The Fats You Don’t Need to Fear, and the Carbs That You Do

Back in the 70’s, when the nation was threatened by the rapidly increasing number of deaths from cardiovascular diseases and science had just uncovered that a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol poses a serious threat for cardiovascular health, health officials issued dietary advice that entailed consuming less fat. Rationalizing that a reduced fat consumption would make the average American diet healthier and increase people’s well-being, nutritionists oversimplified the issue and basically declared a war on all types of dietary fat. And the problem is that their advice was not based on solid scientific evidence and it went too far

Even worse, the strong emphasis placed on saturated fat as the main enemy of public health had distracted attention from other key risk factors such as refined sugars and carbohydrates, which have since then become the centerpiece of our modern diet. The campaign was so powerful that most people generalized the anti-saturated fats advice to mean all fats and turned to fat-free and high-carb foods, which often are, unfortunately, highly processed foods with little nutritional value. This eventually led to the current epidemic of diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Public health professionals have profoundly changed their minds since then, but the effects of the fat-free trend can still be felt. According to a new study from Harvard University, omega-3 deficiency is the sixth biggest killer of Americans today. The researchers determined that there were up to 100,000 preventable deaths each year due to omega-3 deficiency, a number that further highlights the fact that Americans have unnecessarily villainized dietary fat in the past few decades

Even though efforts are being made to correct the bad dietary advices of the past, the majority of people are still unaware of the importance of the quality of the food they’re consuming. In other words, they lack an understanding of the difference between unhealthy fats and healthy fats, good carbs and bad carbs. Whenever science comes out with new evidence about the association of a certain nutrient, let’s say dietary fat, with an increased risk of a given disease, people get the impression that all fats are bad and should be avoided at all costs.

This is a crucial mistake, because monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vital to human health. Among other things, they help reduce the LDL, or “bad” cholesterol levels, protect heart health and are crucial for the production of many hormones, as well as maintaining an optimal level of cognitive functioning. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat commonly found in oily fish, flax seeds and walnuts. The monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil and nut oils are also heart-healthy and can actually prevent the accumulation of artery-clogging deposits in the cardiovascular system.

So in order to improve our health, we have to reintegrate healthy fats in our diet while abandoning the misconception that all carbs are good. All carbohydrates are ultimately broken down into glucose, which circulates in blood before entering the cells with the help of insulin, where it’s used as fuel, while the excess gets stored as fat. Simple sugars are digested and absorbed rapidly and they quickly raise blood glucose, while complex carbs, such as starches, take a lot longer to digest. However, refined carbs or starchy foods with highly processed grains act like simple sugars in the body and have a high glycemic index, which means their consumption leads to blood sugar spikes and chronically elevated levels of insulin. In the long run, the over-consumption of these foods, which today is very common, results with impaired insulin sensitivity and diseases such as diabetes, fatty liver disease and stroke

The glycemic index is a relative ranking of carbohydrates in foods, according to how they affect blood glucose levels. The carbs that have a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested and absorbed and contribute to a slower rise in blood glucose and insulin levels, while the carbs with a high GI value (56 or more) are more quickly digested and metabolized and therefore cause a faster and higher rise in blood glucose and insulin levels

But the concept of a glycemic index is a relatively new idea. It was first proposed in 1981 by David Jenkins in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and it’s the best tool we have to distinguish between the carbohydrates that can damage our health and those that promote it. The index was developed by testing the glucose response to a standard amount of carbohydrate against a reference food, usually pure glucose, whose GI value is 100. At the “bad” end of the glycemic spectrum are high-glycemic foods such as white bread baguette (95), cornflakes (93), white rice (89), instant oatmeal (83), French fries (75) and white bread (71). And on the other end we have foods such as spaghetti (46), apples (39), carrots (35), black beans (30), lentils (29), barley (28), grapefruit (25) and peanuts (7), which have a less powerful effect on blood glucose

this, of course, doesn’t mean that high-glycemic foods should be avoided at all costs. It just means that these foods shouldn’t be in the center of our every meal and are better consumed infrequently and in smaller quantities. Overconsumption of these foods makes it harder for people to control their weight and contribute to development of obesity and diabetes. And thanks to the fast progress in food-processing technology, many of the high-carb foods that are found on store shelves today are stripped of big chunks of the original nutritional value of their ingredients and belong to the high-glycemic type. In recent years, the glycemic index of the average American diet has significantly risen, which is the main reason behind the epidemic of obesity and obesity-related health issues among Americans of all ages and walks of life. And the sedentary lifestyle, that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in our modern societies, amplifies these health risks even further.

Good nutrition is a crucial aspect of leading a healthy lifestyle. Combined with adequate amounts of physical activity, a healthy, balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of serious chronic diseases. That being said, a balanced diet is a diet that gives your body an optimal amount of all the nutrients it needs to function correctly. And among other things, that means consuming an abundance of high-quality protein, good carbs and of course, plenty of health-promoting fats. At the end of the day, what you eat can either kill you or heal you, so by making the effort to increase your consumption of healthy, unprocessed foods, you can powerfully boost your overall health and well-being in the long run. Start today