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Low Carboyhdrate Dieting

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The basic theory of a low-carbohydrate regimen is: "restricting carbohydrates -- sugar and starch in whatever form, from Popsicles to baked potatoes -- puts the brakes on insulin, the hormone that's responsible not only for storing fat (and worse, keeping it stored) but also for raising blood pressure, damaging blood vessels, and wreaking other bits of havoc throughout the body for those of us who are genetically predisposed to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Ice cream stick

A poor diet makes our body's insulin receptors resistant, requiring ever greater amounts of insulin to respond, which may lead to type 2 diabetes, and secondly that the only way to cut back on this outpouring of insulin is to restrict carbohydrates.

Do calories count? Yes and no. If you are genetically predisposed to being overweight, you are probably genetically predisposed to insulin problems, too, and you may not do as well as others on a restricted-calorie diet unless you cut way back on the carbohydrates. If you have no insulin problems and have a normal metabolism, you may do just fine with a standard diet that simply cuts calories.

Most low-carb diet books profess to be for everyone, but for some, this may not be the way to go. For example, some people will feel foggy and lethargic, and may need more carbohydrates to function well. Since the kidneys are called upon to work harder than usual with this way of eating, everyone should have blood work done before beginning. And anyone with a known kidney problem should avoid low-carb eating.

A sensible, basic low-carb eating plan is as follows:

Protein foods

  • Have protein at every meal -- about one-half gram of protein for every pound of your ideal weight, typically somewhere between 60 to 85 grams unless you're very large or very small.
  • For weight loss, keep the carbohydrates low, anywhere from zero to 30 grams daily.
  • Choose whole foods, organic if possible, and raw, ideally. The more fiber, the better.
  • Avoid nearly everything white -- potatoes, rice, bread, flour, sugar, popcorn. Of course, this doesn't include cauliflower, turnips or giant white radishes.
  • Eat fruit at breakfast, particularly low-carb fruits, such as berries, melons, peaches, kiwifruit. Half a banana is all you get.
  • Although you are allowed cream and butter, save it for treats, and cut down on them if you are trying to lose weight.
  • Choose cold-pressed olive and nut oils, and avoid processed oils, partially hydrogenated fats and margarine.
  • Eat dinner early and make it minimal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing a well-funded, long-term study of various diets popular today. Until the research is in, conventional wisdom is withholding approval while granting that low-carb diets do work for many. According to James Hill, PhD, the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, "The problem I have with all the diets is not that people don't lose weight -- they do, and for some it feels like the greatest thing ever. My concern is that we have nothing to suggest that these diets work in the long term. This kind of research is missing."

Then are these diets dangerous? "That's the debate going on today," Hill continues. "All that protein really makes your kidneys work very hard. One school of thought is that the high-protein content of these diets is damaging to the kidneys." But, he adds, the most recent data shows that at least the "markers for kidney damage do not show a problem," and so probably in the short-term these diets are not dangerous".

Another question, though, is whether the high-fat content of most of these diets is detrimental to our health, as high-fat diets have been shown to be factors in heart disease and some types of cancer. "For lower risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, the scientific evidence goes against the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets," states Melanie Polk, RD, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) in Washington, DC.

An AICR report reviewed some 4,500 diet and cancer studies from around the world comparing diet and cancer rates and found that a mostly plant-based -- in other words, high carbohydrate -- diet was protective against cancer and many chronic diseases. "vegetables, fruits and grains are foods low in protein but high in carbohydrates, but also high in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, dietary fiber -- and we know all of these things are protective. Beans are high in vegetable protein but low in fat. We need to eat more plant-based food and less animal food, the exact opposite of a lot of these fad diets.

One criticism of the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets has been the lack of food choices and the resulting difficulty that some people have staying within the limited choices over the long term. Experts are still wary of promoting this form of low-carb diet until long-term studies can be completed.

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