The ‘What to Eat?’ Debate by Registered Dietitian Laura Clark


It’s a joy to welcome back monthly columnist Laura Clark, who shares her wisdom below on what the heck we should be eating when conflicting ‘healthy food messages’ appear almost daily.

Over to Laura:

A recent report caught Vicki’s eye as the debate over what nutrients we should be eating rumbles on. The first challenge with newspaper headlines of course is their desire to polarise everything. Is it fair to categorise foods, or food groups into good or bad for us? Or take one study in isolation?

The challenge of human diet research is the complex and varying factors which make no one of us the same, such as our individual genetic make-up, health status and lifestyle factors such as physical activity.

For this reason, mice are appealing to study, where intakes and confounding factors can be more controlled and these sorts of studies give us a useful insight. However, care has to be taken in how we interpret results and apply them to us two-legged lot.

Such a confusing topic but I will attempt to put a few things straight.

There is often confusion over which fuel we burn – many say to me, I avoid carbs in order to burn fat. This is simply incorrect. If avoiding carbs you are therefore probably eating proportionally more fat.

Very low carb diets (the definition of which is also often open to different interpretations) tend to result in high protein, high fat consumption. It is true to say if more fat is being eaten, then yes, the body will use this as a fuel instead. This isn’t the same thing as burning fat for weight loss though. Fat stores will not be used and weight loss will not be achieved, unless you are in a calorie deficit.

Low carb diets for some can be difficult to follow, they can increase cravings and many find that despite avoiding carbs, their calorie intake actually goes up as they snack on high fat, high calorie options or give in and binge on sugary carbs a couple of days a week.

This is not to say fat is the enemy. It does contribute to making us feel full and we know unequivocally that there are real health benefits to be had from the right sort of fat.

Proportionally more unsaturated fat from mono and polyunsaturated sources is protective against heart disease; omega-3 fatty acids help to ward off depression and protect our cognitive function as 40% of our brain cell walls are made up of them.

In recent years, we can also see the saturated fat within dairy has cardioprotective effects on health probably because of the complex matrix of nutrients also found within milk.

Many fats, for example coconut oil have been in the spotlight as we try to decipher how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are for us. Whilst coconut oil has enjoyed a surge in popularity the research doesn’t quite support its health halo. This type of saturated fat has been shown to be as detrimental to health as ordinary butter.

Saturated fat doesn’t need to be avoided, it is the balance of fat that counts. It is recommended we have no more than 20g of saturated fat a day so think about whether you want this to come from chocolate or coconut oil for example. And whilst you’re happily drizzling your extra virgin olive oil feeling a little more virtuous, remember that if you are trying to lose weight, the amount you use does still count.

When looking behind the scenes of research aiming to answer the question, ‘which diet is better for us’ the key thing to look at is when something is taken out of the diet, what is it replaced with?

Unfortunately, the low fat diet recommendations that were heavily promoted in the 90’s didn’t focus enough on what people should put in, if they take the fat out. Lots of refined carbohydrates were added to diets and the food industry often made things still taste good by adding sugar, whilst still making a low-fat claim. Where unhealthy fat is replaced with whole grains, boosting the fibre, vitamin and mineral content of the diet, health outcomes are better.

And so to the most important question, what to eat?

There is not one superior diet, nor one exact make up of nutrients that is better for us. That being said, a diet rich in healthy fats, wholegrains and plenty of fruit and vegetables using minimally processed ingredients seems pretty compelling for the long term health benefits it boasts.

For weight loss, you have to consider which balance of food groups is the easiest for you to stick to. It is lack of compliance that makes a diet fail, not the wrong foods. How hungry you feel whilst cutting calories is a key consideration as the body will always fight to right this wrong and correct the deficit. Protein has real value is making you feel full so lower fat, high protein foods are a real winner – fish, pulses, lentils, soya, cottage cheese for example.

Protein foods containing healthy fats are also of benefit – nuts, seeds, oily fish.

Interestingly we don’t absorb all the calories from nuts because of the fibre they contain. That’s not to say munching through a bag containing 600 calories is a good idea though! And remember it is not the carbs that make you fat. Unless you have severe insulin resistance, carbs are burnt and used as fuel without issue. Even in those who benefit from lower carb intakes (such as those with type 2 diabetes or PCOS) the health benefits of the right sort of carbs still make them a valuable and worthwhile addition to the diet.

Finally, we eat food, not nutrients so focus on the quality and variety of actual foods you eat in your diet – and less on macronutrient calculations. You can read more on nutrients and weight management over on the LEC Nutrition Blog.

Keep up to date with Laura Clark’s siteblogFBTwitter and Instagram.

Read some more of Laura’s posts here: How to Lose Weight Healthily, How to Lose Weight as a Busy MamaFood Assumptions and How They Affect Their Children, and Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed My Children.

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