Carbs or fat? Our guide to keeping it simple

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 21 Aug, 2018

The jury is still out – should we be most concerned with fat or carbs when it comes to health and weight loss? The low-fat versus low-carb debate has gone on for years, and it probably won't change any time soon.

Carbs vs fat

Several decades ago, fat became public enemy number one thanks to emerging research into the link between saturated fat and heart disease. This gave rise to the popularity of low-fat diets for health and weight loss – 1980s 'Hip & Thigh Diet' was a classic. However, fast forward a few years and very low-carb, high-fat diets became increasingly popular thanks to the Atkins plan. But health guidelines very much sided with low-fat as the preferred choice for overall health.

In the last decade, emerging research is questioning previous studies into fat – particularly saturated fat – and its negative effect on heart health, suggesting we should be eating more. Alongside this, carbohydrates, namely sugar, has taken the top spot as the nutrient baddie in the battle against obesity. Together this has helped to fuel the popularity of higher fat, lower carb diets.

But – yes the debate continues! New research has suggested fat is the main culprit in the obesity epidemic and carbs do not affect our weight. With headlines such as 'Fat consumption is the ONLY cause of weight gain!' and 'Proof it's fats, not carbs, that cause weight gain'.


So which nutrient is okay?

Honestly? As it stands, there is no clear 'winner'. For every bit of research suggesting low-carb diets are most effective for weight loss and health, there's opposing research to support the superiority of low-fat diets. The truth is that eating excessive calories, regardless of which nutrient, will lead to weight gain and the health issues associated with this. The key to weight loss success is to follow an approach that works for you and enables you to maintain a reduced calorie intake.

But if I could choose just one nutrient...?

If you find getting to grips with nutrients a bit overwhelming – the front of pack traffic lights can feel like information overload – then focussing on one nutrient may be a good approach for you. While there are arguments in favour for both carbs and fat (for example, watching carbs in turn reduces total sugar, which helps cut your overall intake of 'empty' calories), we recommend that fat would be a good place to start if your goal is weight loss.

The reason is that fat is the most calorie dense nutrient with 9 calories per gram, compared to carbs (or protein) with just 4 calories per gram. So it makes sense that cutting down on your fat intake has a bigger impact on reducing total calories. Cutting out 1g of fat takes out more than double the number of calories per gram than carbs. And reducing total fat in your diet in turn reduces saturated fat intake. Saturated fat has been, and remains to be, linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and until research suggests otherwise, the advice remains to reduce our overall intake of sat fats.

Nutracheck recommends...

Keeping it simple! When we launched our service over 13 years ago, our aim was help people to lose weight by tracking the two most important factors for this – calories and total fat.

Over recent years, a growing demand from members for more insight into their diet now means we also track carbs, sugar, protein, sat fat and salt. But, if your goal is weight loss, and you want to keep it simple – stick to calories and fat.

  • Follow the guidelines for a healthy balanced diet by opting for plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grain carbs, lean protein sources, good fats and limited processed foods. This will naturally lead to lower fat choices.
  • Monitor your overall fat intake, opting for low fat options of dairy and meats.
  • Track your overall calorie intake. Reducing calories is proven to result in weight loss. And research strongly supports the positive effects of weight loss on health – regardless of how it is achieved.
  • Lose weight sensibly and steadily to ensure it stays off. Crash diets and extreme weight loss rarely work in the long term.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.