What you need to know before you give up pasta
Jackie M. used to live three houses down. You’ve just seen her for the first time in months — and she’s dropped 15 pounds! Looks fabulous in skinny jeans. (Bummer.) And she owes it all, she gushes, to a high-protein diet.
And then there’s you — faithful follower of the high-carb, low-fat weight-loss diet advocated by health experts — but still hiding your excess avoirdupois inside droopy old sweats. You’ve gotta be thinking, “WHAT GIVES!?” “Forget bread and pasta,” says Jackie. As soon as you revert to chicken and steak, why, the pounds fly away. And isn’t she the living proof that high-pro diets work?
Oh yes indeedy. They can work, all right — at least temporarily. But if you’re tempted by a neighbor/co-worker/celebrity/friend or friend-of-a-friend who’s lost weight by turning high-pro, better read this first.
Q: Okay, Prevention, so how come people do lose weight on high-protein diets?
A: Would you believe it’s a trick? Every high-protein diet promoted in a spate of bestsellers since 1995 essentially works for a very simple but hidden reason: because they’re low-calorie diets, pure and simple. But, perhaps because the high-protein gurus know that no one likes to count calories, they go to great lengths to disguise this fact with unproven claims about those dirty rotten carbohydrates.
“Calories don’t count,” Adele Puhn assures us in The 5-Day Miracle Diet. Oh, really? Then how come she so constrains what and how much you can eat that a sample women’s menu works out to under 800 calories a day? “Diets that low in calories are considered semi-fasting, which could put your health at risk unless you’re under medical supervision,” says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center.
Q: But the high-pro diets say it isn’t calories — it’s carbohydrates that do us in. Isn’t it true that foods like rice and potatoes drive up insulin levels, and then the insulin makes us fat?
A: That’s just what the high-pro promoters want you to think. Here’s their theory: First, those nasty carbs drive up the hormone insulin — “the monster hormone,” as the Eadeses label it in Protein Power. Then high insulin levels control how much fat our bodies store; plus they make us hungrier. Presto, we’re blimps!
The truth? “If a high-carb diet really makes you fat, how come the rice-eating Japanese are so enviably slim?” asks Jay Kenney, PhD, RD, nutritionist at the Pritikin Longevity Center, famous for its high-carb, low-fat diet. In fact, says Dr. Kenney, instead of insulin making you overweight, the reverse is true: Being overweight drives insulin levels up (and increases risks of clogged arteries and other serious health problems). Losing weight almost always brings insulin levels back down.
Q: According to the high-pro authors, though, this “blame it on insulin” theory is well established. Doesn’t that make it legitimate?
A: What these books gloss over is that their central theory is based on very little credible scientific research. “To call it wild-eyed conjecture would be kind,” says Dr. Kenney, who is also vice president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. The truth is, there’s never been a single, well-conducted study to prove that people lose weight faster on a high-pro diet than on a high-carb diet with equal calories. A principal study cited as evidence by some high-pro gurus was published in 1956, lasted only nine days, and even described itself as full of shortcomings. “It’s not worth anything,” says top obesity expert John Foreyt, Ph.D., professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who recently reviewed it.
“In the long run, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie,” says Dr. Foreyt. “If the total coming in-no matter what the source-is more than you need, you gain weight.”
Q: But if carbohydrates aren’t the villain, then how come some people gain weight (or can’t seem to lose it) on high-carb, low-fat diets?
A: Starting in the 80s, people got the mistaken idea (partly from the media) that high-carb foods were nearly calorie-free as long as they were low in fat. We’ve been on a carbo binge ever since-mountains of pasta, whole bags of SnackWells at one sitting, soft pretzels the size of a sirloin steak. One solution is reducing portion sizes, not blaming carbohydrates for making us fat.
Q: Okay, if the bottom line is calories, and high-protein diets reduce your calories, what’s the harm in that?
A: The kicker is the way they reduce calories — namely by making eating so complicated, so restricted, or so downright unpleasant … who could overeat? Or stay with such plans for life? (For a taste of their methods, see How They Really Work.) Even worse, there’s a chance of serious health risks. “We have learned so much about health and nutrition in the last 30 years. But these diets take us backward to the bad old days,” says Judith Stern, ScD, RD, professor of nutrition, University of California at Davis.
Risk: All these diets ask you to severely restrict grains and beans, fruits, and some vegetables. In Mastering the Zone, Barry Sears flips foods like bread and cereal from the base of the food pyramid to the “use sparingly” foods at the very tip. In Healthy for Life, the Hellers write that “fruit and fruit juice can increase your risk for illness …” Sears brands dozens of superfoods (bananas, carrots, sweet potatoes, and pinto beans, for example) as “Unfavorable Carbohydrates.”
Hello?! Advice like this flies in the face of hundreds of studies showing that people who eat the most grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables stay the healthiest, with less heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. (To their credit, all diets but the Atkins do encourage the eating of very-low-calorie vegetables, such as cucumbers, spinach, and celery.)
Risk:These plans encourage eating more animal protein in place of carbs, a direct contradiction of many studies linking diets higher in meat with more heart disease and cancer. In fact, just last year, the American Cancer Society began to recommend limiting animal protein in the diet. Higher protein intakes may promote the loss of calcium from bones, as well. (And American women have trouble getting enough calcium as it is.)
Risk:With the Atkins Induction diet (in Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution), there’s no restriction on fat intake. Indeed, you’re encouraged to eat cheese, bacon, cream, and butter — high in saturated fat. Yet the connection between heart disease and dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is established beyond question. High-fat diets are also linked to increased cancer risks. (The other high-protein diets at least make some effort to limit fat or encourage low-fat sources of protein.)
Q: But some high-protein diets curb your appetite. Doesn’t that prove, at the very least, that carbohydrates make you hungry?
A: No, it proves your body thinks it’s starving. The Atkins diet and the Protein Power diet, by restricting carbohydrates to a rock-bottom 20 or 30 grams a day (so low a bagel will blow it) put you into a state called ketosis, in which your body incompletely mobilizes some of its own fat for energy. Dr. Atkins calls ketosis “one of life’s charmed gifts” because one of its established side effects is suppression of appetite. As a result, you eat fewer calories. But ketosis can also cause bad breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting. “These diets can be safe, but need to be medically monitored,” says Dr. Cheskin. “I would strongly discourage people from doing them on their own, just out of a book. A diet that brings on ketosis must be supervised because it can create a potentially dangerous imbalance of sodium and potassium,” he says.
One effect of ketosis is an initial rapid loss of water. So at first it looks like you’re losing like crazy, when in fact what you’ve done is excrete several pounds of salty water. As soon as you switch back to adequate carbohydrates, you’ll store the water you need (which gives you the false impression, by the way, that eating carbs made you gain weight).
The final word
In spite of mega-hype to the contrary, be confident that a high-carb, low-fat diet-built around grains (especially whole grains), beans, vegetables, and fruit-can be a healthy, effective road to weight loss. Getting more active helps burn more calories. You may well need to make portions smaller, too-especially starchy carbohydrate foods. Be especially careful of low-fat or fat-free snacks and desserts; these empty calories add up fast!
“The bottom line,” says Dr. Foreyt, “is calories. Don’t let your readers forget that.”