Not everyone has good intentions.
It’s great when a conversation at the dojo can end up being a blog post. Lately I have been having a difficult time coming up with ideas on topics I can cover for my blog. Fortunately, a conversation I had Saturday will be developing into this post.
For some reason, proper nutrition is a landscape of mines of misinformation. The reasons can be money based; new or controversial information can sell books, get you booked onto TV shows and can make people a lot of money. Ok, I’m going to stop there because I think that is the most common reason and I would say 2nd is people actually wanting to educate people.
This post I’m going to go into the aspects of a high protein, low carb diet.
What is it
Let’s start be explaining what is considered a high protein/low carb diet. A high protein diet can be considered as having anywhere from 30% to 50% of your caloric intake to be comprised of protein. It’s hard to find a firm definition of the percentage, but we also need to keep in mind our lifestyle and that not everyone is the same. The amount of protein needed by someone who is sedentary, elderly will be different than someone who is very active. You could also break down an active lifestyle to how much of that activity is carrying out resistance training (the need to repair and build muscle). If we look at it on a granular level, you can’t take a one size fits all approach.
On to carbs. First, let’s break down carbs into their 2 categories; simple and complex. Hopefully we know that we should avoid simple carbs. Things like sugar, starch, high fructose corn syrup. Simple carbs do have their place in things such as sports drinks if really needed to replenish glycogen stores but should be avoided as a part of your daily diet.
So what constitutes a low carb diet. According to the Institute of Medicine, the organization that sets the recommended daily intake of nutrients, we should be consuming about 130 grams of carbs daily. Most of us exceed this due to eating primarily prepared foods and also if you look at most snacks that are consumed, they are high in carbs.
Now, if we look at a low carb diet, a diet that will make our body go into ketosis (in a nut shell this is the goal of a low carb diet. It is done so your body will use fat for energy), you will need to consume less than 50 grams a day. That is almost a 2/3 less than the recommended amount. But again we are all different. Sedentary, active, elderly, young, etc.
Exercise and nutrition
I want to be sure to cover off the bioenergetic concepts of how our body produces fuel to feed our energy needs. These needs are determined by our level of exertion from doing nothing to all out full on exercising. Based on the level of exertion our bodies use different sources for energy:
- Low level of exertion – with this level of activity our body is primarily using fat as the energy source.
- Mid to low – this level we are now utilizing blood glucose and muscle glycogen.
- High – Again we are using blood glucose and glycogen.
*Note – Fuel for any of these these exertion levels is not exclusive. All of them use fat, and glucose in some ratio.
Notice that none of these exertion levels uses protein as the fuel source. So how do we replenish blood glucose and muscle glycogen? Ideally carbs. And what if we are not adequately consuming carbs? The body will adapt, right? Yes, it will. And here is how it adapts. The body will take the easiest route to get it’s glucose and that easy route is to convert muscle into glucose by a process known as gluconeogenesis. Muscle is broken down into amino acids and then sent to the liver to be processed.
Yes, this happens in extreme cases caused from being very sick, severely malnourished, or not consuming enough calories. And not consuming the required foods are body needs to maintain the balance between fuel consumption and fuel stores.
This really made sense to me when I delved into bioenergetic concepts. I may be over simplifying it but I like the analogy of a sports car. Use the wrong fuel in that sports car and it won’t perform well but also over time the engine will become damaged. Use the correct fuel and the car performs much better and the engine should last longer.
What is the driver behind people switching to a low carb/high protein diet? The promise you will lose fat. And I get it! I understand why people want to lose fat. Got to look good, got to be slim, but not too slim, got to have those chiseled abs, the six pack. Images and definitions on how we should be primarily perpetuated by the media in many forms. So strong is this message that people will do anything to achieve that ‘ideal’ body sometimes to the point it kills them. How powerful is that. It’s scary.
Having said that lets take a look at the negatives of this type of diet:
- Fatigue – Research has shown that muscle fatigue increases in almost direct proportion to the rate of depletion of muscle glycogen. It can be hard enough to get the energy due to lack of sleep but this would just add to it.
- Muscle loss – Glycogen is the fuel of choice for muscles. Without this fuel muscles contract less
- Lower metabolic rate – with that loss of muscle comes a lower metabolic rate. This means overall your body will be using less calories than before, even at rest. The more amount of muscle we have the higher the caloric requirements just to maintain that amount of muscle.
- Missing nutrients – Giving up fruit, legumes, whole grain, and other complex carbs deprive you of all the nutritional benefits from eating these foods. Your fiber intake will also drop which can have long term negative effects on your body. You are also depriving your body of antioxidants and phytonutrients.
- Difficult to maintain – It’s not easy to maintain this diet because our body wants carbs. For a good reason!
- Damaging – Carbs make us feel good. Studies have shown that eating carbs increases the release of serotonin, the feel good hormone. Depriving our body of this could end up stressing us out, causing an increase in the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone which is OK when we either fight or we flight. But when cortisol is released and we don’t do anything about what caused it we can cause damage to our body over the long term.
- Bad breath – Due to the production of acetones due to the body being in ketosis.
- Dangerous to our body – I’m saving the big one for last. When on a strict low carb diet our body goes into ketosis. This is the intended goal. The plan is to put the body into ketosis so it will burn fat for the body’s fuel needs. Here are some potential side effects of having the body in ketosis:
- Increased risk for kidney damage
- Increased risk for osteoporosis
- Abnormal heart beat
- And even sudden death
- Data – As of yet, there isn’t a long term study on the effects of following a ketogenic diet. But, we do have long time studies of people on high carb, low fat, low protein diet. Just look at various countries in Asia, the rice eaters, the sweet potato eaters. People living with less disease and obesity. One of the longest living people are the Okinawan’s, some living past 100.
Let’s be healthy and smart about our choices. Instead of focusing on losing fat let’s focus on being healthy. Eat healthy, exercise regularly and let this get you to where you want to be. And it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing approach. Let yourself enjoy the things in life. Nothing wrong with having dessert once in a while or whatever your choice is. If the majority of your eating is comprised of healthy foods than your doing alright.
Lastly know what it is you are doing. I think we all have this ideal on what we are doing but when you actually take the time to analyze and measure what it is you are eating you tend to find out that you were off the mark.
Be healthy. Don’t fatten the wallet of someone trying to cash in on a diet trend. Not everyone has good intentions.
Yours in health,
*Note: I am a certified personal trainer with an interest in nutrition. Before making any changes to your diet please consult your physician.