In the ’90s we were told that low-fat diets were the key to weight loss. Naturally, that meant running out to stock up on low-fat versions of our traditional faves — sour cream, yogurt and as many snack foods as possible. Meanwhile, North Americans grew larger as we turned to refined carbohydrates for our calories. Now there’s a new friend in town and her name is fat. Glorious, tasty fat. And she promises us a slimmer, fat-fueled future.
In a study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine , researchers at Tulane University tracked two groups of dieters. One group followed a low-carb diet, while the other group ate low-fat. Both groups ingested the same amount of calories. Study authors were surprised to find that the low-carb dieters not only lost more weight, they lost three times more weight than the low-fat dieters, leading researchers to conclude that low-carb diets are more effective.
But before you go scarfing back a stick of butter in the name of health (or stocking up on hamburgers and cheese wheels), it’s important to note the kinds of fats the low-carb dieters were eating: mainly heart-healthy and unsaturated. Although 40-43% of the low-carb group’s total daily calories came from fat, only 12% were from saturated fats, like those found in meat and dairy products. This is a finding nutritionist and Ace Your Health author Theresa Albert says is consistent with dietary guidelines.
“That’s actually a significant part of the study,” she says “that they differentiated the kinds of fat and kept the saturated fats low.” She knows that it’s tempting to pick out the information we like in dietary studies (fat good equals bacon good), but unfortunately that’s just not how weight loss works.
The bottom line for your bottom? Says Albert: “Calories are still the driver in terms of weight loss. You cannot escape calories.” So go ahead and opt for a low-carb diet: cutting refined white starches in favour of healthy fats that make you feel fuller will probably make you thinner, too…as long as you choose a balance of good fats.
Good fats, says Albert, offer more than calories and come packed with added nutritional benefits like fibre, protein, minerals, fatty acids and vitamins. We all know the basic fats that are good for us, but which are the best of the bunch?
Here are Theresa Albert’s top 5 sources of good fats:
Looking to grab that hummus? You might want to switch to avocado instead. The fruit is not only a source of unsaturated fat, but it also adds fibre, potassium and magnesium to your diet. Be warned though: portion size matters. According to Albert most people will get all they need by eating a ¼ of an avocado — or 2 tablespoons of guacamole — per day. If guac’s not your thing, add avocado to your morning smoothie, use it in place of mayo in your favourite dip or toss fresh slices on a salad.
Going nuts for nuts
While it’s true that some nuts are better than others, Albert recommends eating a mix, since different nuts offer varied fibre and mineral benefits. Walnuts are said to be better for your heart, while new studies are linking pistachios to lowered risks of Type 2 diabetes. Save money by buying a variety of unsalted nuts in bulk and mixing them yourself. A handful of assorted nuts per day is all you need, but do try to include one Brazil nut, which will provide your entire day’s worth of selenium, an anti-cancer nutrient that’s hard to find in other foods.
Pumpkin seeds are your best bet because they’re chock full of magnesium, the nutrient that helps muscles release tension and promotes better sleep. If you’ve ever found yourself with a twitchy eye or restless leg syndrome, “That’s the muscle saying, ‘I’m trying to relax but I don’t have the tools that it takes to become flaccid,” says Albert. She also recommends sunflower seeds, hemp and chia. Sprinkle seeds over salads, add them to smoothies and baked goods or spread seed butters on high-fibre toast or fruit, like apples or pears. One tablespoon per day of seeds or seed butters is all it takes.
Albert isn’t a big fan of cooking with oil — generally we get enough fat in our diets without adding oil, “which is 100% calories.” But raw salad oils like cold-pressed extra-virgin olive, walnut and avocado are a different story. What’s the difference? The good-for-you, beneficial nutrients found in those oils typically burn off during the cooking process. Instead, try cooking with flavourful stocks or water instead, and save your oils to drizzle on salads or cooked dishes. Just a small a teaspoon per day turns any dish into a nutrient-rich and flavourful treat.
Love noshing on the little guys but worried about mercury poisoning a la Jeremy Piven? The healthiest, least toxic fish are small and live in cold, deep water, says Albert — the colder and deeper the better. Herring, sardines and mackerel are all low in toxins and high in brain-boosting omega-3s. Eat them three to four times per week to reap all their fatty goodness.
As for those less-healthy (but oh-so-delicous) sources of saturated fats you love, like cheese? For optimum health, always consider what comes with that fat, says Albert. Goat cheese and sheep cheese offer proteins that are more easily digested than the proteins found in cow’s cheese. They’re also lower in calories, giving you better nutritional bang for your saturated fat buck. Eaten in moderation, they can be a healthy part of your diet. So yes — go ahead and have those wine and cheese nights with the ladies, but throw in some of the aforementioned fats too.
For more healthy tips from Theresa Albert visit her blog, my friend in food. For ideas on food pairings that work well with the fats above, see the Ontario Produce Marketing Association’s “What Goes Well With?” guide.