High protein, low carbohydrate diets, such as Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, Protein Power, Enter the Zone and Carbohydrate Addict’s Lifespan Program say to limit intake of high carbohydrate (starchy or sugary) foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, corn, cookies, cake and pop. In place of these foods, people are told to eat more protein and fat. These books claim that high carbohydrate foods cause obesity, diabetes and other conditions because they cause the body to produce high levels of insulin. This is not true.
Carbohydrates are an important part of healthy eating. Could you really imagine your life with no bread or pasta or potatoes? Carbohydrates provide the body’s main source of energy for most of us. They provide fibre and help keep you feeling full and satisfied after a meal. Carbohydrates are naturally low in fat. It’s often the way the food is cooked (frying instead of baking or steaming) or the added spreads and sauces that boost calorie content. Remember, eating too much of any food (protein, fat or carbohydrate) will make you gain weight.
When you eat carbohydrates (starch or sugar), your body does produce insulin. Insulin moves the sugar out of the blood into your body’s cells where it is used for energy. Sometimes, the cells have trouble opening up to let the sugar in. This is called insulin resistance. Being overweight or not sufficiently physically active can cause insulin resistance, or it may be an inherited problem. Insulin resistance forces the body to produce higher than usual amounts of insulin, leading to health problems.
High carbohydrate foods do not cause insulin resistance, so restricting these foods will not fix the problem. A healthy weight and physical activity address the real issue by making the cells less insulin resistant and helping keep insulin levels in a healthy range.
There is no evidence to show that carbohydrates contribute to diabetes or any life-style disease. In fact, high fibre carbohydrates (such as legumes, barley, whole grains, vegetables and fruit) will actually help control your blood sugar levels.
High protein, low carbohydrate diets are appealing to people for several reasons. Many people would rather eat a thick, juicy steak than the lettuce and rice cakes promoted by some diets. They feel the steak tastes better and doesn’t make them feel deprived. Eating foods with lots of protein and fat makes them feel full for longer since these foods are digested slowly. They may also find it easier to stay on these diets when dining out.
High protein, low carbohydrate diets cause the body to lose a lot of water weight at first. The scale goes down in the first few days so the diet seems successful. The apparent weight loss is actually dehydration.
High protein, low carbohydrate diets are also low calorie diets in disguise. While dining out once meant eating a steak, salad, potato, bread, dessert and wine, now it only includes steak and the salad. Bottom line, there is nothing magical about these diets; there is just less food and fewer calories.
Unfortunately, those following high protein, low carbohydrate diets will likely have a hard time keeping weight off. As much as we love the taste of meat, the lack of variety on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet makes it hard to stick with long term. Let’s face it, if these diets really worked, Dr. Atkins would have solved the obesity problem when he first released his book in 1972. Why should this diet work any better in 2003?
People often regain the weight they lost for two reasons. First, they can’t eat this way for the rest of their lives. They go off the diet and often return to the way of eating that made them overweight in the first place. Second, people lose muscle mass on these diets. In particular, extremely low carbohydrate diets with less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day cause your body to burn muscle mass for energy. Losing muscle mass reduces your metabolism, which makes it harder to lose weight and keep it off.
High protein, low carbohydrate diets are not risk-free and certainly not a healthy way of eating. They avoid so many nutritious foods that you will not get enough vitamins, minerals, fibre and health-promoting plant substances. These diets increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, cancer and gout. They may cause fatigue, nausea, constipation, bad breath, headaches and kidney stones and make you more likely to get colds, the flu and other illnesses. High protein, low carbohydrate diets have not been studied over a long period of time. If you follow them, do so at your own risk.
Finally, high protein, low carbohydrate diets are not cheap. They are also unsafe for children, and not a practical way to feed a family. How long can most people afford to eat like this?
Why do some people feel we need to follow extreme diets to lose weight? Diets range from high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate to high carbohydrate, low fat, low protein. It is hard to follow either of these 'diets' for a long time. What if the solution were somewhere in the middle of these two extremes? You could eat enough of the flavourful foods you like to make you feel full and satisfied. Best of all, a moderate approach does not jeopardize your health and ends the diet roller coaster. You can eat this way for the rest of your life.
Think before you eat.People are often so overwhelmed with the availability of food that they eat when they are not hungry. Stop and ask yourself if you are truly hungry before you eat. If you often eat when you are not hungry, find out why. People sometimes use food to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
Pay attention to what you are eating. Eating in front of the TV, in the car and at your desk makes it hard to concentrate on what you are eating. You may eat more than you need. Slow down, turn off the TV, sit down to eat and eat with your family. You will find dining far more enjoyable and you will likely eat less.
Stop eating when you feel satisfied, not stuffed. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that it is full. Eat slowly and stop eating when you are comfortably full and satisfied. If you need to undo your pants after a meal, you have eaten too much. Remember, most foods are available 365 days per year. You don’t have to finish the ice cream today – save some for tomorrow.
Get moving! Physical activity reduces blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol, reduces blood pressure, controls weight and allows more flexibility in the foods you eat. Surprisingly, this important ingredient to a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle is often neglected in popular diet books.
Make your food taste good. People often take health recommendations to such an extreme that they think they need to eat plain, bland, flavourless foods in order to be healthy. Nothing could be further from the truth! To give flavour to your food, use herbs, spices and moderate amounts of salt, sugar and healthy fats such as liquid vegetable oil or soft tub margarine. Healthy eating should be a pleasure, not a chore. People tend to feel more satisfied (and eat less) when they eat foods that taste good. If you need recipe ideas, many established health organizations, such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dietitians of Canada and the Cancer Society, promote wonderful cookbooks for feeding yourself, your family and friends.
Choose foods high in fibre or that have moderate amounts of protein and healthy fat. Foods with fibre, protein or fat make you feel full and satisfied for longer. A bowl of corn flakes will not have much staying power, but a bowl of oatmeal or whole wheat toast and peanut butter will ward off the munchies for much longer.
Watch those liquid calories. Juice, pop and alcohol rapidly increase the number of calories you take in without making you feel full. Your blood sugar levels may also rise and fall rapidly, leaving you tired and hungry. Stick with water or milk as your drink of choice.
Choose not to supersize. If you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, you may find that supersized restaurant portions are too big. Don’t eat just because the food is there. Make sure you want it.
Watch what type of carbohydrates you eat. Carbohydrates are essential for good health, but some are definitely more helpful than others. Oatmeal, legumes, barley, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and whole grain bread, for instance, are absorbed slowly. Blood sugar levels rise gradually, a moderate amount of insulin is released and blood sugar levels return to normal. Some simple carbohydrate foods, such as pop, juice, white bread or cookies, are absorbed swiftly. Blood sugar levels rise quickly, causing a large release of insulin and a rapid decrease (crash) in blood sugar levels. You’ll feel sluggish, tired and hungry sooner.
Don’t be swayed or misled to choose one food or one food group over another. Healthy eating is not created or destroyed by one food alone. A combination of nutritious foods are needed for healthy eating throughout our lives. Don’t risk your health on a fad diet. Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating is a flexible framework that promotes a long-term solution to finding your body’s healthy, natural weight.