Fats, Carbs, Sugar, & Salt: Friend or Foe?

In recent years, there is always that one food group that is targeted as the scapegoat for weight gain and the obesity epidemic; namely, carbohydrates, fat, salt, and sugar. We're then bombarded through the media about how cutting out THIS food group is the diet that will curb weight gain once and for all.

But here's the real deal: no single food group is to blame for gaining weight. In fact, carbohydrates, fat, salt, and sugar all have a very crucial role in the body, and without these food components, we would die. There is a reason that there are three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) necessary for survival, and frankly, it makes no sense to eliminate any of them. The key is a healthy balance of the three, so that the nutrients can work synergistically in the body to keep us properly fueled. A well balanced nutrition plan includes 55-65% carbohydrates, ~15% protein, and 20-30% fat. 

Carbohydrates were made the villain of the food world through the release of the Atkins Diet, followed closely by the South Beach Diet. But what's really so bad about carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are broken down in the body to glucose (a sugar), and used as an immediate energy source. The organ that is the most dependent on glucose is the brain; without glucose, the brain will die. The South Beach Diet works by first eliminating all carbohydrate sources, forcing the body to convert all other energy sources to glucose so that the brain can run properly. This means that the protein and fat aren't able to carry out their normal functions. 

The vilification of sugar follows closely behind carbohydrates. Sugar on it's own is not the problem; again, it's the dosage. It's the added sugar in our cereals, granola bars, and desserts that can become a problem, due to both the high prevalence and the amount that we ingest. On the other hand, the sugar that comes from fruits is a great source of energy, and is coupled with fiber that makes the body work a little harder to break it down. 

Salt has been linked with weight gain due to its propensity to cause bloating, but this is only because we are eating too much. Sodium is critical for the regulation of blood pressure and cellular fluid, but going overboard causes strain on blood vessels and leads to hypertension. A good reference point is to stick below 2300 mg sodium per day. 

Fat has always been thought of as our food enemy, to the point that people may wonder what the point of fat is, anyways. But the role of fat in the body is critical: fat is necessary to hold organs in place, keep our cell membranes healthy, aid in the absorption of Vitamins A, D, E & K, and for facilitation of digestion. Granted, this is not to say that all fats are created equal. Traditionally, poly and mono-unsaturated fats are referred to as the "good" fats, while trans and saturated fats are "bad." Trans fats are detrimental to the body, but there is currently a debate about some of the plant based saturated fats, such as those coming from tropical oils. I recently led a class at The Chopping Block in which we used a trivial amount of coconut oil in the preparation of baked chicken. Coconut oil is predominently saturated fat, and has been frowned upon for many years. However, it has a high smoke point, meaning that it does not degrade when heated and lead to the production of harmful free radicals. The solution to this is simple: pay attention to the dosage.  A single teaspoon of coconut oil was enough to impart flavor and moisture to an entire pound of boneless chicken breasts. 

Noticing a pattern? The cause of weight gain is not carbohydrates, sugar, salt, or fat; the problem is that we are eating too much. So the bottom line is this: deprivation of any food group is not a healthy or enjoyable way to live. Pay attention to the dosage, and remember that a little can go a long way.