Obesity is now an American "epidemic." It is an odd time in history, when more people are dying from too much food than from too little. Interestingly, the CDC study found that physical activity did not change substantially between 1991 and 1998 for the people involved, but their average calorie intake did-by over 200 calories. Thus, all fingers point to the American diet.
But what has changed in the last decade? Two things come to mind for me. The first is the popularity of processed foods; they are more readily available now than ever before, and the hectic pace of modern life causes many people to resort to them. In fact, the "Third Report on Nutritional Monitoring in the U.S." concluded that between 1980 and 1992 the amount of money spent per person in urban households doubled for frozen, prepared foods; spending on potato chips and other snack foods increased 60 percent; and spending on carbonated drinks rose 21 percent.
These convenience foods are recipes for obesity, usually containing large amounts of fat, sugar, and salt and insufficient amounts of fiber. While "convenience foods" save time in the kitchen, they may wind up stealing years from your life. Double this disaster with the efficiency of fast food restaurants to deliver all these fattening foods.
Second, fad diets have enjoyed renewed popularity. Proof that there were benefits to a low-fat diet spurred food manufacturers to produce a variety of processed, "fat-free" foods, which Americans gobbled up under the false impression that they were healthy. Unfortunately, these processed diet foods often contain other fat-producing ingredients, such as high quantities of sugar, vegetable oils, partially hydrogenated oils, and refined flour.
The low-fat diet I have always recommended is full of whole unprocessed foods-the foods in the outer aisles of the supermarket! In addition, many of today’s fad diets require calorie restriction and exotic, hard-to-prepare menus, making them nearly impossible to follow on a long-term basis. Thus, people end up going off of them and gaining more weight than they originally lost in the first place. They then try another fad diet, and the same thing happens, leading to a "yo-yo syndrome" of lost and gained pounds, as well as feelings of failure.
One of the most popular versions of the fad diet today is the high-protein diet. People who have failed to lose weight eating all the processed low-fat foods that have flooded the market areflocking to these diets, to the detriment of their health.
Read on to find out why these diets are so dangerous and how to stay thin the healthy way-by eating natural, unprocessed low-fat foods!
High-protein diets: Trading your health for temporary weight loss
I’m sure you all know somebody on a high-protein diet who’s lost 20 pounds in 30 days eating all the bacon, butter, and bleu cheese dressing she wants.
Yes, these diets are grabbing the attention of millions of people. And the reason they’re so popular is that you can temporarily lose large amounts of weight eating the high-fat foods Americans have learned to enjoy.
But there’s a hitch-something the authors of these diets won’t tell you about: You’re risking your health.
High-protein diets are wrong-by design
Our Creator designed us to run on carbohydrates. Glucose, one of thesimplest, most basic carbohydrates, is our primary fuel. It is more easily converted into energy than fat or protein, and, therefore, our bodies will always burn it first. In addition, it is the cleanest-burning fuel of the body, creating fewer byproducts than other nutrients. By our very design, the body needs carbohydrates to operate efficiently and provide ample energy. A testament to their importance is the fact that the brain tissues, red blood cells, and cells of the kidneys will only use glucose as fuel.
When you take the carbohydrates away, your body runs out of glucose and is forced to burn its secondary fuel-fat.
When your cells burn fat instead of glucose, byproducts known as ketones are produced. This creates a metabolic state called ketosis, which leads to a loss of appetite and a decrease in food intake, which results in weight loss. Ketosis also has a strong diuretic effect, resulting in significant water loss-and, again, weight loss. However, ketosis is also associated with fatigue, nausea, and low blood pressure.
Making yourself (literally) sick to lose weight
Ketosis occurs naturally when people are starving or seriously ill. During starvation, this metabolic state is a kindness from nature allowing the victim to suffer less from hunger pangs. During illness, the suppression of the appetite frees the person to rest and recuperate rather than be forced by hunger to get and prepare food. Because the most severely carbohydrate-restricted diets, called ketogenic diets, such as the Atkins diet and the Michael and Mary Eades’ Protein Power diet, simulate this metabolic state seen with serious illness, I refer to them as "the make-yourself-sick diets."
Imagine staying sick forever
In order to remain in ketosis, you must severely restrict carbohydrates. More than 80 calories of carbohydrate, which means one-third of a baked potato, one-third cup of rice, or one orange, could be enough to take you out of ketosis and cause you to become hungry again. In order to maintain weight loss, most people must remain in this state of sickness on a long-term basis.
Living with ketosis gets old fast for most people (which you’ll find completely understandable when you consider that it’s going against what our Creator intended we do in the first place-burn carbohydrates). They eventually go back to their old way of eating to feel better and to enjoy their diet more - only to regain their lost weight and then some. The fundamental truth is that your body just wasn’t designed to sustain this state of sickness for long - over time, it has detrimental effects.
Flirting with heart disease and cancer
Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets contain significant amounts of the very foods that the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association tell us contribute to our most common diseases. Yet proponents of the high-protein diets claim that they prevent those diseases. They claim they lower levels of insulin, high levels of which are associated with atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The diet may also reduce blood-cholesterol levels, blood-sugar levels, and triglycerides, because dieters eat much less as a result of the appetite suppression caused by ketosis. (Other high-protein diets-such as the Carbohydrate Addicts and the Zone diets-also may reduce these risk factors by restricting food intake.)
However, the fact that these diets lower a few individual risk factors does not mean they are healthy. Cancer chemotherapy will also lower your cholesterol level and triglycerides by causing a loss of appetite that results in less food consumption1. Yet no one would promote chemotherapy as a healthy weight-loss approach.
The truth is we know very little about the effects of these diets on risk factors for heart and other diseases, because the authors, to my knowledge, don’t study their results and publish them in scientific journals for others to evaluate. Nor-with one exception-has anyone one else taken an interest in doing so.
The exception to this is a 1980 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that examined the effects of the diet described in Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution on 24 subjects over a 12-week period2. Those participating in this study, both men and women, lost an average of about 15 pounds in eight weeks. However, their LDL "bad" cholesterol and free fatty acids increased significantly. (High levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with more coronary artery disease, and high levels of free fatty acids are believed to cause potentially dangerous irregular heartbeats3.) In addition, their HDL "good" cholesterol was significantly reduced, suggesting an increased risk of heart attacks.
Protein washes your bones into the toilet
Osteoporosis and kidney stones are also caused primarily by a diet rich in animal foods. Meats, seafood, fish, eggs, and cheese provide an abundance of acid that must be neutralized in order for the body to maintain its proper pH balance. The body uses its bones as a buffering system. This causes bone loss that eventually leads to osteoporosis4. The high-protein diet also alters the kidneys’ physiology, resulting in the loss of this bone material into the urinary system. During its passage through the ureters, calcium can solidify into kidney stones5.
Besides causing these long-term health problems, high-protein diets also cause immediate disorders, such as constipation, reduced mental function, bad breath, and dehydration.
Constipation will be a daily part of your life
If you do choose to try a high-protein diet, make sure you have plenty of laxatives on hand. High-protein diets cause constipation, because they are composed chiefly of foods (meat, fish, and cheese) that are completely free of dietary fiber, which is necessary for proper bowel function. Low-fiber diets are also believed to cause varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and a hiatal hernia.
Fiber, found only in plant foods (food high in carbohydrates), has many health-promoting qualities. It binds with carcinogens, fats, and cholesterol and eliminates them in the feces. By eliminating carcinogens, it reduces your risk of developing cancer, and by eliminating fat and cholesterol, it reduces your risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and obesity. Fiber also improves the efficiency of insulin, so that we need less of it to maintain appropriate blood-sugar levels.
Sharp as a tack? Not anymore.
Another immediate effect you may notice on a high-protein diet is reduced mental capacity. A recent study shows that mental functioning is impaired by ketosis. The study tested the ability of a group of people on a ketogenic diet to perform on a neuropsychological test that requires high levels of mental processing and flexibility. The researchers concluded that the high-protein diet impaired their mental function6.
Val Johnson of Lakeland, Florida said, "I stayed on the diet a week and a half, and it clouded my thinking. I made some big mistakes on the job, one of which cost me a considerable amount of money."
They drain your body of its most important element
Carbohydrate-deficient diets cause dehydration. In fact, this is the main reason that the initial weight loss for people on these diets is so rapid. When you consume insufficient amounts of carbohydrates, your body burns the carbohydrates (glycogen) you have stored in the liver and muscles. The average body stores 300 grams of glycogen, with 2.7 grams of water stored with each gram of glycogen. Thus, depletion of your body’s glycogen would result in an almost overnight weight loss of 8,110 grams (over 3 pounds) of water and glycogen. Once your body has depleted its glycogen stores, it starts burning its stored fat, creating ketones that have a strong diuretic effect on your kidneys, resulting in additional water loss.
Keith Ayoob, professor of nutrition at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, warns about the bad breath caused by the high-protein diets7. This unpleasant side effect is caused by the ketones produced when your body is forced to burn fat. These ketones are partly eliminated from your body via your breath. Although halitosis isn’t physically damaging to you, it could seriously damage your social or business life.
Is there anything good about these diets?
One thing I’ll agree with the authors of high-protein diets about is that refined carbohydrates do raise insulin levels, and, as a result, when combined with fat, they promote obesity. These diets recommend that you avoid sugar, white flour, milk, ice cream, cakes, pies, soft drinks, and low-fat-diet pro-ducts that contain large amounts of highly refined carbohydrates. I heartily agree!
Also, to their credit, many recommend a high intake of green and yellow vegetables, such as asparagus, cauliflower, and onions. But they fail the dieter by restricting healthy complex carbohydrates like rice, corn, beans, and potatoes and by recommending butter, eggs, meat and other very high-fat and/ or high-protein foods.
The truth: Complex carbohydrates are the secret to health and weight loss
Just look at the thin people around the world: The Japanese, for example, consume mainly rice and vegetables and obesity among them is almost unheard of. They also have very low rates of heart disease and of breast, colon, and prostate cancer and hold the world’s record for longevity. (However, now that McDonalds’ golden arches have begun to pop up all over Japan, these health statistics may soon be history!) Also, in the United States, many Seventh-day Adventists are strict vegetarians and, as a result, have lower incidences of obesity, heart disease, and colon cancer than the general population8.
A diet based on complex carbohydrates with the addition of fruits and vegetables will cause effortless, permanent weight loss without hunger, while promoting good health. You can eat delicious dishes like minestrone soup, chili, and bean burritos. You won’t ever have to make yourself sick again with fried cheese cubes wrapped in bacon. And it’s a program you can stick to-for the rest of your new, healthy, and long vital life!
© Agora South Inc. 2000
Dr. McDougall is the founder and medical director of the nationally renowned McDougall Program, a twelve-day, live-in plan at St. Helena Hospital in California’s Napa Valley. He is also the author of several bestselling books on diet and health, including "The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health." Visit Dr. McDougall’s website at www.drmcdougall.com or call 1-800-570-1654. To order a subscription to Dr. McDougall’s newsletter "To Your Health", please call 1-800-851-7100 or 410-783-8440.
1Biochem Int, vol. 24, p. 1015, 1991; 2JADA, vol. 77, p. 264, 1980; 3Lancet, vol. 343, p. 155, 1994; 4J Nutri, vol. 128, p. 1051, 1998; 5J Pediatr, vol. 117, p. 743, 1990; 6Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, vol. 19, p. 811, 1995; 7Time, vol. 154, no. 18, 1999; 8Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 48, p. 833, 1988; Cancer Res, vol. 35, p. 3513, 1975