I'm going to stop myself before I even begin to get rid of some of the instant recoil many feel at the term “low carb”. While the upsurge in the popularity of low carbing in the late 1990s could have been a great thing, it seems to have ended up giving a great way of eating a bad name.
Dr. Atkins Did Not Die From a Heart Attack
On April 8th 2003, Dr. Atkins slipped and fell on ice outside his office in New York. He sustained major head injuries which put him into a coma, and never recovered. His medical records, released by mistake to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a vegetarianism-promoting group associated with PETA), showed his weight at the time of his death to be 258lbs – technically obese for his height. Needless to say, the Committee and PETA were loving this. However, he weighed only 195lbs at the time of admission to the hospital, suggesting that the apparent increase in weight is due to the treatment he received at the hospital, and fluid retention following the failure of his major organs.
If You Stop Following a Diet, You Will Regain Weight
A common criticism of the low carb approach is that people gain all the weight back as soon as they go back to eating carbs. If you make major changes to the way you eat, and then go back to eating the way you did before, you will most likely gain all the weight back. This is true of any diet. A diet shouldn't be something you “do” to shed weight – it's a change in lifestyle that needs to be sustainable (and sustained) long-term.
Low Carb Is Not a Fad Diet
One of the side-effects of the popularity surge was that people labeled Atkins and low-carb a fad. This implies that the enthusiasm about the diet was only temporary, a brief bacony madness. However, low carbing is one of the oldest weight loss methods around. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in the 1870s, and describes Count Vronsky avoiding starches and sweets in preparation for the horse race: “He had no need to be in strict training, as he had very quickly been brought down to the required weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, but still he had to avoid gaining weight, and he avoided starchy foods and desserts.”
Even Dr. Spock agrees, writing in Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care: 8th Edition (first published in 1946): “Rich desserts and the amount of plain, starchy foods (cereals, breads, potatoes) taken is what determines, in the case of most people, how much they gain or lose.”
In fact, for more than one hundred years, common dietary wisdom dictated that anyone looking to shed pounds should ditch the starches and the sweets.
If you want to go even further back in time, consider our current evolutionary status. The physical bodies we currently inhabit are tuned to a pre-agricultural diet. Think about how many thousands and thousands of years it takes for evolutionary adaptations to occur. Now consider that agriculture came about only a paltry 10,000 years ago. Refined grains were only introduced to our diet about 200 years ago. During 99% of our evolutionary history, we ate like hunters and gathers. I sincerely doubt we were hunting and gathering Twinkies. Or whole grains. Humans are designed to eat animal meat, animal fat, and a small amount of nuts, vegetables and berries when animals were scarce.
One frequent rebuttal to the caveman argument is that cavemen did not live long. Their life expectancy was less than half ours. But, looking at the stats sensibly, the rates of accidental death were much higher in these truly more dangerous times. To take one simple example, the likelihood of dying from a wound that would be easily treatable today was also much higher. Add this to the high infant mortality and you can see how the average gets quickly pulled down. Also consider that cavities and other “diseases of civilization” are unheard of in pre-agricultural socieites. Starvation was also a very real threat to life, and I don't think hunting mammoths was quite so risk-free as grocery shopping.
A Brief Look At the Science
“The fallacy that eating fat will make you fat is about as scientifically logical as saying that eating tomatoes will turn you red.” - Dr. Richard K. Bernstein in Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars
Let's be clear to begin with: the belief that saturated fat and cholesterol are deadly is just that, a belief, and a belief entirely separate from nutritional science. Check it out:
- Dietary trials of diet and heart disease began appearing in journals in the mid-1950s. Only two trials ever tested the benefits and risks of the low-fat diet recommended by the American Heart Association since 1961, also recommended by the USDA food pyramid. (By the way, if you want to know who funded the bread-heavy pyramid, look no further than the grain industry. The corn industry also paired up with the AHA in promoting margarine and vegetable oils...until the AHA had the audacity to discover they were associated with high cancer risk.) One study, from a 1963 Hungarian medical journal, found that cutting fat consumption to 1.5oz per day reduced heart disease rates. The other, a British study, concluded that it did not. The authors wrote, “A low-fat diet has no place in the treatment of myocardial infarction,” in The Lancet, 1965. [Data from Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes]
- Eating carbohydrates stimulates the secretion of insulin. Insulin causes glucose, the product of carbohydrate digestion, to be rapidly absorbed into body tissues for fuel consumption. Any glucose left over – and a huge majority of the carbs we eat aren't immediately used for fuel – is stored as fat. Sugar, not fat, makes you fat.
- When glucose levels in the body drop, insulin levels also plummet. Nothing is going to make you feel starving like a high carb meal followed by spiking and dropping insulin levels. Eating sugar makes you hungry. So you eat more. This is why people often finding themselves snacking incessantly on low-fat diets, that rice cake hitting the crunch spot, but leaving you hungry soon after.
- By avoiding carbohydrates, you also avoid this rollercoaster of spiking insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone that causes your body to make and store fat. Thus, by keeping insulin levels low, you stop storing fat and start burning it. Once you've adapted to a diet low in carbohydrates, you primarily use your fat stores for fuel instead of the ingested glucose, and thus your fat burns off rapidly.
- Why, after over 40 years of promoting a low-fat approach, are Americans getting fatter and fatter?
"A calorie is a calorie is a calorie."
No, it's not. If you honestly believe that 100 calories of orange juice will give you as much nutrition and sustenance as 100 calories of filet mignon, then I'll propose my favourite challenge. You drink 2,000 calories a day of orange juice for a year, and I'll eat 2,000 cals/day of steak and we'll see who is alive at the end of it.
Some low carb proponents have actually taken to calling it a “nutrient dense” dietary approach, which makes a lot of sense to me. You can't argue against the fact that you're getting more nutritional bang for your caloric buck from meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and vegetables than bread, pasta or potatoes.
I'm trying to present an honest as possible account of low-carbing here, and I'd be remiss if I didn't present some of the downsides.
- It is more expensive to eat this way. Buying quality sources of protein and fresh produce is much more costly than a box of pasta or a loaf of bread, no question. But doesn't that tell you something about the quality of fuel you're putting into your body? It's better, and better for you. Only you can decide how much your health and longevity are worth. I'm just sayin'.
- Following a low carb diet can be socially awkward. This is going to affect different people in different ways. If you're the kind of person who just doesn't give a damn what others think, you can skip this one. For anyone else, it can be difficult eating in a way that differs from most of your social circle. There are often ways around it – and just eating pizza toppings means you get the best bits anyway. In all seriousness, I find this to be the most annoying part of the diet, but I can usually find something to eat, or at worst, sneak in some almonds in my purse or pocket. Another thing to remember: people are often paying way less attention to your eating than you think they are. Those that do harp on at you are usually revealing their own insecurities.
- Ketosis sucks. The first two weeks of your low carb life will be MISERABLE. Make no mistake – this is why many people give up on day three. Your body needs this time to adjust to a different energy source, and in the meantime you may experience lethargy, headaches, other aches and soul-crushing sadness.
- Unless you don't get bored eating the same 5-10 things, you're going to need to learn some basic cooking skills. This, I feel, could also be an advantage, but I know some people finding cooking a pain.
And the Many Advantages
- You get to eat absolutely delicious food. Let's be honest – a lot of low-fat food tastes like cardboard. Or rubbery cardboard. Low carb gives you the real stuff: steaks and butter and salmon with hollandaise sauce and chicken wings with blue cheese dressing. Real mayonnaise. Bacon. Eggs. Did I mention butter? Cheese, cream, and cream cheese. Lobster. The recipes you can enjoy with this diet are incredible, and incredibly tasty.
- You don't have to feel hungry. Remember that up-down spiking-falling craziness of your insulin levels on a carby diet? Low carbing is renowned for appetite suppression, for people simply forgetting to eat. If you've battled with cravings and hunger while dieting, this will be a biggie for you. You don't have to constantly fight the urge to eat or need an iron will to resist the call of the vending machine. I wrote a post about how little self-control or will-power you need to stick to this diet here: The Power of Low Carb.
- For the most part, you're eating much more natural food. This is comforting to me, as a person somewhat suspicious of profit-maximizing food vendors. Eating fresh protein and vegetables avoids a surprising amount of the guesswork and controversy about food and additives.
- Your skin, hair and nails will never look better.
- You'll lose weight rapidly. So fast you won't believe your eyes, and will probably replace those scale batteries a couple of times before it sinks in that this is real.
- You'll have more energy and won't feel a slump about three hours after you eat.
- You'll grin as more and more studies come out showing low carb diets kick ass and low fat diets make people hungry and fat.
- You'll probably notice a reduction in symptoms you currently have. For me, it was joint pain and headaches.
- It's very, very easy to follow this diet. Studies have shown that low carb has greater short and long term compliance rates.
- There are more and more low carb substitutes for culturally favored foods. Tonight I ate spaghetti and meat sauce – using the 1g net carb, 20 calorie Tofu Shirataki noodles. For a pasta connoisseur, these may not fit the bill, but they do just fine in terms of texture and holding up some meat on soft white noodles. Other items you don't have to give up forever: pancakes with syrup, donuts, cheesecake, chocolate cake, frosting, barbecue sauce, pizza with the crust, and cookies.
- Increased sex drive.
- Fat does not make you fat. Sugar does. And don't fool yourself - sugar is sugar, whether it comes from a white bag or a yellow banana. "No sugar added" does not mean no sugar.
- Low carb provides you with all the essential nutrients. Carbohydrates are the only food group you can completely do away with and survive.
- When you read misinformation about low carbing in the media, don't forget about the massive industries who stand to lose if this dietary approach becomes widely adopted.
- Do your research, and come to your own conclusions. Start with Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes for a wealth of studies and the latest in nutritional science.
- Eat well, and eat simply. This means foods your body has adapted to handle: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, and very occasional berries.