Fat and Carbohydrates -- Not a Good Combination

Back in the 1990s, I lost over 50 pounds following the Atkins diet, and I kept that weight off for several years before I began to cheat and steadily regain the pounds lost. But even as I was cheating, I knew what the reason was for my regaining the weight. It was starchy vegetables and too much fruit and simple sugars. I understood that. According to Dr. Atkins, I could eat all the meat, fat and non-starchy, non-sugary vegetables that I wanted, and I would either lose weight or stay thin.

Fast forward about twenty years, and I discover Dr. John McDougall and the Starch Solution. Applying what Dr. McDougall tells me, I can lose weight by focusing my meals around starch. Furthermore, according to Dr. McDougall I can eat fruit and sugar, two big no-no's on the Atkins diet. And it's not just Dr. McDougall. It's also Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Colin Campbell, and Dr. Neal Barnard. They all advocate a no-oil, whole foods, plant-based diet as not only the way to lose weight but also to provide maximum health benefits.

So, I've been following the no-oil, whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet since last October and I've now lost over 80 pounds. But how can that be? How can it be that twenty years ago I lost over 50 pounds by eating nothing but fat and protein and a few vegetables while totally avoiding starches and sugars, but now I lose over 80 pounds by avoiding all fats and animal proteins while eating all the starch-based foods and natural sugary foods (i.e., fruits) that I want?

If you listen to Dr. Atkins or to Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, you'll hear it said that eating fat does not make you fat, but eating starch and sugar does. Dr. Robert Lustig also makes this point in his book Fat Chance. But if you listen to the WFPB doctors (McDougall, Esselstyn, Campbell and Barnard), they'll tell you that fat does make you fat and that starchy foods and sugar do not make you fat.

To complicate matters further, the media has entered into the fray. Katie Couric recently released a documentary titled Fed Up that placed the issue squarely on the shoulders of sugar and the processed food industries. I think that with respect to the processed food industries, she got it right (and I'll explain more on that further down in this posting). But in the case of sugar, it depends (which I will also explain further on). The WFPB doctors attacked the Katie Couric documentary, primarily because it focused on sugar as the culprit.

Meanwhile, Time Magazine came out with its cover story, Eat Butter, and Mark Bittman at The New York Times wrote a column titled Butter is Back. Both articles championed ideas that had been put forward by both Gary Taubes and Dr. Robert Lustig in their earlier books. That is, fat is not the culprit in making us fat. Hello Dr. Atkins.

So, where does this leave us? On one side, we have the gurus who tell us it's okay to eat fat but not starchy vegetables or simple sugars. On the other side, we have the gurus who tell us it's okay to eat starch and simple sugars but don't eat fat. Don't even think about putting olive oil on your salad for example.

Well, looking at it strictly from a weight-loss perspective, and not necessarily from a health or environmental perspective in this essay, I know for a fact that they're both right (because I've done it both ways). So, why is that?

To answer that question, I go back to something I recall reading once in one of Dr. Atkins' books. And that is, the problem that arises is when fat and starchy or sugary carbs are combined together. The ultimate examples of those combinations can be seen in foods like the doughnut or in a nice moist, cake, neither of which occur naturally in nature. In fact, in nature, very few foods combine high amounts of carbohydrates and fat together in one place, the exceptions being perhaps avocados, olives and nuts.

For the most part though, in nature, we get food that grows either primarily in the form of a carbohydrate or in the form of fat and protein. Thinking about that, it would seem that from an evolutionary standpoint, man, having feasted on natural foods, would generally have evolved not eating fat and carbohydrates together at the same time. If our ancestors caught an animal, then they fed on the animal. They didn't search around for a potato to uproot and eat with the animal. And vice versa, when our ancestors ate fruit or veggies or starches, they didn't eat animals at the same time. So, our bodies evolved in a way that didn't include eating carbs in combination with fat.

Now this is me speculating. I have no scientific evidence to back up what I'm saying. I'm just trying to figure out how conflicting ideas about weight loss can all work. And I'm trying to make sense of what we're hearing in the media these days. I worry about what I hear in the media because I think it can lead people down the wrong path. The current thinking seems to favor more fat in the diet, which I disagree with because for that to work, as I'm explaining here, it would require cutting carbs. And cutting carbs conflicts with U.S. Dietary Guidelines and a lot of scientific literature that says eating more vegetables, fruits and legumes is key to better health.

So, while we can acknowledge that fat does not cause fat as is being so much celebrated in the media today, we need to acknowledge that that's only true if one is following a low carb diet. But in acknowledging that, we need to also acknowledge that a low carb diet does not meet Dietary Guidelines for eating more vegetables, fruits and legumes. And that's where most of our vitamins, minerals and other nutrients come from.

From my perspective, the best diet to follow is the no-oil, whole foods, plant-based diet. But in doing so, it's important to recognize that fat is the enemy because again, it's the combination of fat and carbohydrates that appears to me anyway to be the problem.

And that by the way is why processed foods are such a problem. Almost all processed foods involve some combination of fat and carbohydrates. And both Atkins and the WFPB diet doctors advocate shopping the perimeters of the grocery store. One thing both sides know is that eating too much processed food will destroy the gains made by their diets.

Anyway, that's how I make sense of all the different things we hear today in combination with the my own personal experiences. I believe that there are many ways to lose weight and they can seem to conflict with each other. There are others who believe in the calories in, calories out argument, which can also work on a short-term basis, but it's almost impossible to withhold calories from your body over the long term, so I've not addressed that here.

In conclusion, I believe that the no-oil, WFPB diet provides the best protection against western diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. But it means forgoing fat in your food because the combination of fat and carbohydrates appears to be a deadly one.