Diabetes and the dangers of the "low fat high carb" diet
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Last April – goodness it doesn’t seem that long ago (!) – we wrote about the worrying increase in those being diagnosed with Diabetes Type II Diabetes, also known as “Non Insulin Dependent Diabetes”. Even worse, it’s now being diagnosed in much younger people – those still in their teens and early 20’s – rather than people of middle age, who also tended to be overweight and sedentary. If you missed this post you can find it here .
Sadly, yet again, it’s become clear that this trend is being fuelled by poor lifestyle choices. In other words, poor diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Not surprisingly, both of these are also linked to Obesity, a well known risk factor for Diabetes, as well as many other conditions.
This has led to the modern dietary advice of eating a “Low Fat, High Carb” diet being put under the spotlight. Suddenly it doesn’t seem to be such a healthy option, leaving many confused and unsure about exactly what they should be eating. And, just as importantly, what they should be avoiding.
So, this week, we’re going to have a look at what most people understand as a “low fat, high carb” diet and why it isn’t quite what they think it is.
But, before we do, let’s ask a very simple question. One you probably haven’t thought about since you were at school.
Why do we need to eat?
And the answer isn’t because we’re hungry!
The simple answer is that food provides the raw materials needed to build, repair and maintain our bodies as well as the energy to live our lives. To be fit, healthy and active. Enjoy life to the full. True, there’s the enjoyment that comes from eating certain foods – as well as the social aspect it involves – but these aren’t the main reason why we need to eat.
When you start to look at food in terms of being the fuel, it becomes much easier to determine what our bodies actually need. Lean meat / fish / apples / banana / cucumber, yes. Crisps / cake / biscuits, no.
At the same time, it also becomes clear that much of what is to be found in the food aisles of the supermarket isn’t actually what our bodies require. And, yes, we know this may sound a little harsh but it’s all about looking at things from our body’s point of view. What it needs and is designed to use AND, just as important, what it isn’t (!).
So, keeping this in mind, let’s have a look at the typical western “low fat, high carb” diet.
Breakfast – a wheat based cereal, porridge, toast with marmalade / jam.
Mid morning snack – biscuits, perhaps fruit or nuts.
Lunch – sandwich with various fillings, sausage roll / pie of some sort, pasta / rice based salad, perhaps baked potato or soup.
Mid afternoon snack – similar to the morning one or, possibly, cake (!).
Supper – centred around pizza, potato, pasta or rice with some form of protein and, hopefully, vegetables or salad.
Late evening snack – crisps, nuts, biscuits, etc.
Two things are very obvious at once.
The first is that every meal – or snack – is based around carbohydrates, mainly wheat or rice / potatoes for main meals. These all tend to be processed and often contain high levels of added sugar and salt, such as in bread, jams, biscuits, cakes, etc. This is particularly so for breakfast. Protein and fat don’t make much of an appearance until later in the day, particularly the main meal in the evening. Full fat milk, cheese and yoghurt are usually replaced by “healthier” low fat options.
The other is how often we need to eat. The old adage of having three square meals a day no longer seems to apply. Mid morning and afternoon snacks are needed to keep us going through the day. Have you ever wondered why this is?
Well, the answer is quite simple. Carbohydrates are a short term fuel. They’re quickly broken down into sugar – and then into glucose – before passing into the bloodstream to provide energy. And this applies whether they start out as wheat, rice, potatoes or starchy vegetables, such as carrots or parsnips.
While some may take longer to be broken down than others, carbohydrates hit the bloodstream much more quickly than fats and proteins. This is why they don’t fill us up for so long AND we need to eat more regularly. By contrast, fats and proteins take much longer to break down and leave us feeling full for much longer.
When you look at things from this perspective, it’s easy to see how easily people can get into problems. Going from one carbohydrate rich meal to a carbohydrate rich snack, to bridge the gap until the next carbohydrate rich meal. And this is where one of our most primitive survival tendencies trip us up. Our love – and natural attraction for – sweet foods.
To our bodies, sweetness equates to “good” and we want more of it. With so many sweet goodies to choose from these days – many of which aren’t immediately obvious as being “sweet” – it’s easy to succumb to them. An occasional – and seasonal – treat becomes part of our daily routine. Little wonder that our Pancreas becomes exhausted from the repeated production of insulin to bring the resulting surges in blood sugar under control. Throw in a more sedentary lifestyle and it’s a recipe – excuse the pun (!) – for disaster.
Ironically, most people’s idea of a “low fat, high carb” diet is not what was originally intended. Low fat doesn’t mean no fat. Fat is not the enemy. Instead it means replacing unhealthy processed fats with those found in fish, nuts and olive oil as well as small amounts of eggs and full fat dairy products.
Similarly, “high carb” didn’t mean a diet centred on refined processed carbohydrates such as white flour, rice, pasta and potatoes. Rather one with plenty of whole grains – barley, spelt, whole wheat and rice – and vegetables, particularly those which are high fibre and starchy. Eating plenty of fibre is essential as it slows down digestion and so the speed with which the glucose from the carbohydrates reaches the bloodstream.
So, once again, it’s all about a little common sense and thinking about things from our body’s point of view. And if you’re in any doubt, think back to what people traditionally ate. Foods in their natural unprocessed form AND in season.
However much you may try to persuade yourself otherwise, your body really doesn’t need another sweet sugary treat from the supermarket (!). And, if you need a quick reminder of what to avoid, there’s a simple rule we came across a few years ago that won’t let you go far wrong. If it has more than 5 ingredients on the label then give it a miss.
With all the confusion, it’s not surprising that two very different types of diet have become popular in recent years. While they’re known by many different names, they can be summed up as low carb and intermittent fasting. Both aim to avoid the problems associated with the “low fat, high carb” diet, particularly Diabetes and Obesity, as well as promoting healthier eating. We’ll be putting them both under the spotlight in a couple of weeks' time.
As always, the choice is yours.
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