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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Is Carb Free a Fad?


No, No and No.
I want to shout it from the rooftops.

First things first: Wiki's definition of a fad: "A fad is any form of behaviour that develops among a large population and is collectively followed enthusiastically for a period of time, generally as a result of the behavior being perceived as popular by one's peers or being deemed "cool" by social media. A fad is said to "catch on" when the number of people adopting it begins to increase rapidly. The behaviour will normally fade quickly once the perception of novelty is gone"

And so here is my opinion, controversial as it might seem: The carb free diet is not a fad. And - wait for it - neither was the fat free diet.

Because - and herein lies the importance of this debate - both schools of thought were based not on what was deemed "cool" by popular media - this isn't after all about dressing norm core - they were grounded on significant medical and scientific research prevailing at the time. This is about nutrition, well-being and the health of our bodies and minds - a topic, I would imagine, of significant and far reaching consequence.

This isn't to say, by the way, that the fat-free diet was erroneous. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the “war” on fat was the biggest mistake in the history of nutrition.  To condense a long and complex topic into a few sentences isn't easy, but it was faith in science that led physicians and patients to embrace the low-fat diet. Scientific studies dating from the late 1940s showed a correlation between high-fat diets and high-cholesterol levels, suggesting that a low-fat diet might prevent heart disease. By the 1960s, the low-fat diet began to be touted not just for high-risk heart patients, but as good for the general population. After 1980, the low-fat approach became an ideology, promoted by medical practitioners, the government, the food industry, and the popular media.  Ironically, in the same decades that "low-fat" assumed ideological status, we were all getting fatter, obesity became not only a concept, but a global concern. And yet, the low-fat ideology had such a hold on us that skeptics were dismissed. Only recently has evidence of a paradigm shift begun to surface, largely reflecting newly discovered scientific knowledge about fats.

But to call the fat-free era a fad simply because it was wrong, is to disbelieve in the very notion of progress, the advancement of medical science, and the fact that for every minute we live, we discover something new, and that we make assumptions based on what we know and hold them to be true - until they are disproved.

Yes, we all believed the earth was flat until the day we discovered it wasn't.

And while it is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and criticise the proponents of the fat free era, I'd cut them some slack. After all, it does seem intuitive that fat makes you fat. 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, while 1 gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories. What we didn't know then, that we know now is that obesity is down not just to calories, but to the quality of those calories. And about how fat and carbs get used in our body.

It works like this: Refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar. Your body then produces extra insulin to bring your blood sugar down. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. With more insulin circulating around in your bloodstream, your body converts the carbohydrates to fat. And so, when we eat more carbohydrates than we burn for energy, our body ends up storing them as fat - in all the problem areas that you and I already know - on your thighs, your stomach, your hips. 

There's another factor at play here. If you eat a lot of carbs, you burn those carbs for energy and need a steady supply of carbs to keep your energy up. Relying on carbs for energy, you body doesn't have the need to access and burn your stored fat. You become a "sugar-burner."  On the other hand, when you eat less carbs, you become a "fat-burner." The body first goes for carbs to burn for energy and once it has depleted that source, it turns to access and burn stored body fat. Aha.

Before I finish up with this post, I will disclaim myself from the term "carb free" by saying that I am using it, not literally, but for ease of explanation. By carb free, I don't not mean all carbs are bad. All carbs cannot - by definition - be bad, simply because all carbs are not the same. There are superior carbs, there are acceptable carbs, and then there are carbs that are plain evil. I will get to these in detail as we go along, but I am a big advocate of complex carbs like barley, whole oats, bulgur, millet, quinoa, sweet potatoes, brown rice, lentils, beans and buckwheat. These satisfy our appetite, so we tend to eat less. It is refined carbohydrate foods that tend to cause the insulin spike that make us more hungry, and so we tend to eat more.

I also have to say what any responsible dispenser of weight and nutrition advice should say: what works for me may not work for you. Our bodies are not only the most intricate pieces of machinery that exist on this earth, but they are all different, and there are many complex metabolic processes at play - as with anything in life, one size rarely fits all.

But I believe for many people, if you reduce the refined carbohydrates in your diet -- white bread, sugar, pasta, muffins, breakfast cereal, crisps, sweets, and sweetened drinks -- and add more healthy fats -- nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, and sardines, olives, olive oil, grass fed meats -- you'll likely lose some weight, stop the cycle of ravenous hunger, feel more satiated, have more energy and more stable blood sugars, and generally lead a healthier and higher quality life.

Here's what I ate for lunch today: Oregano, paprika and tomato chicken skewers with a side of rocket and broccoli and a dollop of full fat, unsweetened natural yogurt.

Here's what you need:

1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 garlic clove
3 tbsp virgin olive oil
8 chicken tenderloins 
4 cups rocket (or other green leaf salad) + lemon and olive oil to dress
Few handful broccoli heads
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Some bamboo skewers (optional, you can simply cut the chicken into strips instead)

Here's how you do it:

Skewer the chicken tenderloins onto bamboo sticks and marinate with a mixture of oregano, paprika, chopped garlic, tomato paste, olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside for about 20-30 minutes or more if you can, the longer the better. 

Cook chicken skewers or strips in the oven or on the stove top for 3-4 minutes on each side, until cooked through and slightly charred. Arrange rocket leaves and broccoli on a plate and lay the chicken skewers over them. Drizzle with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, dip into the yogurt and Voila!

It's not a fad, it's not a diet. It's a flavourful, natural, unrefined, generous portion of food that not only tastes great, but leaves you feeling great.

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