Reader’s Digest recently published an article titled “Why Low-Carb Diets Aren’t the Answer.” The article was full of the usual bologna, with a few side orders of pseudo-scientific salami. Curiously, the article was not credited to any particular author. I’m guessing the unusual anonymity is due to one of two reasons: the author doesn’t want to be on record when the article is shredded by real scientists, or he’s a food-industry hack whose conflict of interest would torpedo his credibility.
But I digress. Let’s examine the bologna this article asks you to swallow:
Low-carb diets usually begin with an “induction” phase that eliminates nearly every source of carbohydrate. Often, you’ll consume as few as 20 grams of carbohydrate a day. That’s less than 100 calories’ worth—about what’s in a small dinner roll. On a 1,200-calorie diet, that’s only about 8 percent of your daily calories. By contrast, health experts recommend that we get between 45 and 65 percent of our calories from carbs.
Oh, I see. We must need lots of carbs, because that’s what “experts” recommend. Well, there’s proof for you. Open a textbook in biochemistry and look up “essential fatty acids.” You’ll find them listed. Look up “essential amino acids,” a.k.a. proteins. You’ll find them listed. Look up “essential carbohydrates.” You won’t find any, because there are no essential carbohydrates.
Humans can live without any dietary carbohydrates whatsoever, and have done exactly that in cultures all over the world. So, according to Dr. Anonymous, we’re supposed to get most of our calories from the one macronutrient that isn’t biologically essential.
With virtually no carbs in your system, you may even have trouble concentrating. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the human brain requires the equivalent of 130 grams of carbohydrate a day to function optimally—and that’s a minimum.
If you’ve been living primarily on carbs and then stop eating them, you will indeed feel foggy – for a few weeks while going through withdrawal, which is what happened in the bogus NAS study. People also feel foggy when they give up smoking. Guess they’d better not quit; nicotine is obviously essential for the brain to function optimally. Meanwhile, I somehow manage to write complicated software programs while consuming perhaps 50 grams of carbs per day – closer to zero on many days.
But the low-carb diet will also wreak some havoc. When your body breaks down lean body mass—muscle—for energy, your metabolism slows because muscle tissue burns up a lot of calories. This may be one reason that the weight often comes back after you’ve been shunning carbs for a while.
Okay, this one is just plain stupid. Studies show over and over again that ketogenic (low-carb) diets are superior for maintaining lean muscle mass while losing weight. If you starve yourself, then of course you’ll break down muscle tissue, but low-carb diets aren’t about starving; they’re about lowering insulin.
I added a weight-lifting program to my exercise regimen this year and put on 16 pounds while losing fat around my waist. My legs and chest got noticeably thicker. If I’m losing muscle mass, then someone is injecting silicone into my muscles while I’m asleep. Meanwhile, low-fat, high-carb diets are notorious for slowing down the dieter’s metabolism.
The effects on your heart are also questionable. Especially if you switch to a high-saturated-fat diet, as people do when they start eating their fill of steak and bacon, your “bad” LDL cholesterol will go up.
When I went on a “saturated fat pigout” diet for a month – all the steaks, bacon, sausage, cheese, cream and butter I wanted, but no sugar or starch – my LDL dropped by 30 points. I know several other people who’ve had similar experiences.
And frankly, the LDL number by itself is meaningless, because LDL can either be small and dense (the harmful kind) or big and fluffy (the harmless kind, which may even have anti-inflammatory properties). And guess which macronutrient tends to produce small, dense LDL? Yup … carbohydrates. Meanwhile, Dr. Anonymous conveniently failed to mention that increasing fat in the diet raises your HDL – you know, the “good” cholesterol.
It’s not just that you’ll feel deprived because you’ve had to give up bread, fruit, and all the rest. Your body will also be deprived of foods and nutrients that are essential for good health, including the following:
Whole grains. These protect against metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
The idea that whole grains protect against metabolic syndrome and diabetes came from studies in which researchers compared the effects of eating white-flour products versus eating whole-grain products. Surprise! People eating the white flour – which spikes your blood sugar faster than sugar does – had worse health outcomes. The researchers then translated that result into “whole grain products protect against metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease,” blah-blah-blah.
Using the same logic, if I compare smokers to people who chew tobacco and determine that the smokers have a higher rate of lung cancer, I can declare that chewing tobacco protects against lung cancer.
Low-fat dairy foods. Sure, you can have butter and cream on a carb-restricted diet, but you won’t get much calcium or protein from them. Fat-free and low-fat versions of milk and yogurt are excellent sources of those nutrients.
Here’s a crazy idea: get your protein from meat. And get your calcium from spinach and nuts. Considering that pre-agricultural humans had amazingly thick bones without the benefit of raising dairy cattle, I’m pretty sure we can live without fat-free milk.
Fiber. Getting fiber from these foods (except dairy) helps reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Beans and many fruits and vegetables are particularly rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower blood sugar, curbs hunger, and lowers LDL cholesterol.
Well, if the choice is between foods high in fiber and foods high in refined carbohydrates, which is the comparison that was used to tout the benefits of fiber, then Dr. Anonymous has a point. Otherwise, he’s full of the beans he insists we should be eating.
And ain’t it strange that Dr. Anonymous is recommending fiber to lower blood sugar? How about if you avoid carbs so you don’t raise your blood sugar in the first place? Then you won’t have to lower it. But if Dr. Anonymous has convinced you that fiber is important, you can get all the fiber you need from broccoli, spinach, almonds, blackberries, and any number of other low-carb foods.
If you load up on saturated fats—the original Atkins diet got as much as 26 percent of its calories from saturated fat versus the 10 percent or less that experts recommend—it’s bad for your health.
Once again, saturated fat is bad for you because “experts” say so. Too bad the experts can’t point to any real science to back up that opinion. There have been several major studies that attempted to lower heart-disease rates by reducing saturated fat intake. They were all colossal failures.
Meanwhile, the French and the Swiss eat diets that are full of saturated fats, yet have low rates of heart disease. Inuits and Plains Indians lived almost exclusively on fatty meat, yet had virtually no heart disease. (If saturated fat truly caused heart disease, Custer would’ve lived to a ripe old age. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would’ve been long deceased.)
In one study, which lasted six months, the low-carb diet seemed to win hands down. The people on it lost nearly 13 pounds (6 kg); the low-fat dieters shed just 4 pounds (2 kg). But the second study lasted six months longer, revealing a truth about low-carb diets: The results don’t last. This study too found that the low-carb dieters lost more weight in the first six months, but in the second half of the year, the weight came roaring back. By the end of a year, there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups.
Uh … what the data revealed is that people who didn’t stick to their diets regained all the weight. Lord knows that would never happen to people who stopped going to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. Jimmy Moore lost 180 pounds on the Atkins diet in 2004 and has kept it off. I guess the roar of his inevitable weight gain is simply inaudible.
I’ve read books by Dr. Atkins and Drs. Eades and Eades of the “Protein Power” series, and I don’t recall a single sentence along the lines of “When you’ve lost all the weight you want, drop this diet and return to your old ways of eating.”
No matter how you slice it, we eat too many carbohydrates. We consume many more calories than we used to, and most of those extra calories come from extra carbs (so many chips and cookies!). Thus, it makes sense to cut back some on carbs.
Wow … Dr. Anonymous got one right. Proof once again that even a broken clock is correct twice per day.