Dropping The Carbs - The Pros and Cons of Ketogenic Dieting
We must all now be familiar with the Atkins Diet. Of all of the 'trend' diets that move through our popular culture, none has caused as much interest or controversy. Put forward by the late Dr. Robert Atkins in the 70's, the diet that has caused a storm is continuing to acquire both dedicated followers and severe opponents both within and without the medical community.
The Atkins diet itself is only the most popular of an approach usually called low-carb diets because of the primary interest in restricting consumption of Carbohydrates. Since the entire spectrum of our food is drawn from proteins, fats, carbohydrates or water, severe restriction of one group is seen by many as an arbitrary and possibly even dangerous step.
Most of the controversy surrounding low-carb approaches is not that they lie about weight-loss (studies continue to show marked weight-loss in many who use the diets) but the disturbing possibility that cutting the carbs out of your diet just isn't healthy. After all, what good is a diet that slims you down only to clog up your arteries and kill you? We've heard many arguments both for and against the use of low-carbohydrate diets, this article asks a radical question: Can going Low-Carb actually be healthy?
WHY SHOULD I LIMIT SUGAR & GRAINS?
The first and most obvious carbohydrate group and one we rarely have much argument about reducing is sugar. Sugar is a catch all term for a number of simple carbohydrates including fructose (fruit sugar), Galactose (milk sugar), sucrose (table sugar) and glucose (simple sugars such as blood sugar). Sugar consumption has been on the increase for decades and, despite the numerous campaigns against saturated fats, is certainly the biggest contributing factor to the increasing obesity epidemic.
Eating sugar causes a number of physiological effects in the body. The most striking of these is the sudden and marked increase in blood insulin. Insulin is the hormone in our body responsible for 'taxiing' the food broken down in out stomach to the various parts of our body that require these substances, although it has numerous uses. First, and most importantly, sugar, as glucose levels in out blood is extremely toxic. Left in our bloodstream without control elevated sugar levels would kill us quickly, so the powerful release of insulin helps keep our blood cleared of excess glucose. Unfortunately insulin is a double-edged sword. Excess sugar in our body cannot be disposed of in an unlimited number of ways. With our increasing sedentary lifestyles refusing to burn off much of this sudden and quick release of carbohydrate as we consume, sugar is rapidly converted to the same saturated fats we are constantly warned about. (As you can see, limiting saturated fat in the diet does not prevent us from accumulating fat in our bodies).
Sugar has other unpleasant side effects. The constantly elevated insulin levels can eventually lead to decreased insulin sensitivity (Syndrome X) and another case of Type II diabetes. Sugar also has an effect on cortisol and our adrenal glands. It causes an excess of these hormones leading to symptoms of stress and fatigue. Sugar also competes with the glucose carriers in our blood, which work with vitamins like Vitamin C, causing disruption to our preciously balanced immune system and causing premature ageing of the skin.
Sugar can be thought of as nitro-fuel for the body. It releases a very quick but harsh burst of artificial energy. In active individuals requiring peak performance from athletic pursuits, simple carbohydrates can be a useful tool, especially in the area of pre and post workout drinks. Much like a drag-racer using nitro fuel, this substance can be used to replace muscle glycogen and spare muscle wastage due to overtraining effects. Unfortunately few of us use sugar in this careful and controlled manner and are attempting to drive the finely balanced engines of our bodies on a fuel which causes too much stress and strain on a system that was never designed to handle the excess we provide.
So since low-carb diets almost completely eliminate sugar from our diets, we have already found one significant health benefit.
Most of our Western Governments offer health guidelines which ask us to base our food intake almost universally around grain-type carbohydrates, what were once grouped as starches. We know these most commonly as rice, pasta, potatoes and breads. These types of food appear to have been staples of our western diets since time immemorial (they're not, but that's another story). We are often told that eating these foods will leave us full, satisfied and full of a slow releasing stream of energy that is healthy and safe. Unfortunately, at least for human beings, this doesn't always appear to be the case.
Not all grains are created equal for a start and this can be where grain advocates purposely or accidentally mislead. For instance most rice, particularly white rice, will convert to sugar almost immediately in our system and we've already seen some of the devastating effects of excess sugar consumption. Grains, no matter what source they come from will cause elevated insulin levels. For the very healthy amongst us, who have extremely sensitive insulin (either through good genetics, regular exercise or a combination of both) may be able to carefully use small quantities of grains to fuel their bodies through the periods of high activity. However for the vast majority of people, the excess of grains will result in almost all the same problems as sugar consumption. Many low-carb exponents are suspicious of medical advice to eat grains, many citing Government subsidies of mass agriculture. Eating grains is a very cheap and simple way of providing food, but cheap and simple is rarely the same as healthy and good.
OKAY, SO ARE THERE ANY GOOD CARBOHYDRATES??
The good news for carbohydrates is that they can claim the HEALTHIEST of foodstuffs amongst their number. Here is where a simple view of the Atkins diet and other strict no or low carb diets flounder. Not all carbs are created equal as we know and the carb group that is utterly essential to our survival?
Low carb diets have often been seen as lacking in vegetables as people carefully trim away all excess carbohydrates, effectively throwing the baby out with the dirty bathwater. On the subject of vegetables you won't find much dissension amongst medical experts of any standpoint. These wonderful foodstuffs not only contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals, but also are often chock-full of fibre, water and a host of exotic cancer-fighting substances unique to vegetables.
The important thing about vegetables is that they are nutrient dense and calorie sparse. In plain English, they contain a lot of good stuff in a very small package. You can eat virtually enough vegetables to fill you up and still have eaten only a tiny percentage of the calories a normal diet would confer.
One of the arguments for regular grain consumption is the necessary vitamins and minerals they contain, not to mention the essential fibre for our digestive tract. But guess what? Vegetables make grains seem pretty redundant. A small handful of organic vegetables will contain more vitamins and minerals than virtually a day's worth of grains, all in an easier to digest package, with extra water and no danger of insulin overload.
Even on a low-carb diet you can stuff yourself silly with vegetables without fear. The primary advantage of a low-carb diet is insulin control and vegetables won't interfere with that. Remember organic vegetables have a much higher vitamin and mineral content, also the darker green or red a vegetable the higher the amount of beneficial Chlorophyll inside the plant. Try to eat your veggies raw and fresh and often. A regular supply of varied veggies is like nature's most perfect multivitamin pill.
OKAY, SO WE EAT VEGGIES BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER FOODS YOU NEED?
So low-carb dieters are shedding the pounds by avoiding the insulin spiking grains and sugars. In the process they're moving over to eating other stuff though right? You stop eating bread and pasta and you've got to eat something! We see Atkins dieters especially loading up proteins and fats, burgers, sausages, bacon, full double cream, fried eggs and a host of other tasty but controversial foods. So, fine, we can accept that somehow these people still seem to shed weight much faster and more consistently than their carbohydrate munching friends but surely, surely, that can't be HEALTHY?
Too good to be true? Some Doctors definitely believe so. We've been warned about saturated fat and our rising cholesterol problem for a number of years. Suddenly a diet comes along that seems to throw all that conventional wisdom out of the window.
As it happens, the American Medical Association was forced to declare the Atkins diet 'heart-healthy' after a number of university studies came up with the surprising findings that Atkins dieters were actually lowering their blood fat deposits and sparing the hearts much more than those on a regular higher carb diet. That being said, the heart isn't the only thing we have to keep healthy, so is there a third option? A kind of best of all worlds diet? A low-carb plan that works for your health as well as your waistline?
First we know the basis of that diet is our good friend, the organic vegetable. But moving on, it seems our bodies were designed for a much greater range of essential nutrients than those found in vegetables alone. First up Fats. Yes, it may have finally begun to infiltrate the mainstream press but its old news to many of us. Fat is essential! We need to eat fat. There's no getting around it, our bodies don't merely tolerate the stuff, they absolutely need it to function. When you remember that our brains are over sixty percent fat, our organs require it and our very nerves are built from it, you begin to see how important it is. However much like our friend the Carbohydrate, all fats are not created equal either. Our bodies need a small group of fats that we call 'Essential Fatty Acids'. Our body cannot produce these from any other substances and needs a regular supply or it begins to see shortcomings in its internal workings. We can get by for a while on diminished supplies but our health begins to suffer greatly in the long run.
These healthy fats come in the form of the well-publicised fish and cod-liver oils, flax and various other nut oils and foods like avocado. (Although not essential organic coconut oil has a host of special benefits) Simply be ensuring that a large percentage of our daily fat intake comes from clean, healthy oils will go a long way to improving our health, from defending our brain against degenerative diseases to protecting our skin from the harmful rays of the sun. To be a healthy low carber you need to investigate healthy fats a little more and remember that high quality, preferably organic oils are a better choice than others. There are a host of books on this subject and a host of great products out there. Unfortunately due to the mass pollution of the seas, fish may no longer be the healthiest option, although carefully filtrated fish-oils (by Companies who are clued up on the science of keeping these oils in a health-giving state) are widely available and a must-buy for everyone.
Protein covers the widest range of foods left to us. Protein, which makes up our body's muscles, can be found from the flesh of other animals as well as from milks, beans and lentils. Much like fat, our body requires protein. How much is open to debate. Active individuals, particularly those who require larger muscles, will have a much higher protein need than a sedentary individual but sufficed to say, excess protein intake (although feared by many mainstream nutritionists) has none of the dangers that excess grain or sugar consumption does.
That said, we could always make healthier choices. Although the Atkins diet may allow us to eat burgers and bacon all day long, this may not be the ideal choice. When considering meat products we have to remember what state the animal it came from was in when it was slaughtered. Most animals in large factory farming business are over-fed, over medicated cripples and surely this meat can't be entirely healthy. Foods like bacon also contain a large number of hazardous preservative chemicals that sap at our besieged immune systems. Once again, not all proteins are created equal. Choosing organic fresh meats from leaner animals is a wise choice when considering health. Chicken and Turkey, from good organic sources is a lean and easy to use protein source. Animals such as bison (buffalo) and Ostrich may sound like exotic food sources to many, but their meat is almost entirely free from chemicals and their natural diets of grass and other non-artificial feeds leaves them with a low-fat content of good, healthy fats. High quality protein is essential to your health and survival. Eating lower-quality meats may allow you to stay trim (since protein consumption appears to regulate our appetite much better than grains ever could) but investing in higher quality meats will mean you can claim the health benefits as well.
THE HEALTHY LOW CARB APPROACH
As many low-carb dieters have pointed out, most humans were never designed to live on a high carbohydrate content in their diets. As hunter-gatherers we consisted mostly on animals that roamed wild and on fresh vegetables and berries we could find in our local habitat. Although our societies may have advanced enough to let us devise sustained agriculture, our genes are still locked in a hundred thousand-year-old struggle for survival. Our bodies recognise the nutrients available from clean meats, healthy fats and fresh vegetables. They have substantial trouble coping with the sudden influx of excess energy and too quickly absorbed carbohydrates in the form of grains and sugars.
Restricting the intake of grains and sugars makes a fairly quick and positive change towards a healthier life. However, it may be that in our urge to shed the pounds with as little pain as possible, the lower carb diets we choose are tilted towards the proteins and fats we don't really need and attention to vegetables is ignored. With a few minor modifications we can find a lower-carbohydrate approach that not only helps us maintain a normalised body-weight and fat mass but also helps us be an all round healthier individual. There are a hundred other points towards improving health but all these changes make an admirable start.
BULLET-POINTS AND OTHER HINTS FOR A HEALTHY STARTER APPROACH TO LOW-CARB LIFESTYLES
EAT YOUR VEGGIES! (They're the good carbs and won't interfere with your low carb benefits)
CHOOSE LEAN MEATS & EGGS (Eggs are a great source of protein as is grass-fed organic meat)
CHOOSE BETTER FATS (Make sure you eat a regular supply of Omega 3 fats amongst your other daily intakes. Saturated fat in moderation is not the danger. Sugar is)
STAY AWAY FROM SUGARS AND GRAINS! (Low carbohydrate is less about maligning one particular food group and more about staying away from those sources which your body can't handle in large amounts. Athletes and healthy individuals may be able to use limited sugar and/or grains to improve performance but the same basic rules apply elsewhere)
DRINK LOTS OF WATER (We often argue over what groups of food are essential or not but one we can all agree on is water. You need it and lots of it. Forgot food, without water you die fast!)
BE WARY OF SPECIAL LOW-CARB FOODS (There are a great number of healthy choices here, Athletes especially will enjoy easy-to-mix carb free protein drinks etc but as low-carb diets have hit certain food industries hard, expect lots of products that may be lower carb choices but are not healthy. Always remember the low-fat craze where manufacturers swapped saturated fat for lots of sugar?)
MIX YOUR FOOD CHOICES (Restricting grains and sugars is a great start but don't fall into the trap of just surviving on the same meat diet day in and day out. Mix your proteins and fats and vegetables offer a wide variety of healthy options)
ENJOY THE DIET! (Just because you stopped eating chips and bread with your meals doesn't mean you have to get bored! There is a limitless supply of sauces, seasonings, meats, eggs and vegetables that don't require high carb sugar and corn syrup additives to make great tasting meals. Get fitter and healthier and enjoy your food while you do! Enjoying bacon once in a while poses little threat. Compare this to downing a fizzy drink with eight spoons of addictive, toxic sugar and you see the advantages already)
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Andrew Langhorn is a health and fitness enthusiast, dedicated hypnotist, motivational speaker and personal trainer. He has authored many works in the field of sports nutrition, training, personal development, motivation and nutrition.