why low carb diets work
If you become insatiable while eating a high-carb diet, and this insatiability goes away when eating protein and fat, doesn’t it seem that a high-carb diet (the usual way of eating for most people) is missing something important? Your body feels deprived, even if you have eaten a lot. It hasn’t gotten enough protein, so you still feel like eating.
A low carb diet can help you lose weight. But if you go on the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet, or any low carb diet, your friends and family might think you’re doing something dangerous. Go on a Weight Watchers Diet and it doesn’t bother anybody. Why? Because low carb diets are unfamiliar. Read this and you can put their minds at ease.
When you eat carbohydrates (carbs), your body releases insulin into your blood stream. The insulin tells your cells what to do. It tells most cells to absorb the sugar out of the blood and tells your fat cells not to release any fat to burn (because there are carbs already in the blood to burn).
One of insulin’s jobs is to take sugar out of the blood — the sooner the better, because sugar in the blood damages the body. The reason diabetics have such bad health problems (blindness, circulation problems, etc.) is because of the damage sugar does when the person can’t make enough insulin.
When you eat something with a lot of sugar in it, the body kind of panics and usually overdoes it. Too much insulin is released to mop up the sugar. It takes all the sugar out of your blood. Then your blood sugar is too low, so you crave more sweets.
So insulin saved the day, keeping that sugar from damaging your body, but in the process, it makes your body store fat and prevents you from burning fat.
A low carb diet, like the Atkins or South Beach Diet or Protein Power all vary in how much to limit carbs, but the rough average is thirty carbs a day. At that level, you don’t put very much insulin into your system, so your body burns any fat you eat as fuel, and if you need more, your fat cells freely release fat into your blood stream to be burned as fuel.
But when you eat a large amount of carbs — a hundred grams, two hundred grams, or more (most Westerners get about 300 grams a day) — your body releases insulin in huge amounts, which makes it almost impossible to burn fat. And makes it really easy to gain weight. Some people don’t gain weight, of course, even though they eat lots of carbs, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But first understand this basic process. This is why people lose weight so easily and quickly when they cut carbs: Because carbs increase insulin, which leads to storing fat and preventing fat from being burned.
Two other ways of dealing with this problem are to eat less and exercise more. Weight Watchers and other groups are built around limiting calories. Another way is to eat very low fat. Then when insulin is released, there isn’t much fat around to store, and if you eat little enough, your fat cells have to release fat so you can survive. People obviously can lose weight this way. But it is difficult. It requires discipline. One of the reasons Weight Watchers is successful is their support. People help each other stay on the program. It would be difficult to keep at it otherwise because it is so hard. Why is it so hard? Because you’re eating carbs, which cause you to crave more carbs, and then you deliberately limit how much you eat. So you feel hungry. And anyone who has tried to eat less for a long time has discovered it is very difficult. It’s like running uphill. What you’re eating is making you want to eat more, and then you make yourself eat less. It’s tough. It can be done, but it’s tough.
As anyone knows who has tried simply limiting calories or eating very little fat, it is very difficult to sustain it. You can do it for awhile, but then you can’t stand it any more and you eat a lot. You lose weight only temporarily because you can’t keep it up for any length of time without a lot of support or self-discipline. It’s too hard to sustain. And whatever you do to lose weight has to be sustainable or you’ll just gain it right back.
One of the reasons a low carb diet works is that protein and fat satisfy your hunger. When you eat protein, you do not crave more protein. If you had a huge plate of chicken, you would not continue to eat it after you had enough. You would eat a certain amount and then you wouldn’t want to eat any more. You don’t need a cheering section to keep you from eating any more. You’re done. You’re satisfied.
With carbs, you can never get enough. You can be full, topped off, completely stuffed, and you could still go for some ice cream! Eating carbs makes you crave more carbs.
Don’t get me wrong: Limiting yourself to thirty grams of carbs a day is still difficult, but much easier than eating low fat or low calorie. Your tongue still wants carbs, but the rest of your body feels fine. And after awhile, even your tongue calms down — you aren’t craving anything at all. And your fat cells steadily release their fuel to be burned. Instead of getting more difficult over time, low carb eating actually gets easier as the lust for carbs subsides.
We shouldn’t really call low carb eating a “diet.” You want to find a way to eat that you can maintain for your lifetime, not for a little while. And ideally it would be something you can do without having to rely on a tremendous amount of self-discipline, because it is likely you will sometimes falter. You can almost count on it. Face it, we’re human. We weaken sometimes. Then you’ll lose weight and gain it back, lose weight and gain it back. That’s demoralizing and it’s not healthy.
With Weight Watchers or another program that relies on emotional support to maintain, it will work, but you’re still eating too many carbs to be good for your health. We’ll get into that a little later on this page.
Let’s recap a little bit before we go on. Insulin has three effects you don’t want:
1. Converts sugar in the blood to fat in the cells — tells the body to store all the fat it can while the sugar is available
2. Tells the cells not to burn any fat, since there are plenty of sugar molecules to burn
3. Makes you crave more carbs
The name, “low carb diet” is really a misnomer. It should be called a low-insulin diet. All you’re trying to do is keep your insulin low. You could call it a high fat diet or a high protein diet or even a high fiber diet (if you’re doing it right). Fat doesn’t cause your body to make insulin. Protein doesn’t either. Only carbs do.
When there is very little insulin, your body has to burn fat. That becomes its main fuel, and your body actually gets better at burning fat the more it has to do (because your cells make more fat-burning enzymes and fewer sugar-burning enzymes).
If you want to lose weight quickly and keep it off, and also not hurt your health but actually improve your health, a low-insulin diet is the best way.
One of the most important factors about a low insulin diet is that you won’t lose muscle. As long as you’re getting enough protein, you could lose a hundred pounds, and you won’t lose muscle. In fact, if you’re exercising, this way of eating will make it easier to gain muscle. This is not true with programs like Weight Watchers. Yes, you can lose weight by eating less but half the weight you lose will be muscle, and that’s no good.
Most people have been eating so many carbs for so long, they can’t imagine eating a low insulin diet. But it’s not as bad as you’d think and there are a lot of nice surprises. But the first couple days are difficult. Then it gets easier. At first you’ll crave carbs, of course. But if you eat all you want of low carb food, after a few days, you’ll stop eating so much and your weight will start dropping. Every once in awhile you’ll miss carbs, but as you get used to the new way of eating, you’ll think about it less and less. Most of the time you’ll be really contented. Satisfied. Never hungry. And not nearly as obsessed with food as you used to be.
Because of the benefits of a low-insulin diet, and because it is much easier to sustain for a long time, the low-insulin diet completely crushes a high-insulin diet in any head-to-head competition.
why are carbs bad for you?
Believe it or not, carbs are highly unnatural. They seem so normal and healthy and everywhere it’s hard to imagine a world without them, but during our evolution, carbs were very hard to come by.
Our ancestors started eating meat at least two million years ago. We invented agriculture only ten thousand years ago. Ten thousand years sounds like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, it is hardly any time at all. It’s not nearly enough time to evolve a way of dealing with so many carbs (unless carbs were capable of killing us off before we had offspring, which they aren’t). Our bodies literally do not know what to do with 300 grams of carbs a day.
If you kept your carbs under 30 per day, you would get slimmer in a very short time. And you’d be healthier. And you’d have fewer mood swings. And you’d sleep better. And so on.
But wait a minute. Our ancient ancestors had fruit, didn’t they? Yes, they did. But it was only available during one short time of the year and the fruit had far less sugar and a lot more fiber than our fruit today has. For thousands of years, people have been selectively cultivating fruits that are sweeter and less fibrous, so fruit as we know it today hardly resembles the fruits of our ancestors.
And besides that, in the jungle canopy, most fruit is hard to get. It is way up there. Our very ancient ancestors lived in trees and could eat more fruit. But more than two million years ago, our ancestors were on the ground and eating meat and we’ve been relying on protein and fat ever since. We evolved quickly during that time. Many scientists think that our rapid evolution, especially our brain growth, became possible because we adapted to a high-protein diet.
Occasionally, our ancestors came across a honeycomb or ripe fruit, and they gorged themselves. Those who ate the most would survive a famine better than the others, because they would have more fat on their bodies. But for the most part, our hominid ancestors were lean.
Because carbs were so rare, and because a few carbs could make the difference between living and dying, people with the strongest, most intense desire to eat carbs survived better and had more offspring. The bad news is that now carbs are hugely and abundantly available and we have advertisers exploiting our cravings for all they’re worth. The Western world now has an epidemic of diabetes and obesity and heart disease because we have a built-in craving for carbs and there is big money to be made exploiting that intense craving.
Think about this from another angle. When you cut carbs you eliminate heartburn and gas. You just don’t have them any more. Those aren’t the only two obvious negative consequences to eating lots of carbs, but let’s just look at those two for a minute. Doesn’t it seem that just from the point of view of what the body has evolved to handle, the diet that causes the least distress to the body is probably the most natural? Heartburn is not only uncomfortable, it is damaging to the esophagus. It is a sign something isn’t right. And it goes away when you stop eating so many carbs. Your gas pains go away. Your skin clears up. Your weight goes down. Your blood pressure goes down. It is hard not to see this as clear evidence that eating so many carbs is not natural.
why don’t some carb-eaters get fat?
If all I say is true, how come many people eat lots of sugar and don’t get fat? That’s a good question, and the answer is interesting. We start very young to feed our kids a carb-dominated diet. We crave carbs and carbs are cheap compared with protein. Our bodies do their best to keep up. So our pancreas works overtime making insulin and we keep it busy with our 300 carbs a day.
And many of us remain slim throughout our twenties and well into our thirties. But then something happens, doesn’t it? People start to gain weight. Why? Because our cells start to be insensitive to insulin. Our cells don’t respond as well as they used to. Insulin is telling the cells to take the sugar out of the blood, but the cell is overworked and underpaid and doesn’t respond. The body has no choice. There is no other way to get that sugar out of the blood. And you can’t leave it there. It would be too destructive. So the pancreas puts out even more insulin, forcing the cells to take the sugar.
Over time, the pancreas puts out more and more insulin, causing the person to gain weight eating exactly what they used to when they were slim. If this goes on long enough, in some people it will cause adult-onset diabetes. Normal diabetes is caused by a pancreas that doesn’t make insulin. Adult-onset diabetes is caused by something different. The pancreas is still making insulin, but the cells have become so insensitive the insulin doesn’t work. The insulin is no longer effective. But all the other effects of insulin continue: It forces the body to store fat and not burn it.
The inevitable development of insulin insensitivity is also evidence of the unnaturalness of a high-carb diet.
what do people eat on a low-insulin diet?
What has carbs? Meat has no carbs, except some processed meats (look on the label to find out). But regular meat has no carbs at all.
Almost all vegetables are low in carbs, except corn and potatoes. Carrots and peas are pretty high, but you probably don’t have to worry about eating too much of those two because they are also high in fiber and fiber makes you feel full, so they are much more self-limiting than say, chocolate cake.
Here are a few veggies that are so low in carbs you can literally eat as much as you want:
One of the great things about low-insulin eating is you can melt cheese all over your Broccoli and it’s perfectly fine. It just makes your food that much more satisfying. Saute your spinach in butter. Dip your celery in gobs of blue cheese. As long as you don’t stimulate insulin, your body will just burn the fat and won’t store it. You don’t have the insulin in your system to tell your body to store the fat. A lot of people make fun of this part of the Atkins diet. Robert Atkins really emphasized you can eat all the cheese and butter and fat you want. But what people don’t realize is that you don’t really want to eat much fat. Once you’re past the first few days and your carb cravings have subsided, your desire for fat is pretty low. It is so satisfying it is self-limiting. You’ll be eating more than you did before, but you won’t be gorging yourself on fat by any means. I think Atkins used that ploy because when people think about giving up carbs, it is hard to contemplate. So at least here is some compensation: You can eat fat. Most of us have been eating less fat than we want for a long time.
So Atkins said: Yes, you have to give up on breads and pastas and cakes, but you get to have cheese and butter and steak. It is easier to contemplate such a large change in your eating habits when you have that to comfort you. But really, you’ll find you don’t really eat that much once you cut down to thirty carbs a day. Protein and fat are so satisfying, you just don’t eat that much. You don’t usually even get full.
What about fruits? Most fruits are too high in carbs to eat very much. Berries are an exception. They are closer to natural fruits: Low in sugar and high in fiber. And it turns out berries are really good for you (high in powerful antioxidants).
You can eat all the Brazil nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts you want. They are low in carbs and high in omega-3 fats.
So here is the bottom line. Eat these:
Meat (grass-fed if you can find it)
Fish (not farmed)
And try to eat very little (or none) of these:
All you have to really remember to lower you insulin is to try to eat as close to a hunter-gatherer diet as possible. Imagine what you could eat if you walked out into a wilderness and tried to survive. You’d eat mostly meat. You might find some fibrous leaves. Maybe a few berries at a certain time of the year. Perhaps some roots here and there. Nuts if you could find some.
For the last two million years, our ancestors ate mainly meat, and the vegetables and fruits they had were very low in carbs. Forty thousand years ago or two million years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anything sweet that was low in fiber.
Eat like the Lakota (Native Americans, Plains Indians): Mostly buffalo. Some plants and roots. Very low carb. Very high fiber.
It seems like eating this way, you’re giving up a lot, right? But you’re gaining more than you’re giving up. Carbs give you acne, make you less able to control your weight, make you more depressed, give you gas, heartburn, and make you feel stuffed. Carbs are bad for your long-term health in many ways. Every time I have slacked and eaten carbs for a few days, my quality of life has gone dramatically downhill. The only thing that improves is a pleasurable sensation on my tongue that doesn’t last very long. Keep that in mind. When you find yourself concentrating on what you’ve lost, give equal time to what you’ve gained. It feels great to be slim. It is a great relief not to have to think about food all the time, which carbs tend to make you do. And, as a bonus, low carb foods are also pleasurable on the tongue.
By the way, when you’re looking at labels to find out how many carbs something has, don’t forget to subtract the fiber. Fiber doesn’t count. It is a carb, but you can’t digest it. That’s what fiber means: An undigestible carb. So it doesn’t have any effect on your insulin. It puts no sugar into your blood stream. It gives you no calories. It just passes right through you.
For example, a stalk of Broccoli has 8 grams of carbs. But 5 grams are fiber. So a stalk of Broccoli really has only 3 grams of carbs. That’s what some labels call “net carbs” or “effective carbs.”
If you’re trying to figure out how many carbs you’re eating, make sure you subtract the fiber.
resisting the urge
Here is another reason a calorie-restricting diet is a bad idea: It makes you weaker. It makes you less persistent. Check this out: A study was done at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. They had three groups of students. Each person was given the same puzzle to solve. None of them knew the puzzle was unsolvable.
One group was allowed to snack from a plate full of cookies as they worked on the puzzle.
Another group was asked not to eat the plate full of cookies.
And the third group worked on the puzzle in a room containing no cookies.
The researchers counted how many times a student tried to solve the puzzle before they gave up. The students who had to resist eating the plate full of cookies gave up after half as many tries as the other two groups. Half as many tries!
Persistence is important, as you well know. The ability to stick with something may be the most important quality of success. And apparently not eating something undermines persistence.
So should you always just eat the cookies? That’s one solution. Another is to not have them in the room; to not have them there to resist. In this society, that is a challenge.
We live in a culture obsessed with goodies, obsessed with food — especially obsessed with carbs. You go somewhere to hang out with your friends. You end up at an Italian restaurant. A carb-filled menu if there ever was one. You go to work and someone has brought in cookies. You come home and someone has baked a cake. Now you have to spend psychological energy not eating something.
Although you can’t control your environment completely, you can control it somewhat. And whatever degree of control you have, you ought to exert it. Your choice of friends. Your influence over what activities you do together. What is available in your house. And you can try to influence people rather than have them influence you. That’s one of the reasons I’ve written this article. I want you to be able to explain to others how a low carb diet works, so you can influence them, so it’ll be easier for you to maintain this way of eating. If everybody in your household eats this way, they will be healthier, slimmer, happier, and it will be a lot easier for you to keep it up without having to constantly resist temptation.
Anyway, I thought you should know about this study. For one reason, if you were trying to resist goodies, you may find yourself with less persistence without any idea it’s because you’re resisting goodies. And second, because the study suggests it is better to control and influence your environment rather than try to resist your environment.
from scientific american
The following is from an article in Scientific American that had nothing to do with low carb diets. The article was about scientists who are trying to find out what causes aging. They’ve made a significant discovery, and it applies to low insulin eating. Of course, the scientists are focused on trying to come up with a drug to deal with this. They don’t seem to have even thought about a connection to the Atkins diet. Here’s the essence of what they discovered:
Sugars act as molecular glue, attaching themselves to the amino groups in tissue proteins and cross-linking them into hard yellow-brown compounds known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs.
After years of bread, noodles and cakes, human tissues inevitably become rigid and yellow with pigmented AGE deposits. For the most part, piling on dark pigments in the teeth, bones and skin is harmless, but where glucose forms tight bonds with the long-lived protein collagen, the result is a constellation of changes, including thickened arteries, stiff joints, feeble muscles and failing organs — the hallmarks of a frail old age.
Sugar’s connection with AGE formation may be one reason caloric restriction might delay aging.
The authors never mentioned it, but maybe a low insulin diet would delay aging too. Instead of taking a drug that prevents sugar from bonding with protein, how about just eating less sugar?
shouldn’t you eat a balanced diet?
This is a frequent comment by people against low carb diets: “You need to eat a balanced diet.” But what does that mean? An equal amount of what? And who is making the categories? I think people should eat whatever is good for them. If that means very little fruit, lots of high fiber veggies, and lots of meat, then that is a balanced diet. If it’s healthy, if eating that way makes a person healthy and strong and feeling good, then that is a “balanced” diet — balanced in the sense that you have the right proportion of foods that will make you lean and healthy.
Should you eat equal proportions of fat, carbs, and protein? If it makes you fat or raises your blood pressure or gives you diabetes, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. The solution, so they say, is just eat less and exercise more. Easy to say, harder to do. Communism sounded good, too, until they tried it on actual human beings. What sounds good on paper doesn’t necessarily work if you didn’t take into account human nature. If you want to succeed, you have to recommend what people can actually do, what they will actually do.
Eating less than you want for the rest of your life is something almost everybody will find difficult to do.
Should you make sure you eat something from all the food groups? That’s what many nutritionists are recommending. But why? Who says? Some of those food groups are invented! Go into the wilderness and find me some bread or pasta. Humans invented those as foods, put them on the food pyramid, and then declared you have to eat that stuff to have a balanced diet. It’s crazy. For millions of years of our evolution, those foods didn’t exist. And now they are necessary? Come on. Sounds like hokem to me.
One of the main reasons there is so much controversy about low carb dieting is because a lot of people and institutions have been recommending a low fat, high carb diet for a long time. People have a vested interest in it. They have been promoting it for years. It is very difficult to admit you were wrong, especially if you have confidently recommended something to hundreds of people. Say something enough times and you become very convinced of it. I was one of those. I was a serious athlete at a young age and cared a lot about nutrition, so I’ve been studying it all my life. So when I first started reading about low carb diets, I was very skeptical.
The first book I read was Protein Power. The authors go into quite a bit of detail about how it works, and I was surprised that nothing they said conflicted with what I already knew. But the information was lined up to form new conclusions.
And it works. What do I mean by “works?” First of all, I lost weight. I wasn’t overweight, or at least nobody would have said I was. But I lost twenty pounds and I’ve kept it off for six years now. My blood pressure also came down. It had been slowly creeping up toward the end of my thirties. Within a couple months my weight and blood pressure dropped to what they were when I was in my twenties, and have stayed there. So it works in that sense. And I am able to keep eating this way without really having to concentrate on it. It works in that sense too.
There has been a steady stream of studies about low carb diets or high protein diets or whatever you want to call them, and they are all positive. One of the best pieces of news is that a low-insulin diet may actually help prevent heart disease, which seems really counterintuitive if you’ve been indoctrinated into the Fat Is Evil philosophy. But the research is vindicating Atkins. He was saying this a long time ago. And Atkins wasn’t the first. This idea goes way back, and has been scoffed at for a long time.
It seems counterintuitive, but it does stand to reason that if a low carb diet helps you lose weight and lower blood pressure it might help prevent heart disease. But I know, it is still hard to believe.
Sometimes something new comes along and you need to update what you thought you knew. I believe this is one of those.
what color is your food?
Because most people selling low carb diets are promoting weight loss, the authors say very little about another benefit of this way of eating: More phytonutrients. Foods have other elements in them besides protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. The other elements are called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. And they have some positive benefits to health. They function as antioxidants and virus inhibitors and cancer preventers and vein strengtheners and on and on. This is real science. I’m not talking about “health tonics” or snake oil. The phytonutrients in plants have significant and healthy effects on humans.
When you stop eating so much flour and sugar, you tend to replace it with vegetables and berries, and those contain lots of phytonutrients. Grains and sugars don’t have much if any. The first and most vocal promoter of low carb diets, Robert Atkins, didn’t say much about this. And it’s too bad, because anybody who knows about this stuff usually sees a very big problem with a high protein, high fat diet — namely, the lack of phytonutrients. But I noticed just the opposite. I increased the amounts of vegetables and berries I ate.
All the other stuff about nutrition doesn’t go away. It all still counts. Although you may be able to lose weight eating all the butter and steak you want, that doesn’t make it the healthiest thing to do. You should pay attention to what kind of oil you eat. Grass-fed beef is better than grain-fed beef. Blueberries are better than apple juice. Yes, eat fewer carbs, but make the carbs, the fat, and the protein good quality and as healthy as you can. Be slim and be healthy