The Low-Carb vs. Low-Fat debate

I hear a lot about the benefits of low-carb diets these days.  Years ago it was all about low-fat.  I decided to explore this debate in a recent Nutrition 101 column.  Enjoy!

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The Low-carb vs. Low-fat debate

It’s one of the age-old debates in nutrition – what diet is healthier and/or helps you lose more weight, low-carbohydrate or low-fat?  It seems almost everyone has an opinion, with fervent supporters of both approaches, but let’s take a look at what the science says.

Low-carb vs. Low-fat

For the purpose of this discussion we should probably first try to define what we mean by low-carb and low-fat diets.  Lending to the confusion there isn’t a consensus definition, but generally speaking with low-carb diets, carbohydrates make up < 10% (very low-carb) or < 45% (low-carb) of the total calories.  In low-carb diets fat can make up as much as 50-60% of the total calories. In terms of food, low-carb diets tend to limit or eliminate grain products, dairy, fruit and legumes.  Conversely, in low-fat diets, carbohydrates make up 45-65% of the total calories, whereas fats make up 20%-35%.  Low-fat diets suggest avoiding foods like butter/oils, fatty meats and full-fat dairy.

Low-fat diets first made their appearance in the 1960’s after research showed that fat intake was associated with higher cholesterol levels, a major predictor of cardiovascular disease.  Over the subsequent years low-fat diets were touted not only for heart patients, but for weight loss and general health as well.  By the 1980’s low-fat was all the rage in the burgeoning nutrition industry.  It was around this time that Dr. Robert Atkins catalyzed a movement against low-fat with his self-titled, low-carb Atkins Diet.  Part of the appeal of The Atkins Diet was that it featured many foods low-fat dieters were expected to avoid. Since then low-carb and low-fat diets have been re-packaged numerous times to varying degrees of success.

Over the past 30 years there have literally been thousands of studies that looked at the benefits/effectiveness of both diets, using many different health indicators including weight loss, various metabolic risk factors and others.  Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus on the best diet overall, but a few interesting truths have emerged.  1) Low-carb diets do not appear to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease as originally feared  2) Weight loss can be achieved with both calorie-restricted low-carb and low-fat diets  3) Low-carb diets seem to provide a greater degree of weight loss in the short-term, however neither diet is particularly effective in doing so in the long-term.  4) Poorer outcomes, including the ability to follow the diet, are associated with more extreme versions of low-carb and low-fat dieting.

What does this mean for you?

Rather than focusing on the percentages of carbohydrates and fats in your diet, it’s probably better to focus on the quality of fat and carbohydrate that you’re eating.  What do I mean by this?  Whenever possible, eat real food that has been prepared using unprocessed ingredients and avoid foods with unnecessary added fats and sugars (aka. carbs).  If weight loss is your goal, overall calories are much more important than the relative amounts of carbohydrates and fat in your diet.

If you’re set on trying to go low-carb or low-fat, make sure you do your research. Avoid diets that appear overly restrictive and only choose plans than you can envision sticking with indefinitely.  At the end of the day, both low-carb and low-fat diets have their merits, but as with most things in life, balance is key.

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Canada, travel, ultimate & marathons

Yikes!  It’s even longer than I realized since my last entry.  I’ve had a few interesting things happen in the past 6 weeks, so I’d thought I’d use this post to catch people up on what’s new.

The first is that my wife and I have officially made the choice to return to Canada after the school year.

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There are a lot of factors that played to our decision, but the one of the biggest is my wife’s teaching job.  These past 3 years she’s been fortunate to be on leave from her position in Canada.  That would likely not continue if we chose to stay abroad for another year.  While we both love the international experience, neither of us are sure we want to give up the security and benefits her Canadian job provides – especially given the recent downturn in the economy.  We figure if we return and don’t like it, we can always go abroad again. Also, we’ve come to the realization that we’re the type of people who need a change of scenery every few years, and now seems like the right time to move on.

We’ve started letting people in Egypt know we’re moving back, which as anyone who’s experienced a pending major move knows, comes with mixed emotions. I hope to blog a little more about what I’ll miss (and won’t miss!) about our life here in the near future, but the people we’ll be leaving behind is certainly one of the most difficult things about returning.  We’ve both made some really great friends here.

What else?

Well, we spent 8 days in Israel in mid-March.  It was a much needed break for both of us. The excuse for the trip was the Jerusalem Marathon on March 17, where I ran the half-marathon and my wife participated in the 10K.  We both really enjoyed the country.  It was a nice mix between Europe and the Middle East.  We visited the cities of Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem was our favorite.  I loved the contrasts – old vs. new, religious vs. secular and traditional vs. modern.  Here are just a few of the highlights from the trip.

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Approaching the finish line of the Half Marathon in Jerusalem

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The Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem

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On the streets of the Old City, Jerusalem

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Jewish pilgrims praying at the Western Wall, Jerusalem

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Relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa

These next couple of weeks we’ve also got a few other big events that we’ll be participating in.  The first is an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Alexandria next week.  It will be a quick trip, but likely the last time we’ll get to visit before we go back to Canada, so it’ll be worth it.  I’m looking forward to a big seafood meal after a long day of Ultimate. We’ve been thankful to find the Ultimate community in Cairo.  It has been a lot of fun being able to get out once/week to play, as well as see the sport here grow.

The second event is the Cairo Runners Half Marathon on April 15th.  I was very excited to hear that this year’s offering would be taking place in our neighborhood of Maadi, so I won’t even have to worry about taking a taxi out to the race site.  In true Egyptian fashion registration only opened last week and some of the race details haven’t yet been provided (ie. a route map), but it will be fun either way.  And thousands of people will show up.  Plus, since I’m already “trained” from the previous Jerusalem race, it’s really just a matter of maintaining my fitness for the next couple of weeks (and not injuring myself in the process!).

I promise it won’t take another 6 weeks for the next update!

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