Food Fight--Carbs Vs. Fat

For 20 years dietitian Katherine Tallmadge of Washington, D.C., has been telling her clients how to eat a healthful diet. Don't stint on fruits, vegetables or whole grains. Pick lean sources of protein. Limit your fat intake. People who followed this sensible advice lost weight. But too many others got only part of the message. By the early 1990s, Americans were wolfing down fat-free cookies and jumbo bagels in the name of better health--and growing ever more corpulent. This has fueled a controversial theory: Carbohydrates make you fat. A diet rich in fat will slim you down.

The debate over carbs and fats has been simmering for decades, driven in no small part by millionaire diet doctors with book sales at stake. But the latest round of the nutritional slugfest began on July 7, when the cover of The New York Times Magazine pictured a larded slab of beef, a pat of butter on top, alongside the provocative title "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?" For anyone who just wants to drop a few pounds, the dueling prescriptions can be hopelessly confusing. But they needn't be. As New York University nutrition expert Marion Nestle likes to say, "It's the calories, stupid." Eat fewer of them than you burn off, and you'll lose weight. And you don't have to adopt a trendy fad diet to do that. If you forget about the war between fats and carbs and focus instead on nutritional value, you'll have a diet that is not only healthier but more delicious.

The truth is that no food group, whether fats or carbs, is made up entirely of heroes or zeroes. Of course, you can renounce fat for carbs and gain weight. But the only carbs you really need to restrict are the refined ones--foods made with white sugar and flour, ranging from sodas to sugary breakfast cereals. These processed foods fail to fill you up until you've eaten way too many calories. They contain little-to-no nutritional value. And they're absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, prompting the body to unleash a surge of insulin that accelerates the conversion of calories into fat.

By contrast, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are densely packed with life-sustaining compounds. They're absorbed gradually enough to prevent sudden insulin spikes. And they satisfy better, thanks to their high fiber and fluid content. Eat an apple, and you have a filling, healthful snack for 80 calories. Chow down on cookies, and you can consume 600 empty calories before you know it.

As for fats, easing up makes sense if you're trying to slim down. Gram-for-gram, they contain more calories than either carbs or protein. But that doesn't mean they're inherently bad. Just as fresh broccoli has obvious advantages over Pepsi, the fat in salmon is superior to that in a slab of bacon or a bag of fries. The omega-3 oils in fish, canola oil and flaxseed not only help ward off heart disease but may even improve mood and mental function. The monounsaturates in nuts, olive oil and avocados are also beneficial. The fats to use sparingly are saturated fats and, especially, the trans fats (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) that pervade packaged cookies, crackers and snacks.

Even bitter partisans in the fat-versus-carbs dispute find common ground on most of these points. Dr. Robert Atkins, the low-carb guru, encourages devotees to eat vegetables in the second and third phases of his diet and cautiously embraces berries and whole grains. "I eat more vegetables than the average vegetarian," he boasts, claiming a daily intake of six or seven servings. At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Dean Ornish, chief proponent of a very low-fat diet, condemns refined carbs and agrees that small amounts of monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are not only allowable but advantageous.

So if you're fretting over fats and carbs, don't. The distinction that counts is the one between nutritious food and junk. And giving up junk is easier than you might think. Whole, fresh food offers sensual delights that McDonald's could never match. "Just sit on a piazza in Rome and savor the antipasto buffet, with 30 kinds of vegetables in extra-virgin olive oil," says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Add in tasty herbs and spices, nuts, fish and hearty whole-grain breads, which are more flavorful and filling than white bread, and you can see this is no recipe for deprivation. "It's junk food that's tasteless, requiring large amounts of salt, corn syrup and trans fats to make it palatable," says Willett. So, as he says, eat, drink--and be healthy.