You don’t have to read more than an article or two about healthy diets to learn about the debate going on regarding diets that stress protein vs those that are high in carbohydrates.
And most often, carbohydrates get a bad rap. They’re considered by many as the cause of all evil. High protein diets such as the Adkins diet and caveman diet have become increasingly popular. And for a good reason.
But not all carbohydrates are created equal and some studies have shown a dramatically lower rate of chronic diseases among nations that use more carbohydrates than a protein rich diet. And there are some serious health concerns regarding low carbohydrate diets.
So in today’s feature article, I’ll explain this complicated issue. No doubt we are going to have a fun, educational conversation in the comment section following today’s information.
So read on and make your comment below.
In an oversimplification about nutrition, carbohydrates would be considered the main fuel of the human body, proteins are the building blocks to maintain and repair muscle, and fats are more like the long-term fuel storage for a rainy day.
However, we are so adaptable that if we don’t get enough of one nutritional type, our body can most often transfer one thing into another. Protein can, for example, be used for energy instead of building muscles and carbohydrates can be transferred into fat (maybe too easily).
This adaption ability makes nutritional science extremely complicated and controversial. Health experts have been pushing people for years to reduce cholesterol intake although every single cell has the ability to create its own cholesterol. Low-fat diets are still considered useful weight loss tools although sugars and other carbohydrates can just as easily be transformed into body fat as animal fat. Diary producers have for decades been selling us on drinking milk to strengthen bones, although repeated research shows that hip fractures among people over 50 are more common in countries where milk consumption is higher.
The USDA recommendations for most typically developing humans to consume in diet is about 30% fat, 60% carbohydrates and 10% protein. That’s about 66g fat, 300g carbohydrates and 50g protein in a 2000 calorie diet. The famous food pyramid puts food high in carbohydrates such as breads, cereals, rice and pasta as the foundation for a good diet. Vegetables and fruits are only in second place and animal products such as diary, eggs and meat show up third. Fat sits at the top to be used the least.
The interesting thing is that almost ALL successful diets researched to fight and prevent diseases such as heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity use different food pyramid formats. This includes contradicting diets such as Adkins and Caveman diets vs. vegan and raw food diets.
The problem with the USDA pyramid may not lie in the fact they put carbohydrates in first place; but rather with what kind of carbohydrates is mostly consumed in the western world.
You see, there are at least two kinds of carbohydrates.
In its simplest form it’s just plain glucose or sugar. These sugars are called simple carbohydrates and are very seldom found naturally in big doses. Refined, white flour used in most breads, pastas and pastries is a form of simple carbohydrates. Also in this category are white rice and of course any kind of sugar and corn syrup.
Complex carbohydrates are, on the other hand, made up of a chain of glucose molecules commonly known as starch. They’re how plants naturally store glucose. Most whole grains (corn, wheat, rice, oats) and vegetables like potatoes and plantains are high in starch.
The problem with simple carbohydrates (majority consumed in the western world) is how quickly calories are processed into the blood stream. After all, the manufacturers have done most of the digestive work for you. Whereas complex carbohydrates release around 2 calories per minute into the blood stream, simple carbohydrates release 30 calories. This is the reason you may feel a quick boost of energy for a little while after consuming a candy bar or sugary energy drink. And then hit the low as it as quickly wears off.
Lets compare this to a burning fire. A small pot of gasoline (similar to simple carbohydrates) has as much energy as pile of firewood (similar to complex carbohydrates). But if you set both on fire, the gasoline will flare up for a few seconds and then die, whereas the firewood may burn for hours and keep the same heat level the whole time.
When you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates on a regular basis, your blood sugar goes in extreme waves – it surges and drops just like the gasoline fire. This puts an outrageous strain on your body as it tries to deal with the surging blood sugar level. Anyone who has ever fainted from type 2 diabetes knows how devastating it is for your system to have excessively high blood sugar.
As your body tries to drop the blood sugar level, it temporarily boosts metabolism, raising blood pressure, and then stores as much of the overloading glucose as quickly as possible as body fat. And for prevention measures, it may even go overboard and lower your blood sugar level too much. That’s when you feel the drop of energy and urge to eat another candy bar to raise the blood sugar again.
This triggers inflammation all over the body causing a series of health problems. Not only type 2 diabetes, but this reactive inflammation also contributes to high blood pressure, arthritis, obesity, kidney failure, erectile dysfunction, cancer and endless other diseases.
Because of how slowly your body consumes the calories for starch (complex carbohydrates), this rollercoaster effect doesn’t happen and you feel fuller for longer and don’t get hungry right away.
Note that it’s easy for your body to raise its blood sugar on its own. Most of us have more energy than we need stored on our hips and backsides. We don’t need a candy bar for extra energy.
USDA states on their website that at least half the carbohydrate-rich food in the foundation section should be in the form of whole grains (complex). If you really want to focus on your health, 100% of the grain you eat should be whole grain and never refined, as with the case for processed oatmeal or white flour.
Even fruits that are often loaded with simple carbohydrates also have enough fibers to slow down the digestion process enough to balance the blood sugar. One orange has around 12 grams of sugar. However, you don’t typically feel a ‘high’ followed by a drop in energy after eating an orange do you?
Many people who want to become vegetarians or even vegans, make the beginner mistakes of filling their diet up with simple carbohydrates (pasta, white rice, white bread etc) and miss out on most of the nutrition needed. No wonder they often gain weight and give up after a few days or months and look like death before it’s over.
Okay, now that we’ve set the record straight regarding carbohydrates, let’s look at where high protein diets fit into the picture. You see, since protein is mostly used as building blocks for the body, it takes much more energy to digest and convert protein into useable energy than even complex carbohydrates. And since fat is mostly designed for long term energy storage, it too is energy consuming to transfer into blood sugar. Research has shown that eating eggs and bacon for breakfast keeps a person satisfied for two hours longer than consuming the same calorie amount of a carbohydrate-rich breakfast.
The fundamental explanation for the success of high protein diets such as the Adkins diet includes a complicated explanation of insulin and metabolism. However, I believe the main benefit is that Dr. Adkins wholeheartedly refused the use of simple refined carbohydrates that add up to a big part of the general diet. This takes out ALL sodas, white breads, white pasta, candies, etc. that contribute as the main cause of modern obesity. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Adkins diet actually allows quite a bit of carbohydrates and promotes a pretty balanced diet (compared to many fad diets) at later stages of the diet.
The caveman diet (in essence a high protein diet) takes this a step further and bans any food that could not have been used by the cave man 10,000 years ago. This, in addition to Adkins, takes out any kind of processed meat and diary.
Note that very few studies have been made of the long term effects of a high protein animal diet. And some of the studies have indicated a higher risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and cancer. So look out for extremes and use your common sense. The same success (and maybe even more) can be achieved with vegetarian, vegan or plain old balanced diet as long as the dieter focuses on healthy complex carbohydrates and unprocessed food.
Carbohydrates are not the enemy, processed food is!
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