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.

Eating Out

How do you eat low carb while you are traveling or eating out? A lot more easily than you eat low calorie.

It’s an ordeal to order a low-calorie meal from a commercial kitchen. I spent years trying to order plain, steamed broccoli (which was never on the menu) for my kids in restaurants so they could fill up on something besides chicken fingers. Until I learned to emphasize “plain, no butter, no oil” it would come to the table coated in fat. The only place I can think of that is familiar with providing low fat, low calorie meals is at a residential weight loss clinic. Any other commercial kitchen and you are fighting against the tide.

On a low carb plan, on the other hand, eating out is pretty easy. Order a protein (meat, fish or eggs), veggies if they have them (sure, the butter or oil is fine!), or a salad with full fat (no sugar, hopefully) dressing if you like that, or else plain. Skip the low calorie dressings that are high carb. No vegetables or salad? No problem. Try again at your next meal. Meanwhile you’ll be full and satisfied from your hunk of protein, which will naturally also contain a good amount of fat, not hungry two hours later from the potatoes you ate.

If your children are older and able to travel independently, the low carb eating plan is easier for them to manage than a low fat, high carb plan. Juliana took a ski trip with her school while on the standard American “healthy” diet followed by the Packard program and had no choice but to eat a lot of “red” foods. Then she took a teen service trip to Costa Rica on the low carb plan. It took some planning and reminding–I wrote her eating plan on her medical form and had to nudge her to talk to the trip leader when I discovered she had eaten low carb bars she brought along for snacks as meals when there wasn’t something else she could eat. Then she found a kosher counselor who also had to eat different food sometimes–neither of them could eat the meat/cheese lasagne they had for dinner one night–and from there on out it went smoothly.

Low carb is easy to explain: green vegetables, salad, meat, chicken, eggs. Butter and oil ok. The eating plan includes ingredients that any commercial kitchen will have on hand, and their usual methods of preparation are fine. They don’t have to try to cook without oil, for instance. They just have to serve the carbs separately from the rest of the food so your child can avoid them.

Cooking is easy

Cooking low carb food is beyond easy.  Take it from me–a 20 year vegetarian.  All that chopping–fuhgeddaboudit.  Most meals consist of a protein and a vegetable.

For example, an egg quiche made of sausage, eggs, and broccoli.  Active preparation time:  7 minutes.

Skirt steak on the grill with roasted cauliflower.  Active preparation time:  4 minutes.

Pork chops on the grill with mashed cauliflower.  Active preparation time:  10 minutes.

Meatloaf with salad.  Active preparation time:  14 minutes.  Less, if you use a bottled salad dressing (but check for carb content).

Bacon and herbed eggs.  Active preparation time:  8 minutes.

You get the idea.  Food preparation is so simple, that Juliana, at age 13.5, can handle most of it herself.  Even my 10 year old can scramble eggs and fry sausage.  (We have an electric stove, so I don’t have to worry about them starting a fire with a gas stove).

Insulin: The Fat Storage Hormone

Gary Taubes explains that in any basic biology textbook, insulin is known as the fat storage hormone.  Its job is to direct your fat cells to store energy as fat.  If you produce more insulin than your neighbor from ingesting the same amount of food, you will also store more of that food energy as fat.

Carbohydrate provokes the release of insulin, in some individuals more insulin than in others for the same amount of carbohydrate.  That is why two people can eat the same food and exercise the same amount and one can gain weight while the other doesn’t.

It gets worse.  Call the weight gainer Jim and the weight maintainer Steve.  Jim will be hungry sooner than Steve.  Why?  Most or all of the energy in the food Jim just ate will have been tidily stored away in fat cells, instead of being available for Jim to use.  Jim will feel hungry again in response to the lack of energy.

Jim will also feel tired, because the food energy has been sequestered in fat cells rather than remaining available for use.

Protein and fat do not provoke insulin production to nearly the same extent as carbohydrate.  The energy that is eaten is not stored as fat; it remains available for use.  Controlling insulin production is the key to better energy and a healthy weight.  And the key to controlling insulin production is controlling carbohydrate intake.

Taubes concludes that the logical eating plan for weight control (and a host of other health benefits I haven’t described here) is one that limits carbohydrates to much lower levels than the USDA-approved Standard American Diet.