods are simply reformulated. That’s why when the Atkins mania hit the food industry, bread and pasta were given a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the protein), while the poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the cold.

Now this brings me to the next topic of discussion, the high-fat portion of the standard American diet, but more specifically the mass media phobia of it; which is ironic because Americans deep down love their fat. A lot of industrialized foods make claims to be “low-fat” which in many cases I’m sure they are, but this begs the question, what about calorie content? Well to answer that, let’s take a look at this article from Men’s Health magazine. It reports that the low-carb fad is destined to follow the same road as the low-fat diet, and ultimately, forget all about total calorie consumption:

We've been here before - about 10 years ago, in fact. The last time a diet craze swept the country, it ushered in more than 3,000 new food products on the wings of just three simple words: Eat less fat. And yet, in the ensuing decade, the number of overweight Americans increased by 15 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and the average American man's waist size increased by an inch and a half. Weight management became even more difficult, because the supermarket became more confusing, and the three simple words that were supposed to squeeze us back into our wedding suits let us down, terribly.


And it's about to happen all over again. "Consumers think carb-free is calorie-free, which it's not," says Leslie Bonci, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). "They think someone's giving them permission to eat that food. And what's going to happen is, we're going to see people start to gain weight."

In January of this year, more than 400 people who work in the food industry gathered at the Adam's Mark hotel in Denver for the first-ever LowCarbiz Summit to learn how they could profit from the new craving for low-carbohydrate foods. What they heard at the start was a warning from Fred Pescatore, M.D., a protege of Dr. Robert Atkins, the original low-carb guru: "We can't be like low-fat," he said. "We can't be just a fad."

And then, for 2 days, they learned ways to turn the low-carb craze into exactly that. In between snacking on low-carb foods and drinking Bacardi and diet cola (the official adult beverage of the low-carb movement), conference goers attended sessions like "Low Carb for the Nondieter" and "The Scientific Case against Low Carb: Know What the Industry's Detractors Are Saying and How to Respond."

Are you starting to see where I’m going with all this? Years back the country demanded low-fat everything. So what ensued? Decades of diet-books and food products proclaiming the benefits of a low-fat eating. And what did we get? Something now commonly referred to as the standard American diet, an epidemic of obesity and all the problems that go along with it; diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. And that’s not it.

We also got the avalanche of reactionary diets known as low-carb, South Beach, Atkins, or whatever catchy name some marketing company has come up with today. They basically say, “We’ve forsaken fat for too long! The real devil is carbs. Embrace the meat.” And we as a meat-loving, but fat-nervous culture eat it up. Why? Well because we recognize that the verson of the low-fat diet we have come to understand hasn’t worked. So why not give something that goes against the grain a try? Actually, the low-fat diet that has been forced down our throats all these years would more appropriately be described as the standard American low-fat diet. After all, how much better for us is it than the actual standard American diet? And how does it really differ?

But here’s the problem, and this why I think the Men’s Health article is right on target. The low-carb diet is now following the same path as the standard American low-fat diet. Lots of products touting the low-carb label—just like all the foods with the low-fat stamp of approval! And what are we left with? Tons of industrialized calorie-dense nutrient-stripped foods that people gobble up assuming they are eating intelligently, but all the while, not realizing that they’re consuming more and more empty calories. Isn’t this is exactly what caused us the problems we now have!

For me the answer is clear, realize that the average standard American diet and the standard American low-fat diet has failed, abandon all processed foods and their over-hyped claims, and perhaps most imporant of all, ignore the reactionary claims of the low-carb diet. How’d I arrive at this conclusion? That should be an easy one to figure out. I’m just regurgitating what’ve learned from Dr. Fuhrman. He’ll tell you, you want to lose weight, not consume too many calories, still get plenty of nutrients, and protect yourself from disease? A vegetable-based nutrient-dense diet is the answer. Just take green vegetables for example, look how they stack up against other foods. Check out this table from the Nutrient Density of Green Vegetables:

 
Nutrients present in 100-calorie portions
  Broccoli Sirloin Steak Romaine Lettuce Kale
Protein 11.2 gm 5.4 gm 7.5 gm 11 gm
Calcium 322 mg 2.4 mg 374 mg 470 mg
Iron 3.5 mg .7 mg 7.7 mg 5.8 mg
Magnesium 74.5 mg 5 mg 60.5 mg 97 mg
Fiber 4.7 g 0 4 g 3.4 g
Phytochemicals Very High 0 Very High Very High
Antioxidants Very High 0 Very High Very High
Folate 257 mcg 3 mcg 969 mcg 60 mcg
B2 .71 mg .04 mg .45 mg .32 mg
Niacin 2.8 mg 1.1 mg 2.2 mg 2.1 mg
Zinc 1.04 mg 1.2 mg 1.2 mg gm .55 mg
Vitamin C 350 mg 0 100 mg 329 mg
Vitamin A 7750 IU 24 IU 10,450 IU 23,407 IU
Vitamin E 26 IU 0 32 IU 34 IU
Cholesterol 0 5.5 mg 0 0
Weight 307 gm 24 gm 550 gm 266 gm
  (10.6 oz) (.84 oz) (19 oz) (9.2 oz)

And here's one more from Foods That Make You Thin:

Caloric Ratios of Common Foods
Foods Calories Per Pound Calories Per Liter Fiber Grams Per Pound
Oils 3,900 7,700 0
Potato chips of French fries 2,600 3,000 0
Meat 2,000 3,000 0
Cheese 1,600 3,400 0
White Bread 1,300 1,500 0
Chicken and Turkey (white meat) 900 1,600 0
Fish 800 1,400 0
Eggs 700 1,350 0
Whole Grains (wheat and rice) 600 1,000 3
Starchy Vegetables (potatoes and corn) 350 600 4
Beans 350 500 5
Fruits 250 300 9
Green Vegetables 100 200 5

I often wonder. If produce companies started sticking health claims on fresh fruits and vegetables and bolstered them with huge advertising budgets, would people finally realize that they’re the real health foods? Maybe so, because after all history would seem to predict that.