Nutrition 101: Is a low-carb diet the healthiest choice?

Nutrition 101: Is a low-carb diet the healthiest choice?
Heather Nicholds, C.H.N.

Vegan Nutrition 101: Part 4

Is a low-carb diet the healthiest choice? Or is a high-carb diet the answer?

There are basically 2 extremes in the Carb Wars: low-carb vs high-carb (yes, that’s a thing).

Conflicting opinions again.

Let’s start with the definitions.

High-Carb Diets:

Starchitarian: This is a diet promoted by Dr John McDougall, which revolves around the concept of eating more “Resistant Starches”. Resistant starches are ones that our digestive systems can’t break down. Resistant starch is found in peas, beans and other legumes, green bananas, and also in cooked and cooled starchy products like sushi rice and pasta salad.

(I also use the term starchitarian in a more unofficial way, to describe someone who goes vegan by cutting out meat, but doesn’t rebalance their diet with more protein-rich plant foods, and just relies on starchy foods (potatoes, rice pasta, bread) for sustenance.)

Fruitarian: a diet that consists entirely or primarily of fruits in the botanical sense, and possibly nuts and seeds, without animal products. Fruitarianism is a much more restrictive subset of veganism. This is also high-carb, but with simple carbohydrates from the fruits in the form of sugars, as opposed to the starchy carbohydrates above.

Low-Carb Diets:

Paleo: (also called the caveman diet or stone-age diet) is based on foods presumed to be available to Paleolithic humans. It includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and organ meats – with no dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, processed oils, salt, and alcohol or coffee. This diet is generally low-carbohydrate, high-protein.

Atkins: a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet promoted by Robert Atkins, who suggested that starchy carbohydrates are the root cause of weight gain by putting the body in a state of “hyperinsulinism” – which is a term Atkins coined that many doctors feel is the same as Type 2 diabetes.

(These are of course very short overviews of each approach, which makes them a simplified perspective. And there are quite a few other variations of high or low carb diets that aren’t listed.)

Why they all suck:

I’m going to throw out my Canadian political correctness for just a minute, because I really dislike all of these nutritional theories.

First of all, carbohydrates are a nutritional component of all foods. Specific foods themselves are not ‘carbs’. When people say they’re not eating carbs, what they usually mean is that they’re not eating bread, pasta, potatoes, and such things. But the carbs themselves are not the enemy.

Paleo is the only diet that I think could be healthy long-term if it’s taken from a more balanced viewpoint, but the premise behind it is completely misguided. Why do we want to try to eat like our paleolithic ancestors, when our bodies and our lives and our availability of food sources has evolved so much since then? When we have the choice to do things better now?

Most people who go the Paleo route wind up eating lots of meat and animal foods, but it’s possible to follow the basic outline of a paleo diet as a vegan, if you take a more flexible approach to the definition. (i.e. aren’t hung up on actually living like a caveman.) I often see paleo meals in restaurants that include kale (did our Paleo ancestors really eat kale?)

Atkins has been fully and completely refuted by doctors and scientific studies, so we should really just let this fad diet be put to rest. Most doctors disagree with the underlying theory of the diet, and it was not shown to have any significant effect on long-term weight loss in studies.

In general, low-carbohydrate diets can create issues with energy levels, to both your body and your brain, meaning you would operate at less-than-optimal performance. There’s a reason that endurance athletes are more likely to go with a high-carb than a low-carb diet – our bodies need it as fuel.

Starchitarians and fruitarians tend to not eat much fat or protein, both of which are important to many of the functions of your body. The macronutrient ratio of these diets are aiming for 80-10-10, or 80% carbohydrates, 10% protein and 10% fat. For some people, that could be enough protein, if you eat enough calories and make sure to eat some peas, quinoa and/or peanuts daily (for the amino acid lysine). But most fruitarian diets don’t allow any of those foods. Also, 10% isn’t usually enough fat for full vitamin and mineral absorption or to maintain hormone balance, and many women need more fat in their diet to make sure their menstrual cycle and reproductive system is healthy.

More important than the quantity…

One of the biggest factors in the Carb Wars is the quality of the foods in question. Things like white bread are high-carb, and pretty much empty calories (have no real nutrients), so good to reduce or eliminate them. If you compare that to some cooked quinoa or buckwheat, which have a high level of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and water content along with the carbohydrates, it’s a totally different story. They should be part of an overall balanced and healthy diet for energy and nutrition.

Paleo proponents often talk about the enzyme-inhibiting compounds in grains, beans and legumes as arguments against eating them. But those compounds are easily neutralized through soaking, sprouting, and/or cooking.

All of these different diets are looking at the ratio of carbohydrates to the other macronutrients. Studies have shown that the range of carbohydrates in our diets is optimized for most people at 55-70% of total calories. I am very much of the view that each person is biochemically unique, and has different needs – but not that different. The range for the standard is pretty big, and is done so that 97.5% of people will find their optimum balance within it.

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You want to make sure you get the right proportion of carbohydrates (generally 55-70% of calories) to give you all the energy you need, while getting the right mix of protein and healthy fats, along with all the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants your body needs to thrive.

That’s exactly what I’ve set up in my meal plan program, to give you nutritionally-balanced vegan meals with the right ratio of carbs from foods that also give you all the vitamins and minerals you need.

What are your thoughts on carbohydrates? Let me know below if you have any questions!

Coming up next: How to plan meals and portions for YOUR energy and nutrient needs

We’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of nutrition. The next section will be about how to put it all together, planning meals and portion sizes to get the right mix for YOUR energy and nutrient needs.

It’ll be practical tips on what this all means in terms of what foods you should eat, and how much, to be nourished.

Not signed up for this series? Get in on it, over on the left.

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