Carbs vs. Fat (AGAIN!?) and Why "Superfoods" are Bogus

There are a few things I'm not too fond of: astrology, personality tests, bicyclists that fail to abide by traffic laws, and "light" squats.  The reasons, of course, are that bicyclists can hurt themselves or others when they're not careful, heavy squats are time off purgatory (Catholic humor high five!), and astrology and personality tests can be somewhat arrogant.  After all, aren't we all different people?  For instance, I like to think that I'm a one-of-a-kind delicate, deadlifting snowflake. (That's gotta be some type of oxymoron).

This is my usual reaction to personality tests..

This is my usual reaction to personality tests..

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I took the Myers-Briggs personality test a few weeks ago.  Not only did reading the description of INTJ's really make sense to me, but I was shocked at how much I matched the description.  I learned that not only would I rather lift heavy things than talk about my feelings (and really, who wouldn't!?), but the following sentence really clicked with me: "INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don't know."

Where all of this extraneous blabber comes into play is in the field of nutrition. I don't know much about nutrition, but I do know how to help someone make better choices and overhaul their diet.  So, this week I wanted to lump together two thoughts I've been kicking around recently - the recent debate of carbs vs. fat, and why the term Superfood is really super rubbish.

1. Earlier last week, a new study was published that revived the decades old war of carbs vs. fat.  And, as our media is constantly searching for the dieting holy grail (hint: there is none), they widely publicized the paper's results: those individuals on a "low carb" diet lost more weight and have more favorable results for heart health, than those on a "low-fat" diet.

When in doubt, ask the Overly Manly Man meme.

When in doubt, ask the Overly Manly Man meme.

If only it were that simple....

When one looks at the actual study, the so-called "low-FAT" diet, was hardly different than the Standard American diet (allowing up to 30% of calories from fat).  Further, the "low-CARB" diet in this study was extremely restrictive, allowing its participants a maximum of 40 grams of carbohydrates each day (which equates to only 1.5 bananas).  So, instead of having a "low fat" diet versus a "low carb" diet, the title of this now famous paper should have been "an extremely restrictive low-carb diet vs. a somewhat normal American diet."

Another important distinction is that in both groups, the amount of fiber consumed was only 15-16 grams/day, which is pitifully short of what we should all be having.  While this is to be expected in a low-carbohydrate study (because plants are full of carbohydrates and fiber), the alarmingly low amount of dietary fiber in the low-fat group illustrates that what these participants were eating was processed crap filled with carbohydrates...and marginally lower in fat.  As I've mentioned before, the intention of the low-fat diet was to steer us away from saturated fat, towards more fruits and vegetables that are chock full of essential vitamins and minerals.  At no point was Snackwells, 100 calorie packs, nor any other Frankenfoods ever intended to be consumed under the banner of low-fat.

Further, the study did a pretty poor job of classifying the different types of fats and carbs.  Just as there are good fats (avocados, walnuts, olive oil) and bad fats (fried foods, bacon), the same can be said about carbohydrates.  In no way is a PopTart similar to a bowl of spinach, although both would be loaded with carbohydrates.

The results, then, aren't really all that surprising.  The group that ate less food under the more restrictive diet lost more weight and had more positive results with their blood tests.  Meanwhile, the group that comparatively ate more food, particularly more processed food, didn't lose as much.  Clearly, this isn't rocket science....instead, it's common sense.

Now, this isn't a defense of low-fat diets - in fact, I tend to love fat and eat a ton of it (peanut and almond butters are my kryptonite, as well as any type of seafood).  But, this study has done little to change what we know we SHOULD be eating: whole plant foods, unsaturated fats, and lean proteins.  Cut out the processed, pre-made crap....and you, too will see improved bodymarkers like that in the study.

2. On that same note, I wanted to discuss one term that's always confused me and the rest of society: Superfoods.  

What is a Superfood?  Technically, Superfoods are certain plants or proteins that supposedly offer greater health benefits than others. But, do these foods really have superpowers?  Are certain Superfoods better than others?  Or, was this term just invented by some famous TV hacks (looking at you, Dr. Oz) with monetary interests?

Lose weight without diet or exercise?  Sounds right to me..

Lose weight without diet or exercise?  Sounds right to me..

(Somewhat related sidenote: I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Oz getting grilled in front of Congress a few weeks ago.  If you have yet to seen it, take the next 5 minutes and watch him squirm when he's asked point blank about making unsubstantiated claims and misleading his audiences..)

The answer is that it all depends on where you're starting from.  If someone has a pretty poor diet filled with processed foods, then adding a few fruits and vegetables can make a wealth of difference to their overall health.  But, are we really all that surprised that blueberries, salmon and kale are better than milk, cereal and pork bellies?  I don't think so.

Where's all of this going?  Well, I recently had a lightbulb moment: could it be that instead of superfoods having some type of superpowers, this special term is nothing more than a head fake?  In other words, is the "superfood" marketing strategy chiefly a way to increase our reliance on whole, natural foods?  I think so.

I quickly Googled "Superfoods" and the first result listed several, courtesy of WebMD:

Beans; Blueberries; Broccoli; Oats; Oranges; Pumpkin; Salmon; Soy; Spinach; Tea (green or black); Tomatoes; Turkey; Walnuts; Yogurt

Well, surprise looks like this list is made up of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and lean meats. More importantly, what don't you see on this list?  Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Bagels, Burgers, or American Cheese. 

Natural food is natural for us, and in the right context, every natural food is a Superfood.  But, it's just up to us to eat them.