SINGAPORE (Sept 17): The next time you walk down the grocery aisle, be sure to think twice before you reach out for products simply because they are labelled “fat free”, “high protein” or even “organic”.

“People always think eating fat will lead to it getting converted immediately into fat in the body. That misconception began in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the whole world started moving from good fats towards vegetable oils. But that’s not what it is. The right fat — lard, olive oil, butter and avocado, for example — is actually beneficial to your body,” says Ashrafi Bhagat, a nutrition coach at Tucker Health, a multi-specialty practice at Novena Medical Centre.

Conversely, while protein is a powerhouse macronutrient essential for functions such as tissue repair and the transmission of nerve impulses, consuming too much of it may lead to weight gain and a higher risk of kidney damage, she adds.

Bhagat, a long-time patron of grocery store chain Little Farms and certified health coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, was present at Little Farms’ Valley Point outlet to speak on gut health and specialised diets, and how generalised food product labels do not necessarily translate into a healthier choice.

Little Farms’ co-founder Fred Moujalli, for one, says he is not a fan of “organic” products, which was what prompted him to start the grocery business with a focus on clean and ethical foods instead. “I personally feel that there are a lot of hidden agendas behind labelling. You can have an ‘organic’ product, but it may still contain a lot of other ingredients that just aren’t healthy for you,” he notes.

At the workshop held in August, Bhagat explained in detail the scientific processes behind the highly popular ketogenic and paleolithic diet regimes, which both place emphasis on a high intake of “good fats” and low consumption of carbohydrates. The diets’ restrictions on other nutrients and food groups, however, vary.

While the keto diet focuses on achieving a state of “ketosis” by avoiding most forms of carbohydrates and sugar so that the body eventually breaks down fat into energy, the Paleo diet allows for moderate amounts of protein and carbohydrates, but entirely rules out dairy, sugar, grains and alcohol.

Bhagat recommends the Paleo diet for people facing digestive issues in general. “It [the paleo diet] works wonders for those who normally have a lot of processed foods, as it cleans all of that from your system. It also helps people looking to lose weight or balance their glucose and blood sugar levels,” she says.

Those opting for the keto diet would find themselves dealing with a much more restrictive nutritional plan, in her view, as they have to avoid all starchy foods, or most vegetables grown below the ground, as well as most types of fruit.

According to recent data from intelligence services firm CB Insights, news coverage on the keto diet far exceeded that on the Paleo or Atkins diets in 2018, despite consistently being the least discussed among the three from 2013 to mid-2016.

“In the initial stages of the keto diet, you may feel very lethargic until your body begins producing ketones,” cautions Bhagat, who does not recommend exercising strenuously during this phase. “But once this happens, the ketones become fuel for your body and you will have a lot of energy. Many athletes are on this diet. It’s not only great for losing weight but it also balances out your blood sugar. It’s suitable for people with diabetes and epilepsy and Alzheimer’s and is also good for preventing cancer because if you starve your body of glucose, there is no chance for the cancer cells to grow.”

The keto diet, combined with intermittent fasting — that is, limiting your food intake to eight hours a day and consuming only calorie-free liquids for the remaining 16 — “works brilliantly”, says Bhagat, who adopts this diet regime.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dieting, and deciding on which type of nutrition plan to adopt would really depend on a person’s lifestyle, body type and health conditions. Bhagat emphasises the importance of looking at food as more than a source of calories, especially when it comes to embarking on a diet.

“Two Oreos may contain the same calories as a portion of broccoli, but they produce very different chemical reactions in your body. You can’t just say you’re counting your calories. It’s the quality of food [that you should be assessing] and what you put into your body,” she says.