Physical Health

Carbophobia, Part I: The Truth About Low-Carb Diets

October 26, 2012

We live in a world of extremes. For those who want to follow the Rambam’s sensible way of living, the middle path as far as diet and exercise go seems elusive.

We’ve been through low carb, high protein, low fat, low sugar, no sugar, high carb, and every other conceivable radical diet trend. It’s as if the quick fix is the only way to achieve what we want. But the statistics are telling us that most people who are trying these approaches to diet are not achieving much of anything.

Let’s look at the facts. Ninety-seven percent of people who are following an organized diet plan based on a book or program of some kind without making any other lifestyle changes will fail. Yes, many will lose pounds while on their program, but a few years down the road they will either weigh in at close to their starting weight or even more.

The Western world is obsessed with weight loss. In the United States alone, more than $60 million per year is spent on weight loss products and programs. Yet the amount of overweight or obese people continues to rise.

Remember the low-fat diets we were bombarded with a few years ago? Everything on the supermarket shelf was marked in big, bold print: “low-fat” or “non-fat.” The result? Americans continued to get fatter.

Then Dr. Atkins arrived on the scene, and did he make a revolution. Carbs were out; fat was in. Everyone stopped eating things that were good for them, and then lost weight until they couldn’t stand it anymore. And then they ended up eating every carbohydrate in sight, in addition to steaks, burgers, eggs and cheese.

Reverse Results

After the 1972 Olympics, physical fitness became popular. By 1978, according to U.S. News and World Report, America was in the midst of “fitness mania.” But it was also about this time that obesity rates began the rise that continue to this day.

Yes, there is a genetic predisposition for many, which makes them more prone to being overweight. And yes, some people do have a naturally faster metabolism. But, irrespective of how easy or difficult it is to do, the mechanism of weight gain works like this: If we consume more fuel than we burn, we get fat.

Does this happen from the occasional binge, the extra slice of pizza or the extra scoop of ice cream? In most cases, no. Weight gain is a slow and gradual process.

Let’s say, for example, you eat 2,300 calories a day and use only 2,000 or so. Every day you are left with 300 extra calories that turn into extra pounds every few weeks. Driving instead of walking twenty minutes every day means a gain of five pounds per year. Drinking a single can of Coke every other day will add another four pounds. It’s just a few extra grams a day and a few pounds a year, but that’s enough to create the epidemic which includes a wide range of disease and illness and kills 350,000 per year just in the United States.

Low-Fat, No-Fat

It is no accident that about the time that this epidemic started, the low-fat and no-fat phenomena began. People believe that because their food is lower in fat or fat-free, they can eat as much as they want.

Not true.

You can get fat on brown rice and whole wheat bread if you eat enough of it, let alone reduced-fat cookies, frozen yogurt and dietetic cakes. These foods tend to have more sugar and can even be higher in calories than their non-dietetic fatty counterparts. (The American Heart Association has adopted this position.)

Now, let’s talk about these not-so-evil carbs. In our eternal search for the perfect diet, carbohydrates became the culprit. It is estimated that up to 20% of Americans are participating in a low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss or maintenance. In these diets, carbs are shunned while protein consumption is encouraged. Two of the more popular low-carb diets are the Atkins Diet and the South Beach Diet, but there are many variations.

Does it work? The National Weight Control Registry is a long-term study of individuals 18 years and older who have successfully maintained a 30-pound weight loss for a minimum of one year. Currently it has about 4,500 members. An analysis of the diets of close to 3,000 people listed in this registry found that fewer than 1% who had maintained at least the 30 pounds of weight loss for a year or more followed a low carbohydrate diet (with less than 24% of the daily calories from carbohydrates).

Because so few dieters following Atkins were found in the registry, which includes only long-term dieters, researchers concluded that very low-carb diets do not offer any weight loss advantage over the long term. In addition, not eating enough unrefined carbohydrates carries certain health risks because they contain nutritional value and energy that we need.

No diet is worth going on if it compromises your health. Whether it is AtkinsSugar BustersProtein PowerSouth Beach, or any other variation on the high-protein theme, there is more scientific evidence than ever that a diet high in fat and animal products is strongly linked with heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.

“Even if you manage to lose weight and keep it off on an Atkins diet, you may be mortgaging your health in the process,” says Dr. Dean Ornish, author of Eat More, Weigh Less.

Some recent research has shown that a high-protein diet also prevents maximum absorption of calcium into the system, leading to osteoporosis. Additionally, people with even slight abnormal kidney function can be harmed by high-protein diets. Liver disease and gout are now found to be more common in those eating a high-protein, low-carb diet.

Furthermore, low-carb diets tend to be imbalanced. If all carbs are bad, then the consumption of basic foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains becomes minimal. This deprives the dieter of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.

Now that we’ve established what isn’t good for you in the long run, stay tuned for Part II, where you’ll learn about the many benefits of consuming the right carbs.

 

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!  He can be reached at (U.S. Line) 516-568-5027, 02-651-8502 or by email at alan@loseit.co.il.