No sugar, no bread made with processed flour, no white potatoes, no rice, no alcohol. There was almost nothing in a 7-11 store that I could eat. The only thing McDonald's sells that I could eat was a quarter-pounder hamburger Pattie. No bread. The important point, though, it that it worked. Especially important, I was not hungry for more food. Staying under 1000 calories per day was no problem.
But I was told it was dangerous. I had to have carbohydrates many people told me. So I started adding carbohydrates back in. And I became irrationally hungry, binging frequently. I put 25 pounds back on.
Well, today the Los Angeles Times reports studies that confirms my experience.
All carbohydrates (a category including sugars) convert to sugar in the blood, and the more refined the carbs are, the quicker the conversion goes. When you eat a glazed doughnut or a serving of mashed potatoes, it turns into blood sugar very quickly. To manage the blood sugar, the pancreas produces insulin, which moves sugar into cells, where it's stored as fuel in the form of glycogen.This describes my experience exactly. Look at the two items I have highlighted in green. The first one shows how the weight loss eliminates metabolic syndrome. It worked for me. I both lost weight and improved my cholesterol and lipids.
If you have a perfectly healthy metabolism, the system works beautifully, says Dr. Stephen Phinney, a nutritional biochemist and an emeritus professor of UC Davis who has studied carbohydrates for 30 years. "However, over time, as our bodies get tired of processing high loads of carbs, which evolution didn't prepare us for … how the body responds to insulin can change," he says.
When cells become more resistant to those insulin instructions, the pancreas needs to make more insulin to push the same amount of glucose into cells. As people become insulin resistant, carbs become a bigger challenge for the body. When the pancreas gets exhausted and can't produce enough insulin to keep up with the glucose in the blood, diabetes develops.
The first sign of insulin resistance is a condition called metabolic syndrome — a red flag that diabetes, and possibly heart disease, is just around the corner. People are said to have the syndrome when they have three or more of the following: high blood triglycerides (more than 150 mg); high blood pressure (over 135/85); central obesity (a waist circumference in men of more than 40 inches and in women, more than 35 inches); low HDL cholesterol (under 40 in men, under 50 in women); or elevated fasting glucose.
About one-fourth of adults has three or more of these symptoms.
"Put these people on a low-carb diet and they'll not only lose weight, which always helps these conditions, but their blood levels will improve," Phinney says. In a 12-week study published in 2008, Phinney and his colleagues put 40 overweight or obese men and women with metabolic syndrome on a 1,500-calorie diet. Half went on a low-fat, high-carb diet. The others went on a low-carb, high-fat diet. The low-fat group consumed 12 grams of saturated fat a day out of a total of 40 grams of fat, while the low-carb group ate 36 grams of saturated fat a day — three times more — out of a total of 100 grams of fat.
Despite all the extra saturated fat the low-carb group was getting, at the end of the 12 weeks, levels of triglycerides (which are risk factors for heart disease) had dropped by 50% in this group. Levels of good HDL cholesterol increased by 15%.
In the low-fat, high-carb group, triglycerides dropped only 20% and there was no change in HDL.
The take-home message from this study and others like it is that — contrary to what many expect — dietary fat intake is not directly related to blood fat. Rather, the amount of carbohydrates in the diet appears to be a potent contributor.
"The good news," adds Willett, "is that based on what we know, almost everyone can avoid Type 2 diabetes. Avoiding unhealthy carbohydrates is an important part of that solution." For those who are newly diagnosed, he adds, a low-carb diet can take the load off the pancreas before it gets too damaged and improve the condition — reducing or averting the need for insulin or other diabetes meds.
Americans can also blame high-carb diets for why the population has gotten fatter over the last 30 years, says Phinney, who is co-author of "The New Atkins for a New You" (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
"Carbohydrates are a metabolic bully," Phinney says. "They cut in front of fat as a fuel source and insist on being burned first. What isn't burned gets stored as fat, and doesn't come out of storage as long as carbs are available. And in the average American diet, they always are."
Here's how Phinney explains it: When you cut carbs, your body first uses available glycogen as fuel. When that's gone, the body turns to fat and the pancreas gets a break. Blood sugar stabilizes, insulin levels drop, fat burns. That's why the diet works for diabetics and for weight loss.
When the body switches to burning fat instead of glycogen, it goes into a process called nutritional ketosis. If a person eats 50 or fewer grams of carbs, his body will go there, Phinney says. (Nutritional ketosis isn't to be confused with ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition that can occur in diabetics.)
Beyond the fat-burning effects of ketosis, people lose weight on low-carb diets because fat and protein increase satisfaction and reduce appetite. On the flip side, simple carbs cause an insulin surge, which triggers a blood sugar drop, which makes you hungry again.
"At my obesity clinic, my default diet for treating obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome is a low-carb diet," says Dr. Eric Westman, director of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University Medical Center, and co-author of the new Atkins book. "If you take carbohydrates away, all these things get better."
Though the movement to cap carbs is growing, not all nutritional scientists have fully embraced it. Dr. Ronald Krauss, senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute and founder and past chair of the American Heart Assn.'s Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, says that while he fundamentally agrees with those advocating fewer dietary carbs, he doesn't like to demonize one food group.
That said, he adds, those who eat too many calories tend to overconsume carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates and sugars. "It can be extremely valuable to limit carbohydrate intake and substitute protein and fat. I am glad to see so many people in the medical community getting on board. But in general I don't recommend extreme dietary measures for promoting health."
Joanne Slavin, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota and a member of the advisory committee for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is less inclined to support the movement. The committee, she says, "looked at carbohydrates and health outcomes and did not find a relationship between carbohydrate intake and increased disease risk."
Most Americans need to reduce calories and increase activity, Slavin adds. Cutting down on carbs as a calorie source is a good strategy, "but making a hit list of carbohydrate-containing foods is shortsighted and doomed to fail, similar to the low-fat rules that started in the 1980s."
As nutrition scientists try to find the ideal for the future, others look to history and evolution for answers. One way to put our diet in perspective is to imagine the face of a clock with 24 hours on it. Each hour represents 100,000 years that humans have been on the Earth.
On this clock, the advent of agriculture and refined grains would have appeared at about 11:54 p.m. (23 hours and 54 minutes into the day). Before that, humans were hunters and gatherers, eating animals and plants off the land. Agriculture allowed for the mass production of crops such as wheat and corn, and refineries transformed whole grains into refined flour and created processed sugar.
Some, like Phinney, would argue that we haven't evolved to adapt to a diet of refined foods and mass agriculture — and that maybe we shouldn't try.
The second item in green explains the effects so many people successful in phase one of the Atkins diet described to me. In phase one they lost weight. A lot of it. When they started putting carbohydrates and sugar back into their diet, the weight came back. The second item in green explains my hunger binges. Sugar or carbohydrates kicked my blood sugar up rapidly and then it dropped rapidly a short time later making me hungry.
Remember, hunger is something you feel because your brain receives messages about blood sugar from your blood. It has nothing directly to do with your stomach or how much you have eaten.
One more thing I should report, though. I really was NOT hungry on the diet. Restricting my diet to below 800 calories per day led to even more rapid weight loss. But when my vision changed sharply requiring new glasses, then changed back a few weeks later, my ophthalmologist explained that changes in the blood sugar can effect the lens in your eyes. So don't try the diet without the advice of good medical experts who are familiar with the Atkins Diet. MOST medical professionals are unaware of what this diet is doing, and they won't tell you that.
My weight and triglycerides have gone up. I am going back on the diet. But I now have a good reason to totally stop bread, sugars and so on. If you have found your weight slowly going up as you get older, this is why.
Carbohydrates. Get rid of them. Keep a daily record of the foods you eat along with the calorie count each day. Also weigh yourself daily. If your weight starts going back up, check back to what you ate over the previous three weeks and you will see why if you kept honest records.