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Fat, Sugar, & Salt Aren’t the Problem. This Is!

Contrary to popular belief, consuming fat and sugar are not the health-destroying villains that researchers originally believed they were. In truth, fat and sugar have been a part of traditional diets since the beginning. This argument is highlighted when we consider the classic French diet, which is known for its fat-heavy meals rich in dairy, cream, and sauces. Ask anyone on a ketogenic diet, and they will most likely tell you that it is the best they have felt in years, with a thin waistline to show it. Others have had success with high-carb diets that include plenty of fruit, grains, potatoes, and naturally sugar-rich foods. What is going on?

The Best All-Around Diet: Separating Fact From Fiction

Fat, Sugar, & Salt Aren’t the Problem This Is - preparing healthy food

If you are confused about the myriad of diet choices available, you are not alone. There are currently over 30 popular diets, many of which are designed for shedding excess weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found between 2015-2018, 17% of US adults aged 20 and over were on a special diet for weight loss, diabetes, to lower cholesterol, or to restrict carbohydrates. The most common type was for obesity or losing excess weight. For our purposes here, we will be focusing on the best diet for overall health, which includes maintaining a healthy weight.

When all is said and done, limiting diets such as carnivore and very low-carb can provide initial weight loss and the resulting health benefits, but over time these eating plans are difficult to sustain and can stress the cardiovascular system, along with the kidneys. They can also increase the risk of cancer. Likewise, strict ketogenic diets also pose health risks, including cancer, heart disease, kidney stones, constipation, altered gut bacteria, nutrient deficiencies, and lowered bone strength.

With this in mind, you may be surprised to learn one of the best diets you can adopt has a relatively high fat content and includes abundant carbohydrates and natural sugars. It’s the well-known Mediterranean diet. For years it has been the darling of researchers and physicians alike – and for good reason. It is heart-friendly, promotes bone and joint health, and is helpful for diabetics. It also drives the point home that the type of fat you consume matters, much more than the amount consumed.

In the Seven Countries Study, which was conducted over the course of 50 years and examined the effect diet and lifestyle had on cardiovascular disease in Greece, Italy, Japan, Finland, Croatia and Serbia, the Netherlands, and the United States, researchers found participants could consume up to 40% of their total caloric intake in fat and maintain heart health – with one caveat: it needed to be mostly unsaturated. This includes fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil.

Additionally, the diet is rich in whole foods, thereby providing abundant fiber, antioxidants, and other important nutrients. Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, and herbs/spices are the cornerstone of the diet with moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. Seafood and fish are consumed at least twice per week, and red meat is reserved as an occasional indulgence.

The key here is the Mediterranean diet is heavy on whole, minimally processed foods, which brings us to our next consideration: the root cause of expanding waistlines and plummeting health in South America.

The Role of Ultra-Processed Foods in Poor Health Outcomes

Fat, Sugar, & Salt Aren’t the Problem This Is - bag of chips

In the Wired magazine article, “Fat, Sugar, Salt…You’ve Been Thinking About Food All Wrong”, Carlos Monteiro, a nutritionist in Brazil, noticed a strange phenomenon: between 1975 and 2009, Brazilians were purchasing significantly less oil, sugar, and salt than in the past – but the rate of obesity in adults had more than doubled.

Instead of consuming the traditional diet of rice, beans, and vegetables, the population was instead eating a diet filled with prepackaged snacks, sweets, bread, and sausages. While it may seem obvious that expanding girths are the direct result of swapping out healthy whole foods for processed food, Monteiro suspected there was much more to the equation. It wasn’t simply a matter of ingredients and nutrients, the problem was deeper and involved “how the food was processed, how quickly we ate it, and the way it was sold and marketed.” In other words, an increase of consuming ultra-processed foods.

Monteiro created a new food classification system (NOVA) with four categories: minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and minimally processed meats; and processed culinary ingredients. Think: oils, butter, and sugar; and processed foods including canned fruits and vegetables, smoked meats, bread, pasta, and cheese.

The final group and the real culprit of declining health and increasing obesity include foods that are ultra-processed and utilize industrial processes: hydrogenation molding, carbonization, preferring, or extrusion. Many times, they incorporate additives to make the food highly palatable or include high levels of fat, sugar, and salt in excessive amounts not normally found in whole foods. These foods are designed to be addicting and displace less flavorful, freshly prepared meals. In short, “Every day from breakfast to dinner you are consuming something that was engineered to be overconsumed,” says Monteiro.

It is not just in Brazil, ultra-processed foods are pervasive around the world. These convenience foods make up 57 percent of the average diet in the United Kingdom, 60 percent in the United States – and these percentages can be much higher in developing nations because they tend to be less expensive than whole foods.

Cereal bars, canned soup, cookies, chips, sweets, crackers – all are considered ultra-processed, regardless of whether they use organic, “clean”, plant-based, or “healthy” ingredients. These foods often pack on the pounds – or worse.

Overconsumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of colorectal and breast cancer, obesity, depression, and all-cause mortality. A 2019 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Cell Metabolism established it is not the fat, sugar, or salt that’s the problem, but the way the food is processed so you are eating much more of it.

In the study, participants were given either a diet of whole foods or ultra-processed foods for the span of two weeks, then they were switched to the other diet for an additional two weeks. For both, the portions were doubled so the participants could eat as much as they wanted. Importantly, each diet contained the same amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, salt, fiber, and calories.

The results were surprising. With the ultra-processed diet, people consumed approximately 500 more calories per day and gained two pounds of weight, whereas those on the whole food diet ate fewer calories and lost weight – even though the diets were nutritionally matched. This suggests it wasn’t the salt, sugar, and fat content causing the issue, but something different in the way the food is processed and the impact it had on the reward center of the brain, similar to what you see with addiction.

While researchers continue to explore why ultra-processed foods wreak havoc with health, one aspect is clear: regardless of the reason, these foods are harmful for health and cause significant weight gain. Because of this, it’s best to avoid highly processed foods altogether and opt for a whole food diet, such as what we see modeled with a Mediterranean diet. We also should tend to our gut for optimal nutrient absorption, lowering the risk of chronic disease, improving microbiome health, and maintaining an optimal weight.

Why Gut Health Matters for Weight Management and Avoiding Chronic Illness

Healing and supporting the gut and microbiome are crucial for overall health and well-being – including keeping your weight within a healthy range. As I wrote in “The Key to Healthy Weight Loss – It’s Not What You May Think“: ”… researchers have isolated a gut bacteria and single-celled organism implicated in obesity — Prevotellaceae and Archaea, respectively…Another study found when gut bacteria known for producing butyrate were supported, it led to weight loss. Their recommended method to do this? Consume probiotics. These can be found in active yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha. Eating a diet high in fiber and prebiotics also encourages a thriving microbiome and butyrate production.”

When the microbiome is imbalanced, it can lead to the development of autoimmunity, depression, anxiety, metabolic syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, ALS, osteoporosis, and even cavities. This is why looking after the gut is the foundation for overall health.

If you struggle in this area, several herbal remedies are effective in restoring healthy gut function and encouraging a robust microbiome. Both reishi and lion’s mane medicinal mushrooms help to tame inflammation, while turkey tail is an excellent source of prebiotics that feed beneficial bacteria and control the overgrowth of candida. Plantain is an outstanding anti-inflammatory that also soothes the mucous membranes in the digestive tract. Then there is slippery elm and marshmallow. Both form a protective layer that helps the gut to regenerate.

Seeking an easy-to-use blend of these herbal medicines? I have you covered! Each is found in my potent Balanced Gut Tincture. Visit the apothecary today and discover the power of natural remedies for yourself!

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Great advice! Too often we fall prey to clever marketing that labels things as healthy when they are not. But it takes education and paying attention and looking beyond the labels. Thank you Nicole, I admire you and your work greatly!

Hi Karen,

Thank you so much for sharing this and for your kind feedback!

Many blessings and good health!

I have proved this is entirely true by changing my food purchasing-and-prep drastically over the past few months. This after years of knowing my body didn’t use my food correctly because I slowly and steadily gained weight (and acquired a whole constellation of autoimmune disorders) despite eating less food than my normal-weight family and friends. I spent a lot of time on research, bought a couple of Nicole’s books to add to my growing library of natural-healing information, and developed a long list of chemical (Rx) allergies. In 12/23, I stopped buying or eating any commercially prepared food except a few condiments, a rare sausage for flavoring, and a few high-quality supplements. Since then I’ve gone from T2DM to an A1c of 5.7, lost so much weight that ALL of my clothes are too big, and am sleeping better despite having serious spine problems.

I’ve begun learning to make sourdough because I do want to have the occasional baked item. On Superbowl I went to a family game-day gathering and had small portions of ‘traditional’ food but other than that and one Culver’s shrimp dinner, nothing commercial. Saw my NP this week and she is as happy with my little self-directed adjustments as I am. She wanted all the details and agreed 100% with everything. I crave nothing, enjoy my food, and in no way feel deprived.

Great information, Nicole! I love all the information you share and I am amazed at how freely you share it. I am a long time studier of all you provide. Thank you do much!

Fats, salt and cream. I have GERD, should I be avoiding there foods.

I too have GERD, no you don’t have to avoid them just eat small meals 3-4 times a day and don’t eat after 2-3 hours before bedtime.

This is great advise and I wholeheartedly subscribe to it but I would like to know why is it that I gain weight eating the same foods other people eat and they don’t gain weight? I have yet to hear an explanation from anyone.

Everyone has a different metabolism largely dependent on muscle mass, it can also depend on things like your thyroid function amount of daily walking etc. There are a lot of factors! When people have been eating the wrong for too long they can also become kept in resistant which means that your hormones that tell you when you are hungry and full don’t work properly anymore. If you want to speed up or improve your metabolism increase your muscle mass and amount of daily steps.

So true, yet with HBP we do have to watch our salt too.

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