Low carb affects the whole family, and in surprising ways

Discovering Juliana’s intolerance for carbohydrates is like a string I pulled on in our family and all sorts of other interesting developments have followed.  I bought a cookbook/personal story called Eat Like a Dinosaur for the recipes.  In the prologue, the authors mention that their very young son’s marked ADD symptoms disappeared when they began to eat a Paleo diet.

My son Teddy, who is 8, does not have ADD, but he has something related called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which some people think should be called “Brain Processing Disorder.”  His brain can’t make efficient use of some of the information from his senses.  So although he has 20/20 vision, he can’t “see” a soccer ball rolling toward him well enough to be able to kick it.  His condition is qualitatively different from a kid who is “uncoordinated,” or “not very athletic;” we had to pull him out of non-competitive soccer because he just couldn’t participate in the practices or games even when he was the oldest on the team.  Now he does sports without moving objects, like Tae Kwon Do and swimming.

Teddy had other traits typical of kids with SPD, particularly being very clingy for his age and difficulty with emotional regulation.  The smallest upset could lead to a 45 minute meltdown, and he was at best grumpy in the morning, usually worse.

I wondered whether a Paleo diet would be helpful for him.  Unfortunately, my attempt at a Paleo diet for him failed utterly.  He didn’t eat much to begin with, and most of what he liked was carbohydrate.  He likes meat, but only with bread or something else starchy.  He likes chicken nuggets, but hated the paleo chicken nuggets recipe that used coconut flour.  The only vegetable he’ll eat is mini carrots–he says regular carrots make him choke, and that seems to be literally true.  He has lots of temperature and textural sensitivities.  Trying to get him to eat without any starch was a disaster.

You know the line about if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat it?  I’m sure that’s right, but I challenge you to last through several days of screaming to find out.  Teddy, in particular, can’t regulate his mood if he doesn’t eat, and the whole family pays the price.

I retrenched.  I thought if he couldn’t go full-Paleo, maybe he could tolerate a gluten-free diet.

I had also just read Wheat Belly, a fantastic book by a preventive cardiologist who uses gluten-free diets in his practice.  It contains the first explanation I’ve ever seen of why a gluten-free diet often helps kids with ADD.  In brief, modern wheat, as opposed to ancient wheat, or even wheat from 50+ years ago, has many “rogue” particles that didn’t formerly exist–the result of hybridization.  Remember amber waves of grain?  Not anymore.  Think 18 inch high easy-to-harvest-and-transport stubby stalks.   Hybridization produces compounds that didn’t exist in either of the “parent” plants.  These particles are essentially floating around in our brains, and can wreak havoc in sensitive individuals.

The gluten-free diet has been a lot more successful.  Teddy eats lower carb than he used to–he eats gluten free chicken nuggets for breakfast instead of a giant bagel with butter–but not low-carb, and not paleo.  He eats more chicken nuggets or chicken chunks in broth for lunch.  He eats taco-type hamburger meat with corn chips.  I am flexible as long as it’s gluten-free: he eats fast-food hamburgers without the bun, and wraps the meat in french fries or potato chips instead.  He no longer gets German pretzels from the German baker at our school twice a week, but instead eats more chicken nuggets or chicken chunks as soon as I pick him up after school.

And what have I noticed?  His mood in the morning is completely transformed.  He wakes up happy and ready to face the day.  For years it’s been touch and go in the morning–would I get him out the door without a meltdown?  Something kids with SPD do called therapeutic listening (TL)–digitally altered music they listen to through special headphones– had already helped a lot with his morning mood.  He listened to a special piece meant to help with emotional regulation.  Every morning as soon as he woke up I would clap those headphones on his ears and hope.  But on the gluten-free diet, he doesn’t need the mood-regulating therapeutic listening.  Now he does his regular TL in the morning.  He can still have a meltdown if he doesn’t eat and suffers a disappointment, but in general overall I think his mood is better.

He seems to realize that he feels better too.  At least five times I’ve given him something to eat and he’s asked, “does this have gluten?” and sometimes it did but not as a major ingredient and I had not thought about it.  He is now more vigilant that I am, and refuses gluten food at school or parties even if I am not with him.

A few days after I posted this originally, I had a meeting with Teddy’s teachers at school.  They commented spontaneously that they thought his engagement and concentration had improved since the beginning of school.  Certainly he’s arriving at school in a better frame of mind, since his mornings now go smoothly.


Really, you don’t need carbohydrates

I keep running across comments like this one, from “Ending the Food Fight,” by David Ludwig, MD, PhD: “[Low carb diets] do produce more weight loss than low-fat diets, but only temporarily.  After one year, people following both diets gain back nearly all of the weight they lose.  These approaches ultimately fail because our bodies and our minds rebel against severe restriction of any major nutrient, whether fat or carbohydrate.  (How long do you want to keep eating that bacon double cheeseburger, hold the bun, thank you?)”

First off, I assume Dr. Ludwig is referring to people who stop eating low carb and then gain back their weight, which of course, they will.   Continuing to eat low carb at the level of carbohydrates your body can handle, which might be 20, 50, or 100 grams a day, is one of the most successful ways to maintain weight loss.

Second, why does Dr. Ludwig assume that all macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate) are equal, or equally required?  They’re not.  Carbohydrates in the form of agricultural grains did not even exist in the human diet until several thousand years ago.  People who eat a “Paleo/Primal” or “Caveman” diet eschew all grains, legumes, and dairy.  They eat mostly vegetables and meats, and a small amount of fruit.  (Modern fruit is larger, sweeter, and available for more of the year than ancient fruit).

It’s maybe not surprising then, given that they are so new, that carbohydrate is the only macronutrient your body does NOT require.  It can get along just fine on zero carbohydrate, unlike fat or protein.  ”…animal foods contain all of the essential amino acids (the basic structural building blocks of proteins), and they do so in the ratios that maximize their utility to humans.* 94 They also contain twelve of the thirteen essential vitamins in large quantities…The thirteenth vitamin, vitamin C, ascorbic acid, has long been the point of contention. It is contained in animal foods in such small quantities that nutritionists have considered it insufficient and the question is whether this quantity is indeed sufficient for good health.”

Taubes, Gary (2007-09-25). Good Calories, Bad Calories (Kindle Locations 6551-6557). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 It turns out that the tiny quantity of vitamin C in animal foods is sufficient, provided you aren’t eating a diet high in carbohydrate.  In other words, you only need to supplement the vitamin C available from animal foods if you eat a lot of non-animal foods.

Taubes, Gary (2007-09-25). Good Calories, Bad Calories (Kindle Location 6630). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Another argument you sometimes hear is that dietary carbohydrates are required to provide glucose for the brain.  But this is not so.  The liver manufactures the fuel it needs from other nutrients if dietary carbohydrate falls below a certain level.

Taubes, Gary (2007-09-25). Good Calories, Bad Calories (Kindle Locations 6492-6498). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And what about Dr. Ludwig’s opinion that people can’t live forever without the hamburger bun?  A great effect of a low carb eating plan is that the desire for carbohydrates greatly diminishes, or disappears altogether.  And in sensitive individuals, eating the bun after getting used to the low carb style will probably make you feel sick and tired.  Go ahead and try it once, like Juliana did with a scoop of ice cream, and you won’t be so tempted the next time.

Dr. Ludwig instead advocates a low-glycemic diet, which I bet works better than a low fat diet for many people.  But in sensitive individuals like Juliana it would not work because it includes more fruit and grains (even if they are whole grains!) than her system can handle.