Low-carb or low-calorie which is right for you?
If you've spent your life avoiding butter and cutting the fat off meat, you might be finding the recent spate of health announcements that fat is your friend a little surprising. In South Africa, the high-fat, low-carb (HFLC) eating plan is championed by Professor Tim Noakes, whose recipe book The Real Meal Revolution (Quivertree Publications) is filling dieters' stomachs with bacon, cheese and cream, while still promising a diminishing waistline.
So what's the deal? Can you eat as much fat as you like and still lose weight? And what about carbs? Why are they so bad? If you'd like to lose weight and are baffled by the barrage of conflicting information, we've taken the pain out of the puzzle for you.
Understanding traditional weight-loss diets
If you ignore all the different fad diets out there and see a qualified dietician, you will be put on a calorie-restricted diet. This basically means that you use a little scale and you count every calorie that goes into every plate of food you eat. Then you do a calculation and you make sure that you stay under a certain amount of calories for the day. Women should never consume less than 1 200 calories a day and more if they exercise.
The bonus: You'll lose weight, steadily but surely. And you'll be able to have cheat days and still enjoy all the food groups.
The downside: You'll have to restrict most things that are delicious like full cream and sugar and will probably feel hungry or dissatisfied most of the time.
The long term: When you've lost the weight, you can increase your calorie intake to a maintenance level and, if you start to put on a couple of kgs, you can just cut back again.
Understanding high-fat, low carb
Although HFLC is making the headlines at the moment, it's not a new concept. In the early 19th century, William Banting, a morbidly obese dietician was instructed to follow this diet previously used only on diabetics and he lost a huge amount of weight.
That's why following this diet is today known as banting.
The HFLC diet has made a reappearance in many forms over the years. Both Atkins and Paleo to a certain extent have characteristics of HFLC. But, in its purest form, it amounts to reducing your intake of carbohydrates that's all starches and sugars to less than 50g to 100g a day. A further reduction to 25g is known as the ketone diet, which is supposed to bring on extremely rapid weight loss.
Then, to make up for the lost carbs, you eat loads of animal fat and certain vegetable oils like olive oil or avocado oil. The (fairly well tested) theory is that without the spike in insulin that comes after eating carbohydrates, you won't store this fat. In addition, because fat is satisfying to your body, you'll be less hungry and less likely to binge or snack. You're still supposed to eat piles of veg, but almost no fruit. But you can have cream in your coffee.
The other thing about true HFLC is that it's not supposed to be a diet but rather a lifestyle. You train your brain to get its energy from fat instead of carbs so, if you go back to carbs, your weight will start to go up again.
The bonus: If you do it right with no cheating, you'll lose a lot of weight fairly quickly. They say you'll have more energy and get fitter too. Also, you'll feel satisfied. You might dream of noodles and risotto or cheesecake, but you can always have bacon.
The downside: You will miss carbs. And you will probably regain some (if not all) of the weight you lost if you go back to eating them.
The long term: HFLC is not a crash diet; it's for life. There is increasing evidence that carbs are quite bad for you in any form, but going almost carb-free forever is a challenge.
The bottom line
The two weight-loss approaches are so contradictory that it's hard to work out which one to choose. Most doctors and dieticians still recommend a low-calorie diet as the tried-and-tested way to lose weight healthily. On the other hand, people are seeing incredible results with HFLC, and the dieting process is far easier than a low-calorie diet because you can always eat bacon. But you have to be willing to stick to it for the duration which is forever.