Paleo and low carb diets are the latest nutrition buzz. You might be wondering if avoiding carbohydrates is a way to lose weight, a healthier way to eat or just a fad? What exactly is a carbohydrate anyway?
Let’s turn to the book Life Without Bread, by Christian Allan and Wolfgang Lutz to find some answers. Lutz, an Austrian physician, published the original German version in 1967 after decades of helping his patients live healthier lives by following a low-carbohydrate diet.
The authors of Life Without Bread are proponents of eating animal foods and vegetables (except potatoes) freely, and limiting all sources of high carbohydrate foods: breads, pastas, cereals, pastries, potatoes, sweet/dried fruits, and anything sweetened.
Their recommendation is to restrict daily “utilizable” carbohydrate intake to 72 grams per day. Utilizable, a.k.a. net carbohydrates, translates to the amount of carbohydrates that ends up in the blood stream after eating a certain food. To give you a point of reference on net carbohydrates, one medium apple has 21 grams, one medium bagel has 54 grams and one medium baked potato has 33 grams of net carbohydrates. A great, inexpensive resource for net carbohydrate content of foods is The New Carb and Calorie Counter by Dana Carpender.
The health benefits of limiting sugar/carbohydrate intake
According to the authors, limiting sugar load on the body is the best way to improve and maintain health. They give many examples of how a low-carbohydrate diet improves health, including balancing hormones, supporting cardiovascular health, healing gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and preventing diabetes and cancer.
When we eat sugar, insulin is released into our bloodstream. Sustained high levels of insulin upset the balance of all the hormones in the body. The body is always trying to maintain homeostasis, and if a hormone level increases, others have to adjust to bring the body back into some sort of balance.
In other words, high insulin levels can
- upset the levels of steroid hormones, triggering a decrease in immune function
- disrupt thyroid hormone levels causing hypo- or hyperthyroid conditions
- create an imbalance in the sex hormones, causing menstrual or menopausal complaints
- lead to insulin resistance, resulting in type II diabetes
- decrease growth hormone. leading to atherosclerosis and the lack of tissue repair from injury, etc.
What happened to the lipid hypothesis?
A chapter in Life Without Bread discusses the outdated belief that fat is bad for us and the cause of cardiovascular disease. Since fat was demonized in the 1950s, people began eating low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. Since then, health in the US has fallen apart. Obesity has risen to dangerous proportions and chronic illness is on the rise. Lutz and Allan cite much research debunking the myth that fat and cholesterol are the cause of heart disease.
If you’re looking for a good reference to better understand basic nutrition (I’ve included a short guide below) and the benefits of limiting carbohydrates in your diet, I highly recommend Life Without Bread. It is backed up by research and years of experience–and it is very readable!
I was particularly struck by the “teeter-totter” drawings depicting how hormones adjust if insulin levels rise. In other words, that extra cookie not only promotes weight gain, it also affects sleep, hormone levels, mood, the immune system, and digestive tract, not to mention that it increases the risk of type II diabetes, cancer and heart disease. I finally get it!
A Guide to Nutrition Basics
There are three basic types of nutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
- Proteins are the primary building blocks for our cells and tissues. They perform many functions and take on different forms, such as enzymes, antibodies, and hormones. Complete proteins contain essential amino acids (essential, meaning they must be obtained from your diet). Complete proteins are found in animal foods. In order to receive the full benefit of dietary protein, all essential amino acids must be consumed in the same meal, which makes relying solely on plant proteins complicated. If only a few amino acids are consumed in a meal, they can’t be stored and are subsequently eliminated, causing the potential for deficiencies.
- Fats are the primary storage form of energy in the body and provide the most energy to our cells. Fats also have different forms and functions in the body such as hormones and being the primary constituents of cell membranes, which play a role in metabolic functions. Fats are classified as saturated and unsaturated. Both forms contain the essential (i.e. must be obtained from your diet) fatty acids. Saturated fats, found in animal foods tend to provide equal amounts of the essential fatty acids, whereas unsaturated fats from plant sources provide predominantly one or the other.
- Carbohydrates are predominantly an energy source. There are simple carbohydrates, which metabolize quickly, and complex carbohydrates, which metabolize more slowly. The main point to understand about carbohydrates is that they all break down into sugar, and eating large amounts of carbohydrates in any form can be detrimental to your health.