In the late 1980’s, nutritional authorities decided that dietary fat was to blame for obesity, heart disease, and many other common maladies. It seemed so obvious that if fat on the body and fat in the blood vessels was the problem, that fat in the diet had to be the cause. Although reductions in poor quality fats were helpful, people thought that if reducing fat was producing good results, it would be even better to reduce all fat. Eventually low fat was not enough and fat-free became the new goal.
The next belief that emerged was that all carbs must be good. At the peak of this thinking, foods that would not normally be thought of as healthy were eaten without restraint: jellybeans and pretzels were prime examples. I remember one evening in the late 1980’s; a group of co-workers and I visited a mutual friend at her home. She was an athlete and always up on the latest diets. She served us bowls of pretzels, jellybeans, and Swedish fish candies. She exclaimed how much she loved fat-free diets because of all the fun foods they allowed her to eat. I also remember, from around this time, completing a 5K race (and winning!) and having breakfast with the other runners after the event. Typical fare was fruit and bagels but someone brought a spread, which was an equal blend of cream cheese and brown sugar. One of the top women’s runner put maybe half of a teaspoon of this mixture on a bagel and said: “there goes my fat grams for the day.”
Nutritional beliefs shift partly because of new information but in no small part because of the very nature of trends, much like trends in fashion. If we decide fat is to blame, eventually we will binge on jellybeans. It seems our minds can only focus on the smallest number of concepts at once.
Thankfully we moved out of the fat-free craze and came to realize that there was such a thing as good fat. Fish, nuts, avocados, and olive oil became okay foods to eat again. If you follow current books and some popular blogs and podcasts, you will see that we have now swung 180° from the low-fat days. Many have gone far beyond saying that some fats are good and are saying that most of our calories should come from saturated fat.
Let’s shorten the learning curve this time. Just as it was such a revolution to learn that some fats could be good for us, it is time we realize that carbs are also not the villain and some carbs are good for us. Just as Crisco and margarine are clearly unhealthy fats, high fructose corn syrup and white flower are clearly unhealthy carbs.
Yet good carbs, rich in fiber, are a critical part of our diet. As important as fiber is, there are different types that we need. We need soluble fiber from fruits and vegetables, and we also need insoluble fiber from grains and beans. High fiber carbs are the body’s best source of energy, they feed protective intestinal flora, and allow our immune system to work.
As omnivores we can subsist on many different types of diets. Beyond subsisting, we have the greatest chance of thriving when our diets contain nutrients from a variety of healthy unprocessed foods. The global obesity crisis started in the 1980s, even though we consumed carbohydrates for decades and centuries before then.
My favorite good carbs include pinto beans, black beans, buckwheat groats, lentils, quinoa, and brown rice. Stay tuned for future tips on how much of these foods to have and how to time them for optimal health.