Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Fat Facts – The Most Frequently Asked Questions

Fat Facts – The Most Frequently Asked Questions

After more than 40 years of helping patients to lose weight, I’m still amazed by the myths and legends of dieting folklore. The same questions come up time and again, revealing that people just don’t know the simple true facts about healthy eating and sensible dieting. Here are my top FAQs

1. Is it true that the only way to lose weight is to have less than 1000 calories a day?

No. In fact, on 1000 calories a day it’s impossible to get all the essential nutrients your body needs as you’re not eating enough food. You certainly won’t get enough energy, so you’ll feel tired and irritable and your concentration will suffer. You may lose weight quite quickly, but no-one can sustain this type of diet, the minute you stop you put it all back, plus a few lbs, in half the time you took to lose it.

2. How many calories do I need a day?

The average woman needs just under 2000 calories and a man around 2500 – and both sexes require more if they’re physically very active. If you’re trying to lose weight, the ideal solution is to reduce the calories you eat and increase the calories you burn. Don’t go below 1500 if you’re a woman or 2000 if you’re a man.

Prove it yourself. Eat two slices of bread and butter a day less and walk for 15 minutes a day more and you’ll lose 1 lb a week without doing anything else.

3. Do I have to cut out all fats and oils to get thinner?
You mustn’t. This is one of the most dangerous slimming myths. Low fat doesn’t mean NO fat, as getting enough of the essential fats is an absolute requirement for survival. It’s true that you should reduce your total fat consumption, but do this by cutting down on the animal fats, which are the most dangerous in terms of heart disease.

The fat around your steak, chop or joint of meat, hidden in sausages, meat pies, pasties, Scotch eggs, pate, lard, dripping, burgers and most take-away and convenience meals are those you should have as occasional treats. All fats and oils contain roughly the same number of calories, but the mono-unsaturated fats – in olive oil and nuts – are best for your heart, and the special omega three fats in oily fish are essential for brain development and also help protect your body from degenerative diseases.

Although butter contains saturated fat, it doesn’t have the even more dangerous transfats that are present in most margarines. It’s also a pure, natural product and tastes great. Just be mean with it.

4. Does frozen yogurt really have fewer calories than ice cream?

For all the ice cream addicts tempted to try healthier sounding frozen yoghurts, the benefits are doubtful. The average man, woman and child in the UK slithers down well over a pint of ice cream a month throughout the year.

With consciences pricking at the thought of all those fattening calories, frozen yoghurts sound like a better option. Sadly, the figures tell a different story. They do contain around half the fat or less - a health plus - but they also provide up to 50 per cent more sugar - a health minus. Some are stuffed with more calories than the real thing.

If you love the best dairy ice cream, have it occasionally, enjoy it and don’t worry.

5. I suppose I have to give up potatoes

No you haven’t. Deprivation doesn’t help you diet, it just makes you miserable. In any case, potatoes aren’t fattening and are very low in calories – only 87 per 100g. They’re also an excellent source of vitamin C, B vitamins and potassium. Don’t roast them with the joint or chicken as they soak up masses of fat and don’t eat them all as chips. If you’re going to mash them, use a little olive oil instead of butter or cream.

6. But surely bread is very fattening – and I mustn’t eat that.

Wrong again. Good bread is very low in fat, has a modest amount of calories, is high in fibre – essential for good digestion, which helps control weight - and is an excellent source of iron. It also contains B vitamins and calcium. As a nation, we don’t eat enough bread.

If you put a half inch layer of butter on top, then cover it with jam, it’s a different story, but a mean scraping of butter and a thin layer of your favourite spread is fine. If you’re eating bread with a savoury dish, copy Mediterranean neighbours and dip it into a good extra virgin olive oil.

7. But avocadoes are certainly off, aren’t they?

Slimmers think avocadoes are a disaster. Half an avocado contains 170 calories - about the same as a portion of baked beans on dry toast - but their health benefits are not to be missed.

Eighty per cent of their fat content is mono-unsaturated, the healthiest form - as in olive oil - which helps your body eliminate cholesterol, which they don’t contain. They’re rich in potassium, vitamins A, B, C and E and contain some protein. Eaten with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of black pepper they should have a place in everybody’s healthy diet, whether you’re slimming or not.

8. I know prawns are good for losing weight, but don’t they give you heart disease?

The truth is just the opposite. Prawns, like other shellfish, acquired their bad reputation because they contain quite large amounts of cholesterol. The main factor in heart disease is not the cholesterol in your food, but the cholesterol which the body manufactures from a high intake of saturated animal fats.

Prawns are a modest source of calories and an excellent source of protein, B vitamins and minerals. They also contain the omega-3 fatty acids which are protective against heart disease by lowering the blood levels of triglycerides (bad fats), and reducing the risk of blood clots forming in the arteries of the heart.

Use them in cooking, salads and sandwiches. Just don’t drown them in pink mayonnaise, which is full of saturated fat.

9. I wish I could eat pasta, but I know it’s fattening

Pasta doesn’t make you fat. It’s what you do to it that makes the difference. Few Italians, for example, eat spaghetti smothered in bolognese sauce made from fatty mincemeat. A good plateful of pasta provides protein, energy, and virtually no fat. It also supplies some vitamin B1, B2, folic acid and a little iron.

Pasta is cheap, filling and healthy if served in the right way. A little extra virgin olive oil and fresh garlic stirred into spaghetti or a can of tuna and chopped spring onions warmed in a non-stick pan and eaten with tagliatelle, make delicious non-fattening meals when eaten with a large mixed salad.

10. I’m a size 14 top, but a generous 16 bottom, so can you tell me about the special diets that will help me lose more weight off the hips than the bust?

I’m sorry to tell you that there’s no such thing. If you’re inherited pear-shaped genes, you’re stuck with them. Anyway, you’re at much less risk of heart disease if any extra weight is round your bottom rather than your middle. No matter what diet you choose, you will lose weight fairly evenly and your proportions will stay the same.

The only way to shrink those hip inches without watching your bust vanish too is to combine sensible eating with specific hip and thigh exercises. So buy a video or join a gym.

Make good use of all the wonderful herbs and spices in your battle to fight the flab. Use them in cooking and add them to salads and sandwiches. They’re cheap, delicious and effective.

Helpful Herbs

Basil – a cleansing herb, which also makes you feel good. Great with salads, pasta and cheese

Caraway seeds – improve digestion and eliminate uncomfortable bloating and flatulence. Sprinkle on green vegetables and add to soups and salads

Coriander – improves digestion and relieves stress. Add the leaves to fish, casseroles and salads

Horseradish – a good diuretic and makes you sweat, so helps with swelling caused by fluid retention. Add to dips and sauces – and, of course, to roast beef and smoked fish

Parsley – a powerful diuretic and also another mood-enhancing herb. It’s so versatile you can add it to almost anything

Sage – helps balance hormones and control monthly weight changes in women, also improves the breakdown and elimination of fats. Good in all savoury dishes

Nutmeg – a real feel-good spice when dieting gets you down. Mildly hallucinogenic and better than any happy pill. Add to savoury as well as sweet dishes

Chilli – stimulates the circulation, makes you sweat and speeds up the metabolism. Use in casseroles, stews, soups and marinades


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