It's hard to avoid the newest trend in town: fat is in, carbs are out. But is a high fat/low carb diet right for you? We explore why it might not be all it's cracked up to be.
Saturated Vs Unsaturated Fat
It's the most trendy thing in the world right now: the humble avocado. Why? Because it's high in 'healthy' fats (and because it makes for a cute emoji). Fat is enjoying a resurgence of late because, well, we need it to survive and the fact it has been demonised in the past is now being put into question. We need fat for a variety of natural bodily functions such as creating energy, absorbing vitamins and minerals, maintaining body temperature, and insulating the body's vital organs.
There are three types of fat: saturated, unsaturated (which is then sub-categorised into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and trans fat. Trans fat, otherwise known as hydrogenated fat, is completely synthetic and is never good for you; you could live your whole life without consuming it and you'd actually be better off for it. Saturated fat goes in cycles of scientists deciding it's bad for you, then declaring it's actually not bad for you, then changing their minds again ad infinitum. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is found at a molecular level and refers to the way the hydrogen molecules are bonded together. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, things like butter and cheese. Unsaturated fats are more likely to be oils like olive oil and vegetable oil however it's also found in foods like fish and nuts.
Which type of fat is better for you?
What's interesting is that a lot of research surrounding which types is better for you is observational or anecdotal. For example, one study found that a group of people with heart disease had higher levels of saturated fat in their diets so it was decided saturated fat must equal heart disease. However, we all know that correlation does not equal causation and a study like this doesn't actually prove that the fact these people had consumed a lot of saturated fat is what caused their heart disease.
Similarly, when it comes to how healthy unsaturated fat is claimed to be, people often refer to the 'Mediterranean diet' and how the people of countries like Greece and Italy consume larger quantities of olive oils and fish so that must be why they're all so slim, tan, and healthy. However, when you visit these countries, you realise that these people are all so fit and healthy because they walk or cycle everywhere, live up steep hills so do a lot of strenuous exercise just to buy their morning newspaper, and are more likely to work a physical job than wilt in an office all day.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat yet it is enjoying real popularity at the moment due to its supposed health benefits. So, the jury's out on which fat we should consume and probably always will be depending on whose agenda is paying the most for advertising at the time. But what we are being told is that a high fat diet is awesome for you. But is it really?
The Keto Diet
The biggest fad diet of recent years is the keto diet. The Atkins diet reborn, this eating habit was first developed to help reduce seizures in epileptic children but people soon discovered it had more benefits than that. The keto diet is a very extreme diet and many followers will eat up to 70% fats in a day leaving only 20% for protein and 10% for carbs. Anyone you talk to who is a proponent for this diet will passionately and sometimes heatedly tell you about how much weight they lost by following it. So it must be great and the answer to your prayers, right?
Perhaps not. What a lot of keto-fans omit is that they also practise intermittent fasting as part of their keto diet. Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle that has been around for millennia and is a proven, healthy way of losing weight. So is it the high fat diet making these people lose weight or the fact they are objectively in a calorie deficit due to the fasting? I'd argue it's the latter.
The keto diet has a whole host of nasty side effects such as 'keto flu' and halitosis (bad breath). Why anyone would voluntarily go through this process is beyond me, but it's trendy and all your favourite Instagram influencers are doing it so it must work (that's a lot of people's thinking).
Why a high fat diet might not be right for you
This is the real reason you're here: to find out why a high fat diet might not be the saviour we all thought it would be. Put in simple terms, fat contains a lot more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates; over double the amount in fact.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram. So 100 grams of pure fat would contain 900 calories (lovely thought, not.)
Carbohydrates and protein, however, contain only 4 calories per gram. So even though bread has been demonised by the anti-sugar, ant-gluten fanatics, it is objectively lower calorie than avocado gram for gram.
What this means is that on a high fat diet you cannot consume the same volume of food that you can on a lower fat diet. The volume of food you eat is just as important as how many calories you consume because it can affect you mentally. If you're only allowed to eat 1 avocado and a ton of butter in a day rather than a truck load of vegetables, rice cakes, popcorn and other low-calorie high density foods, you're going to feel hard done by and importantly: hungry.
If you're someone who is prone to extreme hunger, binge attacks, or just doesn't have the steely, inhuman self control of pristine Instagram models, a high fat diet might not be right for you. High fat foods are easy to over-consume and you can't eat as much of them. Snacks like nuts are a big one for many people: they're told they're healthy, so they eat fistfuls every day and then wonder why they're gaining weight. A similar phenomenon started happening with peanut butter when that was enjoying its heyday on social media.
We need all three dietary macronutrients to maintain a healthy diet: fat, carbs, protein. They all play their own part and have their own benefits. If eaten in moderation, anything can be healthy. Taking things to the extreme is never a good idea and cutting out whole food groups is not sustainable. Depending on your fitness training and goals, you might need more of one macronutrient than the other, but it should never be as extreme as 60 or 70% of just one macronutrient.
Traditional 'junk food' such as cookies, cakes, and doughnuts contain trans fats which is one reason why they're so unhealthy, plus the obvious fact that they contain no vitamins or minerals and are often very high in sugar and calories. It's not because they're 'carbs'. Vegetables are carbs after all!
High-fat foods are calorie-dense meaning you can't eat as much volume. Unprocessed carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, popcorn, brown rice, and beans can be just as healthy for you and you can eat more volume of them because they are lower in calorie pound for pound. Ultimately, balance is always key!
Inflammation can affect us in many different ways, from swollen joints to bruising and even immobility. These are some foods which are proven to have anti-inflammatory properties and could help to make you healthier.
Turmeric is the main ingredient used in curry powder and is often used as a natural colourant due to its vibrant yellow hue. Studies have found that turmeric is more effective than a placebo at reducing inflammation and swelling in arthritis patients, so it's useful for more than just brightening up your food! It is the yellow pigment curcumin that gives turmeric its meany health benefits and while more research still needs to be done, it's fair to say that turmeric is worth adding to your diet for its anti-inflammatory properties.
There are lots of easy ways you can add turmeric to your daily diet, even if you're not a big fan of curry! Health food brand LoveRaw have a delicious Turmeric Chai Latte as one of their many vegan, plant-based offerings which is a delicious way to subtly add this spice to your day and reap its many health benefits.
Garlic is often referred to as a 'superfood' due to its numerous health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and guarding against common illnesses like the flu. However, garlic is also another food which can reduce inflammation and help you to recover better after exercise. In the same way that taking a cold shower after a workout can reduce swelling and improve recovery, anti-inflammatory foods like garlic can work with your body to reduce pain and immobility. Research shows that synthetic anti-inflammatory drugs can have negative side effects, but garlic actually has many positive benefits such as being anti-bacterial, anti-rheumatic, and indeed anti-inflammatory.
Garlic is highly potent when raw, but unfortunately cooking it in order to make it more palatable does destroy many of the compounds which give it the best health benefits. There are ways to get raw garlic into your diet, such as taking garlic pills, which can be easier on the gut and prevent dreaded garlic breath!
Ginger is another highly potent and flavoursome food which has many health benefits when consumed raw. Not only does it have proven anti-inflammatory properties, it can also be used as a guard against nausea, with people historically drinking ginger ale to calm an upset stomach. According to research, ginger is superior to a placebo in treating vomiting, nausea, and inflammation. It has even been found to reduce the effects of morning sickness in pregnant women.
While it may be tempting to start eating more than your fair share of sticky ginger cake or tasty gingerbread, it is best to get this superfood into your diet in its raw form. An easy way to do this is by drinking ginger-infused tea as this means you are not consuming too many extra calories and still reaping all its wonderful health benefits.
Studies have found that the acetic acid found in various types of vinegar not only reduces inflammation, it can even help with weight loss and prevent over-eating. Inflammation can be chronic if you are overweight or obese so the fact that consuming vinegar could potentially reduce both inflammation and over-eating makes it a win-win!
Vinegar is something that is fairly easy to introduce into your diet, such as sprinkling apple cider vinegar over salads or even just putting more vinegar on your chips, although this is of course not an ideal way to be more healthy!
Sundried ambassador Anne Iarchy is a personal trainer and nutritionist. She shares with us her deliciously healthy sugar-free banana loaf recipe.
Truly sugar-free banana cake
A few weeks ago, I was working at the Woburn Tri for Life, and at the end of a very successful day, we had masses of bananas left. After eating a banana a day for a few days, the rest of the bananas I took home were a little too ripe to my taste (I do like them just yellow from green), so I decided to bake a banana loaf.
I have two recipes, one with sugar and butter, one with coconut oil and dates, but I really wanted one with no sugar at all. After all, ripe bananas are very sweet. I did some research on the internet, and I was really surprised to see how many recipes came up “pretending” they were sugar-free, but just swapping the sugar to honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup and other sweeteners.
Although honey is healthier than sugar (and that depends on the amount of processing of the honey), it has the same effect on blood sugar levels and insulin release than sugar.
Here is my truly sugar-free banana loaf recipe which still tastes amazing and is much healthier than any other you will find.
6-7 overripe bananas, previously frozen and defrosted
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups of gluten-free self raising flour (this is what I used but self-raising flour will work fine too)
2/3 cup of walnut pieces
Preheat oven at 190C (Gas Mark 5)
Lightly grease an 8x4" cake tin
In a bowl, mush the bananas, mix the eggs, vanilla and coconut oil, till properly mixed.
Slowly add the flour bit by bit and stir well.
Stir in the walnuts
Pour into the tin, decorate with some walnuts if you want to.
Put in the oven to bake for approx 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted comes out dry.
Cool before slicing.
The cake came out moist and it was definitely sweet enough.
A slice of the cake makes a lovely healthy snack.
It keeps well for 4-5 days covered in foil.
Intermittent fasting is becoming one of the most popular methods to lose weight and for good reason. It has been used for centuries for both physical and spiritual reasons and has stood the test of time to become more than just a 'fad'. Some people swear by fasted cardio for fat loss while others utilise the principles of the 5:2 diet to help them shed the pounds. But when you fast, a lot more happens to your body than just weight loss. I gave fasting a go and here's what I discovered.
It was the easiest weight loss I've ever experienced
I really struggle with my weight due to, honestly, being so greedy and essentially addicted to food. I exercise a lot which helps, but I'm just not one of these people who can eat 'everything in moderation'. If I have a tub of ice cream, the whole thing is getting eaten. That's 1,000 calories in one sitting without a second thought. I've tried 'dieting' before but I know as well as the next person that fad diets don't work and that restricting your favourite foods day-in-day-out is just miserable and you end up gaining back all the weight when you snap.
The difference with fasting was that by fasting 2 days a week (following in the vein of the 5:2 diet), my overall weekly calories dropped without me having to really do much else. What amazed me was that by fasting for those 2 days, my control over food increased and I was able to stop eating so mindlessly on the days when I did eat.
I took it day by day and gradually reduced my intake of unhealthy foods (especially at the weekend). I'm fully aware that there's no point in fasting/restricting during the week only to eat back all the calories at the weekend. However, it's important to point out that I would have been eating those calories at the weekend anyway due to my lack of self control, so if I had also eaten more calories during the week, my weekly total would be much higher and I would keep gaining weight.
Fasting gave me an easy opportunity to reduce my weekly calories and gave me time to think about my unhealthy relationship with food rather than feeling like I had to restrict myself every single day and feel like I was 'on a diet'.
I had so much more free time
I spend a lot of time preparing my lunch for work and doing the washing up when I get home which can really feel like a chore. I chose to have my fasting days on days when I'm in the office (I sometimes work from home), which meant I saved a lot of time not having to think about what to have for lunch in advance, prepare it, and then hand-wash the Tupperware afterwards (putting plastic in a dishwasher is such a disaster!)
Not only did I save time on lunches, I was able to have around 20 more minutes in bed in the morning because I wasn't preparing and eating breakfast before work. It worked out well for me because I usually just eat lunch at my desk, so I didn't miss it when I was at work and it actually freed up my time to focus on something else.
I saved money
I am very conscious of my weekly expenditure and pay careful attention to my budgeting. However, I'm hugely guilty of spending way more money on food than I should. This includes the weekly grocery shopping as well as takeaways, going out to eat, and top-up shops (usually for unhealthy snacks when the craving hits in the evening). By fasting 2 days a week I saved a huge £30 ($40) a week! That's £120 ($170) extra at the end of the month to go towards more important things.
I learnt to control my impulses
I'm definitely guilty of eating when I'm not actually hungry. By fasting, I was able to re-learn how to listen to my body and understand the difference between real hunger and 'toxic hunger'. It also taught me to be patient and not give in to cravings as soon as they hit. Instead, I learnt to wait until I was actually hungry to eat and not just eat 'because it's dinner time' or because other people were eating.
I didn't get hangry
The hunger I experienced when I was fasting was totally different to the hunger I feel normally. It was something I was totally in control of and it was easier to handle emotionally because I knew why I was experiencing it as I was the one causing it. Rather than being hungry because there was no food available to me, or because I wasn't letting myself give in to a craving, or because I was just bored, I was able to block out the hunger and ignore it. My brain was able to tell my stomach, "Yes, you're empty. Get used to it." As such, I didn't experience any of the usual symptoms that come with being hungry, such as anger and frustration.
A new lifestyle
My overall experience with intermittent fasting was hugely positive in so many aspects that I will continue it indefinitely. As it is such a tried and tested lifestyle choice, it is something that can be sustained for a long time. It's important to point out that I never fasted for more than 24 hours at a time and I did not exercise on days when I was fasting. If you are going to try fasting, it's vital you do your research first and only do it if it suits you.
As a method for weight loss, it worked for me because I'm an 'all or nothing' sort of person and so I'd rather eat nothing at all than be able to eat but not eat what I want (hence the entire tub of ice cream example earlier). This was only my experience and it won't be the same for everyone.
If you suffer from a sensitive gut or often get painful stomach symptoms, forget a life on medication, you could benefit from a low FODMAP diet. But what is it? What does it mean? And which foods can you eat? We take a look.
What does FODMAP stand for?
FODMAP stands for fermentable oglio-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. These are the scientific terms used to refer to a class of carbohydrates which are highly likely to trigger digestive symptoms such as trapped wind, bloating, and stomach pain. Foods containing these FODMAPs are more likely to aggravate the gut, especially in sensitive people who suffer from conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and endometriosis.
What foods contain FODMAPs?
FODMAPs are mostly found in various carbohydrates. The below foods are high in the various FODMAPs:
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Certain fruits, mainly mangoes, figs, and blackberries
Foods to avoid on a FODMAP diet
If you suffer from a sensitive gut and have chronic symptoms like bloating, gas, stomach pains, and an irritable bowel, you could benefit from following a low FODMAP diet. Additionally, if you suffer from a food intolerance such as Coeliac disease or a lactose intolerance, you could also benefit from following a low FODMAP diet.
When on a low FODMAP diet, you want to avoid high FODMAP foods. These include the above-mentioned foods like wheat, rye, dairy, and fruit. There are plenty of tasty and enjoyable low FODMAP foods that you can still eat, such as chives, chilli, mustard, ginger, and pepper.
Fruits that you should avoid on a FODMAP diet include mangoes, figs, and blackberries, however you can still enjoy bananas, blueberries, kiwis, and limes, all of which are low FODMAP fruits.
You should also avoid most legumes on a low FODMAP diet, however you can still enjoy brown rice, maize, oats, and quinoa.