Feeling confused about all the theories on weight management?  and Cholesterol? You’re not alone. For decades we’ve been told fat is bad for you, now suddenly it will help you lose weight and is essential for mood and brain health!  Conflicting theories, so called ‘truths’ disproven, and extreme, faddy, celebrity endorsed diets that claim miraculous weight loss, are enough to put anyone off even starting.  However, when that all important wedding/holiday/anniversary date looms large in your diary, please don’t be tempted by a rash, crash diet. Try a little old fashioned common sense instead.

STOP and think: for a diet to truly WORK it has to be manageable over the long-term. It needs to become an easy, achievable way of eating that feels like the norm. If dietary changes are complicated, or leave you feeling starved they will be unsustainable.  A diet needs to be easily adopted and keep you feeling nourished, so obsessive thoughts about food, melt away. That way you can stick to it over the long-term, maybe even for the rest of your life and the yo-yo effect of always gaining what you lost, shouldn’t happen.

So, common sense says: if a diet makes you feel exhausted; famished; induces headaches; leaves you craving for sweet things; and caffeine drinks, then it’s probably not healthy and certainly lacks the essential nutrients that create staying power.

Cue: fats, protein and blood sugar balancing, and suspend all long-held beliefs about fat being bad.

It’s not the fats we eat that tend to make us fat. Fat in the diet has quite wrongly endured a bad press for decades, ever since Ancel Keyes in 1953 published his hypothesis that sought to show an association between dietary fats and heart disease. His ‘theory’ quickly evolved into accepted dogma, with public health advice focussing on lowering everyone’s fat consumption.  Food manufacturers quickly jumped on the bandwagon (great marketing opportunity!) to produce low-fat, even fat-free products, and call them ‘HEALTHY’.  We now have several generations that unquestioningly see dietary fat as bad for you.

What has more recently come to light, was the fact that Ancel Keyes did not use the complete data from all 22 countries analysed for his hypothesis, (to show dietary fat consumption correlated with mortality from heart disease). If he had, no such association was seen to exist.  But by only selecting the data from 6 countries that did support his hypothesis, he was able to present a convincing case.  The biochemist Professor George Mann called it ‘the greatest scientific deception of our times’.

Indeed if we look at the diets of our ancestors, fat – primarily animal fat – was a large component and they did not suffer the obesity/diabetes/cardiovascular problems that are prevalent today.  Dietary fat, like protein, is actually essential to our physiology. There are no ‘essential’ carbohydrates. Our liver can actually manufacture glucose from both fat and protein.  Fat  may be ‘energy dense’, providing 9 calories of energy per gram, but that makes it a satiating fuel that keeps blood sugar stable whilst at the same time providing essential building blocks for hormones, neurotransmitters, brain tissue and the myelin that insulates nerves. Our bodies need fat.

What about cholesterol?  Interestingly, an American Paediatric Journal has just stated ‘Cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern for health’.  So I can appreciate that to all those individuals avoiding cholesterol rich foods like eggs and seafood, this appears typical of one of those science U-turns!  In fact, we nutritionists have been trying to dispel the ‘cholesterol-as bad-guy’ myth for years.  But 50 years of dogma is a tough mountain to push over.

So what are the facts?  Every cell of every organ has cholesterol as part of its structure. Cholesterol is manufactured in our livers because cholesterol is an integral component of all our cell membranes, the membranes that enclose every cell of our bodies. And we have billions of cells.  Cholesterol is also an essential component of hormones, and immune cells. It insulates nerves to enable efficient conduction. LDL – the so-called ‘bad cholesterol’ – is actually quite useful as it binds and inactivates bacterial toxins. So you see Cholesterol is actually essential to our physiology.

A diet rich in cholesterol has been demonstrated to improve a person’s ability to recover from infections.  The liver will send cholesterol out to the site of any injury as part of the healing process, which is why it is found within the plaques of damaged arteries. But the initiating damage that triggered a repair process, is most likely from small micro tears that occur when hardened, inflexible blood vessels have been subjected to rises in blood pressure.  Cholesterol is in effect part of the ‘paramedic team’ that arrives at the scene of the injury. (A few individuals may have ‘familial hyper-cholesterolemia’, which is a condition where excessive cholesterol production does need reducing and monitoring).

So how will weight loss be achieved if fats are to be rehabilitated into our diets? Won’t this mean our calorie intake increases?

It’s a common misconception of calorie watchers, but in truth, when people consume healthy fats, their hunger disappears, their appetite for snacks disappears, and whilst their overall calorie intake probably doesn’t alter too much, their carbohydrate intake reduces.  But critically, their new found blood sugar balance means they will not be converting an excess of blood sugar to stored body fat.  It’s all about which foods trigger high levels of insulin.  Insulin – the hormone that promotes ‘storage’ – is particularly triggered by sugars and refined carbohydrates. Highly processed, refined, starches and sugars used in baked goods, fizzy drinks, confectionary and pseudo-foods get digested to glucose very quickly.  The resulting peak in excess blood glucose triggers insulin, a hormone tasked with regulating blood glucose levels, to whisk it away for storage.

Storage can be into the cells of muscles, if those muscles have expended their energy, or it can be off to the liver for storage, or to fat cells – if the liver’s stores are already full. Insulin’s job is simply to maintain blood glucose levels within an optimum range, so if a meal high in carbohydrates, produces glucose in excess of current needs, and unexercised muscles are signalling they’re still full, excess glucose will be converted to fat and stored predominantly around the abdomen.

So, common sense about weight loss is all about eating foods that keep blood glucose stable, that result in keeping insulin quiet. The hormone that promotes storage, will stay out of the picture when blood glucose is kept on an even keel, and that is achievable with fats and protein in the diet, that slow the conversion of carbohydrate to glucose.

So to sum up:

  • Switch to whole-grain carbohydrates and keep portions small

Brown/wild rice, whole wheat pasta, whole grain breads, oatcakes. Whole grains release energy more slowly, reducing sugar cravings and provide vitamin E and magnesium – proven to be effective against free radicals.

  • Fibre slows digestion

Keep fibrous vegetables slightly undercooked and they will remain in the stomach for longer.

  • Protein slows digestion

Adding a small portion of protein to a meal will sustain one for longer, slow digestion and delay stomach emptying.

  • A dash of lemon or vinegar

Acid also helps to slow digestion and the rate at which food leaves the stomach. Sprinkle on salads or add to casseroles.

  • Avoid processed and packages pseudo-foods

Anything with a long list of ingredients, manufactured processed foods often contain hidden sugars.  Processing also speeds up digestion, mashing potatoes for example speeds up their conversion to glucose.

  • Don’t skip meals

Especially breakfast!  An empty stomach with plummeting energy levels will not only hamper concentration, the resulting sugar cravings will see you reaching for some processed, convenient, nutritiously empty snack.  Aim for an egg to start the day, nutritiously the most complete food, it will keep blood sugar steady till lunch.

  • Switch to de-caffeinated

Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to produce a rise in blood glucose levels and so trigger more insulin release.

  • Moderate alcohol

Alcohol metabolises quickly producing a short term sugar high, so avoid consuming on an empty stomach, food slows its conversion.

  • Plan nutritious pm snacks

If the gap between lunch and dinner exceeds 5 hours, a snack makes sense. But snacks can contribute good nutrients, they need not be just ‘empty calories’ providing a sugar-hit but no nutrition. Think fresh or dried fruit with a few nuts, oatcakes dipped in houmous, yoghurts with milled seeds, nutty muesli bars, rye bread sandwich with nut butters.

  • Fruit drinks/fruit juice

Fruit flavoured drinks are often high in sugar, choose actual fruit juice instead, dilute with water to make more thirst quenching and limit to one per day with meals.

  • Chromium

Chromium levels are often deficient in people consuming a high sugar diet1. Supplements of this mineral have been shown to help regulate blood glucose levels.

Slow the rate of digestion and take control of blood sugar levels.

1 Diabetes Education (2004) A Scientific Review: the role of chromium in insulin resistance. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15208835