What is more important than sugar, saturated fat, carbohydrates and calories?

A banana is 13% sugar, and has a greater percentage of sugar than soft drink.

Yet the banana also contains potassium, magnesium, dietary fibre, Vitamin C and (when partially unripe) is one of the richest sources of resistant starch. It’s consumption, as part of a diet that contains a variety of other fruits, helps to protect you from heart disease and strokeweight gain, and helps to prolong your life.

Cheese is typically rich in saturated fat, and has a very similar fatty acid content to butter.

Yet cheese also contains calcium, protein, magnesium, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B12. It’s consumption lowers cholesterol when eaten in replace of butter, is not actually associated with weight gain, and may (slightly) help to protect you from cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes.

Extra-virgin olive oil and nuts are both extremely rich sources of calories and fat, and provide a denser source of both than a doughnut.

Yet both extra-virgin olive oil and nuts are very rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, phenols and other antioxidants. The liberal addition of these foods to the diet protects against both cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes (substantially), whilst also appearing to potentially reduce body weight and waist circumference.

Wholemeal bread is rich in rapidly-digested carbohydrates, and results in a greater spike to blood sugar than table sugar does.

Yet wholemeal bread also contains dietary fibre, Vitamin B1, Vitamin E, folate, various minerals and phytochemicals, particularly phenolic antioxidants. It’s consumption, as part of a diet containing a variety of other whole or fibrous grains, helps to protect you from Type 2 Diabetescardiovascular diseasebowel cancerweight gain, and helps to prolong your life, too.

Why do we believe the presence of a ‘negative’ nutrient – whether it is sugar, saturated fat, carbohydrates or calories – means a food is unhealthy or fattening?

Much more important, is to look for the abundance of positive nutrients found in minimally processed foods, instead.

How you can eat less sugar and not lose weight

An important nutrition principle is the one of replacement: for every food (or nutrient) you remove from the diet, another usually takes its place.

One common limitation I see with many popular diets is that they fail to appropriately advise on replacement. Low sugarlow fat and low carb can each be effective for better health and body weight. But they can each be pointless exercises, too.

To demonstrate, consider these well established research findings:

  • Replacing sugar (and other carbohydrates) with protein reduces weight gain. Yet replacing sugar with other carbohydrates (starchy foods like white bread, rice and crackers), does not.
  • Replacing fat with protein and fibre reduces body weight. Yet replacing fat with carbohydrate, does not.
  • Replacing carbohydrate with polyunsaturated fat (found in sunflower, safflower and soybean oil, and a variety of nuts, seeds and oily fish) reduces heart disease risk. Yet replacing carbohydrate with saturated fat (found in some meats, dairy and butter), does not.

Talking about what to eat less of, matters. But talking about what to eat instead, matters even more.

8 grain swaps that help support optimal health

  1. Swap brown rice for barley
  2. Swap pasta for wholemeal pasta
  3. Swap basmati rice for quinoa 
  4. Swap wholemeal bread for mixed grain bread
  5. Swap sourdough bread for rye bread
  6. Swap instant porridge for rolled oats
  7. Swap wholegrain cereal for muesli
  8. Swap wheat biscuits for bran cereal.

Yes, the first options are excellent choices when compared to refined cereals like most white breads, white rices, low-fibre cereals, rice crackers and noodles.

But you can still go one better if you choose.

Research suggests that slowly digested, fibrous grains are the healthiest of them all.

Eating foods that tick each of these 2 criteria will likely help to:

  • feed your gut bacteria and make you feel fuller, within hours,
  • improve markers of your heart and metabolic health, within weeks, and
  • substantially lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, bowel cancer and weight gain, over the coming months and years.

When deciding which grain to eat, it is important to remember that both slowly digested grains and higher fibre grains provide health benefits that are unique and equally important.

An optimal diet, therefore, is one that consistently contains both.

The real impact of grains on our health

If you happen to get your nutrition information from Google, you have likely heard about the idea that eating grain-based foods is detrimental for your health.

Yet a wealth of scientific research actually tells us time and time again that people who eat fibre-rich grains:

You see, fibrous grains, which include wholemeal breads, high-fibre cereals, wholemeal pasta, oats and barley, are minimally processed plant foods that do not only provide fibre, but also:

  • magnesium,
  • zinc,
  • B vitamins,
  • Vitamin E,
  • resistant starch, and
  • an abundance of different antioxidants, too.

What’s more, these health benefits associated with fibrous grains are actually significantly greater than what we see for fibrous fruits and vegetables. This has been shown consistently in the literature for a:

It appears most difficult to achieve optimal health with just the fibre from fruits and vegetables alone.

To best understand the impact of grains on our health, we need to be aware that:

  1. The type of grain matters. Please note that these impressive nutrition and health benefits are mostly or completely absent in refined grain foods, such as white bread, refined cereals, white rice, biscuits, cakes and pastries. When people tell us that carbohydrates or grains are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us, we must remember that it is far too simplistic to assume that all carbohydrates or grains have an equal effect on our health.
  2. The amount also matters. Just 40-50 grams of fibre-rich grains a day is commonly thought to be enough for these significant health benefits to develop over time. To put this into perspective, this is only slightly more than 1 slice of wholemeal bread, or 1 bowl of oats. The idea that our diets must have grains as it’s foundation is outdated and invalid. We simply don’t have to eat a lot.

But the concern for me is that most of us seem to be falling short of the small amount that is consistently associated with optimal health. What’s more, we are now seeing the popularity of anti-grain fad diets, such as low-carb, gluten-free and Paleo, associated with a further marked decline in our grain intake.

And whilst these fad diets are correct in that we should be limiting the intake of refined grain foods, encouraging a long-term absence of fibrous grain foods from our diet is, I believe, most likely to do more harm than good.

Is eating low-fat an effective way to lose weight?

Research has shown the low-fat diet can fare worse for weight loss when compared to numerous other diets, including:

One of the biggest developments in nutrition science is this: the conventional low-fat diet may be one of the least effective dietary strategies to both manage your weight and promote good health.

Why? The unifying theme that explains the advantage of each of the other diets is simple: they reduce the intake of carbohydrate-rich foods that are highly refined and low in nutrients. When we eat low-fat, we more often than not default to these sorts of foods.

Note that these foods include some sugary foods such as soft drinks, juices and confectionary. But they also include some starchy foods such as refined grains and flours like white bread, white rice, refined cereals and refined crackers. The constant spike in our blood sugar that a high consumption of these foods produce results in significantly poorer health over time, except in the leanest and most active of individuals.

Of course, it is far too simplistic to say that all carbohydrate-rich foods result in weight gain and poor health.

A vegetarian diet, for example, is typically a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. It is consistently associated with lower body weight and better health. A key difference is the quality of the carbohydrates eaten. The vegetarian diet is typically rich in carbohydrates from minimally processed plant foods, such as legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables and fibrous grains.

The problem is not carbohydrates per se, but that the quality of our carbohydrate choices today are usually poor.

Sure, enjoy some highly refined and nutrient poor low-fat foods for enjoyments sake.

But please don’t eat large amounts of them because you think they are helping you to lose weight.

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