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Culture » Get Out

Carbs vs. No Carbs

Daily bread: Enjoy or Avoid?



It’s an ongoing argument, with science, studies and fans on both sides—and, of course, “facts” that constantly change. An all-meat diet is healthy! An all-meat diet will give you cancer!

This column won’t change anyone’s mind about his or her chosen diet, but the truth is that much of the discourse about no-carb or low-carb diets leaves out facts about which there is no possible argument—like, for example, the poo problem. If you’re not ingesting fiber from fruits, vegetables or grains, you don’t have the “broom” that moves food through your bowels. After a few days of eating only meat, you get quite packed up and constipated. It hurts. So you have to take laxatives to resolve the problem. This frequently leads to gas and bloating (and laxative farts are really noisy). But worse, nutrients are absorbed from food as it moves through the intestines, and laxatives may speed the process up too fast for all the nutrition to be metabolized.

Meg Danielson, a registered nurse who is the manager of health and wellness at SelectHealth, a nonprofit health-insurance carrier, says, “It isn’t smart to cut out all carbs, because there are good, healthy carbohydrates. Low-carb dieters should plan the carbs that they eat. Look for whole grains and products that have whole grains; stay away from high-fructose corn syrup and other sugar products. I have yet to see a whole-grain donut.”

There’s also a rarely discussed problem with a no-carb diet, one I personally and painfully learned after cutting all carbs from my own diet. After four months, I’d lost 15 pounds and was salivating at the thought of a carb-filled Thanksgiving with friends. I gobbled up mashed potatoes, candied yams and two pieces of pumpkin pie. At first, the overstuffed feeling was normal for Thanksgiving. Then it became painful, and the full stomach didn’t empty. Hours later, still lying on the floor, it got so bad that I considered going to the ER. A call to a physician friend to ask for advice provided the missing information: the adaptation issue.

The body is lazy and adapts to just about anything to save energy, from physical exercise to diet. Cut out all carbs, and the body adapts by no longer manufacturing the enzymes needed to digest carbs. That means they must be re-introduced gradually. Pack your stomach with a sudden load of high-carb food, and it will just sit there, fermenting and creating gas until your metabolism can produce the required enzymes for digestion.

In addition, some studies show that eating a lot of red meat can have adverse health effects. Washington Post writer Rob Stein points to the first large study ever done to examine whether there’s a risk of premature death from regularly eating beef or pork. The National Cancer Institute study examined statistics from more than 500,000 middle-age and elderly Americans and found “those who consumed about 4 ounces of red meat a day (the equivalent of about a small hamburger) were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer.”

There are also some studies that show a low-carb diet can result in depression, which makes sense when brain chemistry is considered. The brain runs on glucose, a sugar. As Danielson points out, “Know that all food groups are broken down and metabolized in the body down to a glucose molecule, even protein.” But if you don’t have enough dietary protein in your system to provide sufficient glucose to the brain, you may become mentally lethargic, confused and depressed.

Regardless of the statistics or the research source, the most common dietary advice—which also makes the most sense—is that whether you eat lots of carbs or limit them, an all-around-balanced diet is the healthiest. Your own metabolism will have its own needs, and that’s what Danielson says is the most important factor in what you eat.

“It’s about how you feel, and how your metabolism reacts. Anybody on any kind of diet, they need to assess how they feel in general. If they have the energy to get through their day and carry out their exercise routine and activities of daily living, that’s what’s important.”