It’s an irony that has perplexed health experts for decades: As more Americans have embraced low-fat foods to lose weight, the nation’s collective waistline has greatly expanded since the 1970s — driving an epidemic of obesity and higher rates of heart disease and diabetes.
Now a growing body of research suggests this is not pure coincidence. In fact, many low-fat foods — including margarine, skim milk, and other reduced-fat products — are loaded with calories, carbs, sugar, and processed flour that can actually contribute to weight gain. What’s more, the latest nutritional studies show some fats are good for us and can help shed pounds.
Brett Osborn, M.D. — author of the new book “Get Serious, A Neurosurgeon’s Guide to Optimal Health and Fitness” — tells Newsmax TV’s Meet the Doctors program that not all fats are created equal. Some — such as those found in fish, olive oil, nuts, flax seed, and even certain cuts of meat — are essential for good health. And avoiding them in favor of low-fat, high-carb alternatives may do more harm than good.
Robert Newman, a certified nutritionist and wellness expert from East Northport, N.Y., adds that the real culprits in the nation's obesity epidemic are sugary, high-carb, refined processed foods — many of which carry reduced-fat labels.
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Dr. Osborn, a New York University-trained board-certified neurological surgeon with a secondary certification in anti-aging and regenerative medicine, explains that there are different types of fat. Some — such as trans fats found in baked goods, pastries, and fried foods — cause inflammation in the body, which has been tied to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and other health problems. But others — such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and other staples of the Mediterranean diet — have anti-inflammatory properties and promote health and even weight loss.
“It’s absolutely OK to have more than a little bit of fat in one’s diet,” he says. “Remember this whole issue with low fat … the reason why low-fat diets came into popularity was because of this notion that fats were bad for us and everything went low fat. The problem is … when the fats were removed from the foods, [they] were being replaced by carbohydrates. Which is why a low-fat diet [is] not necessarily your best regimen.”
He adds that losing weight is very “person specific” and individualized, which is why some one-size-fits-all dietary advice for weight loss — such as the long-held belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — is just plain wrong. In fact, new research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is challenging the notion that having a nutritious breakfast can boost weight loss by helping people cut down on snacking and over-eating throughout the day.
Researchers at the University of Alabama who tracked nearly 300 volunteers randomly assigned to either skip breakfast or always eat the meal for four months found that morning meal had no effect on weight whatsoever. In another new study, researchers at the University of Bath tracked the cholesterol levels, blood-sugar, metabolic rates and body weight of 33 people randomly assigned to eat or skip breakfast. After 6 weeks, their weight, metabolism, cholesterol and blood sugar levels were unchanged, regardless of whether people ate breakfast or not.
“Losing weight is very person specific. Some individuals will respond very very well to what’s called daily intermittent fasting in which they fast actually – or they do a relative fast – until dinner time and those individuals who are in all likelihood extremely carbohydrate sensitive tend to do very very well with a single meal per day,” explains Dr. Osborn.
“Breakfast, despite what you may have heard, is not necessarily a crucial element to weight loss. We assume that it is because we like to say that multiple small meals during a single 24-hour period are best because it really keeps the metabolic rate active and that generally tends to be true. [But] when I counsel patients I typically tell them to eat frequent small meals and really to stop eating after 7 o’clock at night. But there are some individuals … [who] are best served by eating a diet that consisted wholly of a single meal per day, and say a coffee in the morning — that coupled with exercise.”
Newman agrees that low-fat foods may do more harm than good and that dietary plans need to be tailored to an individual’s particularly needs. Which is why, for some people, breakfast is an important meal, but that’s not necessarily true for everyone.
“It’s so individual,” he says. “As a rule when I do see my patients their blood sugar is typically low at the end of their sleep period, [after] waking up. So I do like to have them get a quality protein, quality fat, and perhaps some carbohydrates in their diet, just to start the engines, to get the energy production going [and] control the metabolism. I absolutely [advocate] eating some healthy quality food in the morning.”
He adds that healthy fats are important for healthy bodily functions, and low-fat diets may cheat your body of what it needs.
“Fat is essential for the hormones in the body,” he notes. “Your brain is made up of a large percentage of fat, all the signaling [chemicals], all the sex hormones – testosterone, estrogen – they’re all based on healthy fats. So to go on a low-fat diet, you’re really affecting the cell membrane[s] of every one of the trillion cells in your body.”
What follows is a list of foods containing healthy fats:
Fish: Polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and fish oil supplements, have been shown in many studies to lower the risk for heart disease, boost brain function, ease arthritis symptoms, and help prevent dementia.
Nuts: Natural fatty acids in tree nuts are known to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Researchers from the University of Toronto found that incorporating about two ounces of tree nuts — almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamias, walnuts, and peanuts — into the diet of people with diabetes helped boost their heart health.
Vegetable oils: Olive oil and other vegetable-based fats — such as canola and palm oils — are loaded with alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3. Switching to a diet low in simple sugars and high in healthy fatty oils can help people with Type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar, and lower their heart disease risks, research has shown.
Animal products: Moderate amounts of saturated fat in butter, milk, cheese, and even lean cuts of beef, poultry, and pork don’t clog arteries and may even be beneficial in moderate amounts. Scientists once believed saturated fat raised levels of dangerous cholesterol in the blood. But the latest research shows there are two different kinds of cholesterol particles — small and dense (the kind linked to heart disease) and large and fluffy (which don't pose a risk). Saturated fat in dairy foods and animal products raises the level of larger particles that are not harmful, but refined carbohydrates boost levels of smaller, more dangerous cholesterol particles.
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