Eat Fat to Lose Weight

New studies topple the USDA Food Pyramid but raise the question: Is this a pendulum swing or a paradigm shift? The high-protein, low-carbohydrate weight-loss diet popularized by Dr. Robert Atkins back in the 1960s has become the diet of the moment. In restaurants from coast to coast, people are eating steaks again and leaving behind little piles of carrots and mashed potatoes, considered high-glycemic "no-no's" in Atkins' book.

Once considered a dangerous fad, the high-fat, high-protein diet is now gaining favor over the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets recommended by the American Heart Association and the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and custodian of the longest-running American diet and health studies, is perhaps the most visible proponent of this view. The data clearly contradict the "low-fat-is-good-health message," he told The New York Times, and "the exclusive focus on the adverse effects of fat may have contributed to the obesity epidemic."

Cycling into popularity for perhaps the third time since it was introduced, Atkins' high-protein, high-fat approach was based on landmark research in the mid-1950s in Middlesex, England. In a study of obese subjects, researchers found that those on a 1,000-calorie-a-day, 90% protein diet lost weight. When the same subjects had the protein swapped for carbohydrates, they not only didn't lose weight, they gained some.

The British researchers concluded that a high-fat diet conferred a "metabolic advantage" because burning fat takes more energy, or calories, than does burning carbohydrates. In the late 1970s, other researchers came up with a new explanation for this phenomenon:"high-glycemic" foods (sugars and starches that are absorbed quickly into the blood) actually stimulate weight gain. Viewed from this perspective, the daily servings of six to eleven starches recommended by the USDA Food Pyramid are physically indistinguishable from sugars.

Simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly, which causes blood sugar to spike triggering a surge of insulin, the body's chief sugar regulator. Constant surges can throw this mechanism off balance. Too much insulin in the blood can lead to "insulin resistance" in which the body's cells no longer respond to insulin. As a result, insulin, unable to get glucose into the cells, converts more and more sugar into fat. This means that a few hours after eating simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels may actually be lower than before you started your meal.

"Your body thinks it has run out of fuel," says Harvard endocrinologist David Ludwig, "but blood insulin levels are still high enough to prevent you from burning your own fat. The result is hunger and a craving for even more carbohydrates."

Five recent studies have shown that subjects on some form of the Atkins diet lost twice as much weight as those on low-fat, low-calorie diets. In general, the more carbohydrates consumed, the less body fat is lost. Meanwhile, an additional five studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health failed to demonstrate any link between eating fat and developing heart disease.

In other words, the recommendations that put a whole nation on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet have been overthrown and the USDA Food Pyramid toppled. Nevertheless the Department of Agriculture still maintains this standard for a healthy diet. Why has the USDA not responded to information that alternative medicine practitioners have known for years?

The Harvard researchers suggest that the low-fat-is-good-health hypothesis has failed the test of time. The current obesity epidemic, as well as a significant rise in Type 2 diabetes, began in the early 1980s with the rise of the low-fat dogma.

"For a large percentage of the population, perhaps 30 to 40 percent, low-fat diets are counterproductive," concludes Eleftheria Maratos-Flier, director of obesity research at Harvard's prestigious Joslin Diabetes Center. "They have the paradoxical effect of making people gain weight." Nevertheless, he notes, that still leaves a sizeable proportion of the population who might benefit from the whole-grain, complex carbohydrate diet favored by low-fat advocates.

The current controversy reminds us that any diet approached as a craze, a temporary quick fix, or a no-pain panacea is doomed as a method of achieving significant and lasting weight loss. The truth, as the late Rockefeller University metabolism pioneer E. H. "Pete" Ahrens stated, is that everyone responds differently to low-fat diets.

Alternative medicine practitioners recognize that a successful weight-loss-regimen requires a diet tailored to individual needs. As Ralph Golan, M.D., author of Optimal Wellness says, "Some may lose weight and thrive on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, whereas others get results on a high-complex-carbohydrate, low-protein diet." Individual metabolism is inherent and influenced by lifestyle, diet, and exercise habits. For significant and permanent weight loss, you need an individualized plan.

If you've been gaining weight, the first thing you need to check out is your thyroid function; an underactive thyroid can lead to weight gain. A simple, do-it-yourself test created by Broda A. Barnes, author of Hypothyroidism, which uses the temperature of the resting body, also called "basal temperature," enables you to do a ballpark check on your own.

Simply take your underarm temperature before getting out of bed in the morning. Average your temperatures for two consecutive days. Normal temperature is between 97.8 and 98.2 degrees. If yours is below 97.8, you may have low thyroid and should bring this to the attention of your physician. Dr. Raphael Kellman, of Kellman Center for Progressive Health in New York City, is among those who believe that the standard TSH thyroid test has a high error rate. He prefers to use the more sophisticated TRH (thyrotropin-releasing hormone) test.

The second subject you need to investigate is your metabolic type. Various kinds of typing exist ranging from the ancient system of Indian Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine to the more recent, comprehensive system described in William Wolcott's book The Metabolic Typing Diet (Doubleday, 2000). Wolcott looks at nine different factors, particularly the autonomic, endocrine and oxidative systems, to arrive at your individual type. The three basic types are protein, carbohydrate, and mixed, but within these, additional customization is important to arrive at an optimum diet.

"Certain metabolic types are predisposed to developing insulin resistance when they eat a high-carbohydrate diet," says Wolcott, "but other types can gain weight by eating too much protein or too much fat." The key is to match diet to individual needs.

My own recent dieting experience successfully proved the efficacy of a balanced approach. I lost weight just by staying away from simple carbohydrates - alcohol, pasta, bread and desserts. Slowly, slowly, slowly the weight came off, until by the end of the year, I had lost 20 pounds.

Bear in mind: When eating beef, chicken and dairy products, it is important to choose sources that are range-grown and free from hormones, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. Try to make sure that your fruits and vegetables are organic, too.

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