5 Myths About Low-Carb Eating

Below are 5 common myths about low-carb eating that I find perpetuated around the internet:

1. Low-carb eating is a “fad” diet

Low-carb eating generally gets a bad rap as a “fad” diet.  This is primarily because it eliminates what is believed to be an essential food group (grains and other foods that contain carbohydrates, like starchy vegetables).

However, low-carb is far from a fad.  It’s been around for at least two hundred years and many physicians were just starting to research some fascinating theories about lipophilia, insulin and how being fat makes us eat more (not that we eat more and become fat).  Much of this research was being conducted by physicians in Europe and was really gaining speed by the late 1930’s but then World War II erupted and by the end of the war both the physicians and scientists involved as well as the research work had vanished.  Most of the physicians and scientists had fled Europe during the war and their work was lost.  It is also probable, as Gary Taubes points out in Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It that anti-German sentiments in the postwar medical community caused most American authorities to treat German medical literature “as though it didn’t exist even though it had been the Germans and Austrians who had founded and done most of the meaningful research”.

2. Low-carb eating is a new diet

Low-carb eating is not a new concept.  It was even new when Dr. Atkins published his Atkins diet.  The concept of avoiding carbohydrates to lose or maintain weight goes back at least two hundred years, if not earlier.  Physicians believed and prescribed low-carb eating when treating their obese patients.  You can even find a layman’s experience with low-carb living and the positive effects it had documented in William Banting’s Letter on Corpulence, which was written in 1863.

Gary Taube’s Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It cites several examples of medical literature pre-1960 that demonstrates that physicians fully understood the benefits of low-carb lifestyles and the prevention/avoidance of disease.  Such examples include:

  • The 1901 edition of The Principles and Practice of Medicine by William Osler which advised overweight woman to avoid foods containing startch and sugar
  • The 1907 A Text-book of the Practice of Medicine by James French which defines the cause of obesity as an “overappropriation” of fat “but more particularly from the carbohydrates”
  • A 1925 The Lancet article advising bread should be avoided because of its carbohydrate content
  • A series of diet recommendations published between 1943 and 1952 by physicians from several preeminent  hospitals and schools of medicine indicating avoidance of foods containing carbohydrates

Then, around the 1960’s several new and competing theories took hold.  These include the calories-in/calories-out theory that implied overeating calories or not expending enough calories causes obesity and frequently cites a horrible misapplication of the first law of thermodynamics as the hypothetical proof.  Ancel Keys, who helped develop the K-ration for the United States Army, brought forth a new hypothesis in the 1950’s that suggested the fat we eat and the cholesterol in our blood were the causes of heart disease. While Jean Mayer’s, one of the most influential nutritionists in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s developed a hypothesis that weight can be lost or controlled through exercise.  As these theories gained popularity, the previously tried and true results of low-carb eating increasingly became seen as “faddish” or unsafe.

3. Eating styles that exclude a food group are bad for you

We are told everything in moderation, right?  So if you were allergic to peanuts to the extent that they could threaten your life if you ate them, how many peanuts should you eat in moderation?  Telling someone who is carbohydrate intolerant to eat a moderate amount of foods containing carbohydrates is akin to asking that person to knowingly eat foods in moderation that will increase their risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. 

There is no conclusive scientific evidence that supports that we must consume foods from every food group we see on the USDA food pyramid.  In fact, one of the primary arguments nutritionists and other authorities use against low-carb eating is that abstaining from foods containing carbohydrates will result in a lack of essential nutrients in the diet.  However, these same experts usually fail to point out that meat contains all the amino acids necessary for life, all the necessary fats and twelve of the thirteen essential vitamins.  They also fail to mention that most low-carb diets recommend the consumption of green leafy vegetables, which are loaded with vitamins (including the thirteenth, vitamin C, that meat lacks), minerals and anti-oxidants.  It’s only the highly processed and refined carbohydrates as well as other farinaceous [i.e. starchy] foods that are being totally excluded from the diet.

Many an authority on Paleo diets will assert that humans are metabolically adapted to thrive on high- protein/high-fat diets because as Homo sapiens evolved and migrated across the planet, many populations lived and thrived in areas and through seasons or climatic conditions (i.e. ice ages) where the only thing they could eat was what they could hunt.  Even today, tribes like the Inuit the Maasai thrive on diets that are high in fat, protein and contain virtually no carbohydrates or vegetables of any kind.  Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure are unknown to these people – until, of course, the start to introduce carbohydrates (usually rice and sugar) into their diets.

4. Low-carb weight loss is just water weight or muscle tissue loss

While not true, this myth does have its start in science.  You store two grams of water for every gram of carbohydrate consumed.  Therefore, it’s natural as your body uses these carbohydrates to also release the water that has been stored.  This, in part, is the reason so many people experience a dramatic weight loss the first few weeks they restrict carbohydrate intake.  However, as you continue on a carb-restricted eating plan, you will lose fat.  Having lost almost 30lbs, I can assure you it was not mostly water.  In fact, I was already taking blood pressure medicine that contained a diuretic, so my “water weight” was already pretty well managed because the diuretic released excess water in order to lower my blood pressure.  Another way you and I can tell our weight loss is not all “water” is that you will see marked reductions in the areas of your body where you normally accumulate fat.  Eating low-carb was the first time I ever saw a true reduction of my abdomen.  I actually “look” as lean as my weight tells me I am.  

With regards to muscle tissue loss as a result of eating low-carb, this is simply not factual.  Considering that people who consume low-carb diets must consume more protein, there is absolutely no risk to losing muscle tissue due to a lack of protein and other nutrients in the diet.  In fact, it’s quite possible to increase muscle tissue and bone density by incorporating resistance (weight) training as a regular method of exercise.  There will be plenty of protein in your system to help build muscle.

5. After you lose weight eating low-carb, you’ll regain the weight eating “normally”

This isn’t so much a myth as a fundamental misunderstanding of why we’re eating low-carb in the first place.  However, I see this caution so many times on nutritionist’s websites.  It’s an argument used to point out that low-carb eating cannot sustain long-term weight loss because, eventually, you must go back to eating carbohydrates.

Who says?

For those of us that are carbohydrate intolerant because we’re insulin-resistant, carbohydrates are dangerous to us.  Our bodies don’t metabolize them like everyone else and the excess insulin we produce to deal with the carbohydrates puts us at risk of increased accumulation of fat, heart disease, diabetes and host of other conditions known collectively as metabolic syndrome.  This means that we can’t go back to eating carbohydrates (or at least not the amount we ate prior to becoming insulin-resistant).  It’s my peanut allergy analogy – if peanuts made you deathly ill, how many should you eat in moderation because eating peanuts is part of a “healthy diet” for everyone else?  You wouldn’t risk getting sick or possibly dying just because other people can eat something that is not good for you to eat, would you?  It’s the same with carbohydrates.

Also, let’s have the nutritionists define “eating normally”.  The USDA’s dietary guidelines include foods that just didn’t exist during the two million or so years that we evolved on this planet.  It’s only been the last few thousand years that we discovered agriculture and only two centuries that we’ve been consuming refined grains, sugars and other simple carbohydrates as a regular and constant part of our diet.  However, our metabolism adapted over a millennia; when all we really could eat was what we could hunt or seasonally gather.  Our bodies simply haven’t had the time to adapt to what “experts” are now recommending as a “normal diet”.

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