Quack or Visionary?
For decades, we have avoided eating an excess of fat, fearful that it will make us fat and put us at risk for heart disease and a host of other health problems. The anti-fat dogma began in the 1960’s, but it surged in the 80’s and 90’s. The craze has survived into the new millennium, despite the sporadic publication of conflicting research.
In 1972, when Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution (Bantam Books) was first published, its author, though deemed a quack by some, created an anti-carbohydrate movement, temporarily swaying some of us to trade in our toast for turkey. The low-carbohydrate diet has been revisited in such books as The Zone Diet (Regan Books, 1999) and Sugar Busters! (Ballantine Books, 1998).
Low-carb advocates name the insulin “spike” that occurs after carb ingestion as the reason for their persecution of carbohydrate. Neither fat not protein dramatically raises blood sugar and therefore, can’t cause this spike. What’s so bad about insulin? Nothing, if it’s produced in manageable doses. Insulin carries carbohydrate out of the bloodstream and into the skeletal muscle, liver or adipose tissue, returning blood-sugar levels to normal after a meal.
The trouble arises when the carbohydrate stores in your muscle and liver are full, and you don’t need blood glucose for fuel (a can happen when you’re not exercising). Glucose is then transported directly to the fat cells and converted to adipose tissue (body fat). If your food is habitually in excess of your energy needs, especially if the foods have a high glycemic index (are rapidly broken down and absorbed), you may become resistant to the insulin that you are constantly producing. (Type 2 diabetics have become completely resistant to their own insulin.)
The oversimplified message of ‘eat less fat and lose weight’ is inaccurate and ineffective. Consumers has been brainwashed into believing that “fat-free” is synonymous with calorie-free, which is far from true. No matter how you slice it, any calorie that you haven’t burned off by the end of the day will make its way to your fat tissues – it doesn’t matter if it came from a cheeseburger or a celery stick.
In contrast to the low-fat/high-carb diet, a diet that is high in protein and fat, even saturated fat, does not pose the health threats of the high-carb regimen, due to the lack of dramatic insulin response. Thus the red meat, cheese and eggs that we have relegated t our list of dietary evils could actually be part of a healthy diet in spite of their high cholesterol a saturated fat contents.
Finding the Right Macronutrient Combination
Low-carb diets elicit weight loss in the short term, but what about several months or even years? More importantly, what are the effects on the dieters health? The medical community questions the safety of the low-carb diet because it is “ketogenic”. When your body’s carbohydrate stores are depleted, you begin to convert fat to ketones, which serve as back-up energy source. The long-term effects of high ketone levels (ketosis) have not been investigated thoroughly to date, although such research is appearing with increasing frequency.
A recent study found that after six weeks on a low-carbohydrate diet, triglycerides (blood fats) and fasting insulin levels decreased, HDL increased and LDL remained unchanged, suggesting that cutting carbs may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving lipid profiles. Another study showed that six months of a low-carbohydrate regimen elicited a 10% body-weight reduction and significant improvements in lipid levels.
The good news is that physically active individuals – bodybuilders, endurance athletes and recreational exercisers alike – are less likely to develop resistance to insulin and can therefore be less selective about the carbs they eat. Active individuals are more likely to actually use their carbohydrate as fuel, whereas sedentary individuals need to produce more insulin to clear blood glucose. In fact, since carbs are used during both aerobic and resistance exercise, significantly reducing carbohydrate intake could negatively affect your performance.
Muscle and whole-body fatigue develop about the time glycogen (carbohydrate) stores become low. By cutting back on carbs, you can’t perform prolonged exercise at the same intensity that you can when your carb stores are full. The liver has trouble maintaining normal blood sugar in the glycogen-depleted state and is forced to convert protein to sugar. Unfortunately, this protein can come from your muscle tissue, resulting in a likely decrease in muscle mass, resting metabolic rate and muscular strength.
Active individuals, especially endurance athletes, or those who participate in the Somanabolic Muscle Maximizer program, who primarily rely on muscle glycogen for performance, should therefore avoid a very low-carbohydrate diet. Moreover, since weightlifters utilize carbohydrate during exercise (although not to the same extent as endurance athletes, additional studies are needed before such a program can be recommended for these athletes.
Active and sedentary people alike should avoid an excess of simple carbs (sugary foods with no nutritional value, such as cookies and candy). Instead, fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains should make up the majority of your carbohydrate intake since they offer a variety of nutrients and take longer to enter the bloodstream due to their structural composition.
At the same time, a diet that is very high in carbs and very low in fat deprives the body of essential fat-soluble vitamins and decreases HDL in the bloodstream. Although the Atkins diet goes to the extreme in recommending high-protein/high-fat-foods and avoiding carbohydrates altogether, there definitely are merits in lower-carbohydrate and moderate-fat diets. Fats are important in appetite regulation and energy metabolism.
Beyond the Dietary-Fat Phobia
If avoiding dietary fat were the solution to the obesity problem and the key to preventing heart disease, we would not be seeing them in the epidemic proportions that we do today. Going to dietary extremes, such as severely restricting any of the three macronutrients, often leads to compensatory behavior and weight gain. So before you make any major alterations in your diet, speak to a registered dietitian who can guide you toward an eating plan that is geared to your lifestyle. While Atkins and his disciples may have gone overboard in their claims, by increasing awareness of the problems of excessive carb intake, they have helped to restore balance after the dietary-fat phobia of the last 20 years.
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