We were recently asked about 3 trendy diets: the Paleolithic diet, the “Wheat Belly” or Gluten-Free diet, and the 4-Hour Body Diet. These three diets have one thing in common: the absence of carbohydrate foods. After taking brief looks at all three diets we have identified some problematic aspects to watch out for and we have combined the beneficial aspects of each diet into a general guideline to make following these trends a bit less confusing!
The Paleolithic Diet
This diet comes from a school of thought that our bodies were designed to eat only the whole foods that were available in these ancient times (and that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were healthier and happier than us modern folk). The nourishment in ancient times consisted of wild game, fish, wild fruits, nuts, and starchy tubers. Most notably, no food was processed or refined; the diet follows the common belief that modern agriculture and the processing of grains into breads and cereals is what makes us fat. Author Loren Cordain is a PhD but seems to be only a moderately credible source on nutrition and we were left unconvinced of any science behind the benefits of the Paleo Diet.
We appreciate this notion of eating simple whole foods, however we find the book’s ignorance of the importance of omega 3 fats and salt in the diet to be a concern. Cordain also lists diet soda in his meal plans and recommends cooking with flax oil, which is a big no-no, as this oils is very prone to oxidative damage when heated and can result in free radical activity in the body. The author’s claim of the vast health benefits from eating the way our ancestors did seems to ignore the fact that in ancient times the average lifespan was a lot lower, not allowing time for the development of diseases that slowly build in our bodies over decades, such as cancer and heart disease. Also, these times were often fraught with famine and malnutrition. We can not ignore that in our modern times we now face the problem of meat that is contaminated with hormones and antibiotics and fish that is contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants. Our bodies have adapted to many of the advancements in food and we can not ignore that we have access to a wider variety of healthy foods such as omega 3 eggs and vegetable oils.
The Gluten-Free or “Wheat Belly” Diet
This diet follows the belief that our society’s growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and disease is a direct result of our increased wheat consumption. The book is full of well researched facts compiled and written by author William Davis, MD. According to Davis, the average American now eats 133 pounds of wheat per year, 26 pounds more than in 1970 and wheat in the US is selectively bred to grow faster “high-yield dwarf strains” with “new gluten structures not previously consumed by humans.” These new genetic strains have resulted in thousands of new gluten protein molecules, without any animal or human safety testing.
Obesity and diabetes are the largest concerns expressed in the book, mostly due to wheat’s high glycemic index of 72, which causes spikes of blood sugar and insulin, which in turn trigger the growth of “visceral fat”, which accumulates in the liver, kidneys, pancreas, large and small intestines, heart, and the abdomen. Visceral fat in the abdomen is linked to “abnormal insulin responses, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.” Davis says, “the list of other health conditions triggered by visceral fat is growing and now includes dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon cancer. This is why waist circumference is proving to be a powerful predictor of all these conditions, as well as of mortality.” One criticism would be that Davis recommends eliminating other carbohydrate foods in addition to wheat, such as fruit, potatoes, rice, and even beans, which are excellent sources of fiber, protein, and one of the highest antioxidant-containing food. His diet plan seems slightly inconsistent with his research and the anti-wheat arguments that the book builds.
The 4-Hour Body or “Slow Carb” Diet
This diet appears to be the most concerning. Firstly, the book was written by Tim Ferriss, a 34-year old blogger and entrepreneur who also authored the book “the 4-Hour Work Week” and seems to have made a career out of selling products that tout aggressive exaggerations to grab attention and marketing them to niche audiences. Ferriss lacks any formal scientific, nutrition or medical training. The rules of this diet are pretty straightforward: avoid carbs. The Slow Carb diet involves eliminating white bread, white rice, potatoes, and other white carbs, whole grains, oats, dairy, all fruit, white wine, and beer. Red wine is allowed.
While we agree with avoiding “white carbs”, which typically contain little nutritional benefit, we consider eliminating fruit from the diet to be problematic long term, as fruit is an excellent source of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. Also, avoiding white wine yet consuming red wine is lacking in logic. Alcohol is alcohol and all forms of it are damaging to your body and your brain. If you want the antioxidants that red wine contains, you are better off drinking grape juice that does not contain alcohol. Another contradiction is the suggestion to consume cottage cheese but eliminate all other dairy. Ferris also restricts certain vegetables, which we view as dangerous given how many other food groups are eliminated on this diet.
Furthermore, Ferriss makes outlandish claims in his book. He suggests taking 6 20-minute naps daily instead of sleeping 8 hours. He claims to have the secret to a 15-minute long orgasm. He also claims that you can lose 28 pounds of fat in 30 days without doing any exercise. We consider most of these claims to lack in credit and common sense. “You can lose a lot of water weight or muscle mass quickly, but fat loss is a slow process and hard work,” says Barry Sears, PhD, president of Zone Labs Inc. and the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Mass.
Our Conclusion: Don’t Avoid Carbs. Avoid Animal Fat, Alcohol, and Processed Foods.
It appears that if you combined the main arguments of the Paleo, Wheat Belly, and 4-Hour Body diet you would arrive at the following conclusion: eliminate unhealthy ingredients such as bad fats, high glycemic foods, sugar, wheat, processed foods, and alcohol. We definitely caution against a strict “low carb” diet, as these tend to be high in dangerous animal fats and we love the health benefits of carbohydrate-rich whole foods such as fruit, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and whole grain pastas cooked al-dente. These foods are high in valuable fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein and should not be excluded from the diet. For both weight loss and disease prevention, focus on eliminating highly refined, high-glycemic foods that cause bursts of energy, depletion, followed by hunger. Check out the GI Database to get an idea of high and low glycemic foods. Eat as many fruits, vegetables, and essential fatty acids (EFA’s) as possible.
It is convenient to think that following the rules of a diet will help us lose weight, however most diets are so complicated and restrictive that it is only possible to follow them for a few days before giving up. There is conflicting information with most diets out there, so as opposed to following one trend, we prefer the more simple approach of just avoiding three harmful things: animal fats, alcohol, and processed foods.
Harmful saturated fat comes from animal sources so it is easy to remember what to avoid – dairy and meat. Meat, particularly darker meats such as beef, chicken wings, and duck contains high amounts of saturated fat that accumulate in the blood vessels and increase bad cholesterol, putting us at risk of heart disease and death. It is also well documented that cooked meat contains carcinogenic compounds such as HCAs (heterocyclic amines), nitrosamines, and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). If giving up meat all together, make sure to consume protein sources that contain the full range of amino acids (such as quinoa).
Alcohol should be avoided for health and weight loss purposes. Alcohol depletes the body of vitamins and minerals, causing food and sodium cravings, and there are many calories in alcoholic beverages, which are digested as sugar and stored as fat. Alcohol interferes with melatonin production, the important sleep hormone that plays a crucial role in metabolism, cell repair, anti-aging, and cancer prevention. Research shows that alcohol interferes with glucose metabolism and certain hormones that are needed to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.
Alcohol has the greatest impact on those who drink heavily on a frequent basis but alcohol can also negatively impact blood sugar levels each time that it is consumed, regardless of the frequency of consumption, in amounts as little as two ounces. Excessive alcohol consumption can decrease insulin’s effectiveness, resulting in high blood sugar levels. One study has shown that 45% to 70% of people with alcoholic liver disease had either glucose intolerance or diabetes. On a recent list of top 20 most dangerous drugs, the British government’s advisory committee ranked alcohol fifth, before the class C drug ketamine which ranked sixth, amphetamine or “speed” which ranked eighth, and tobacco which was in ninth place.
This includes all boxed, prepared, canned foods in addition to sugar and wheat. This is not to be confused with the elimination of carbohydrates all together. In his book “Eating Well for Optimum Health”, Dr. Andrew Weil explains that the development of agriculture into grain foods like bread and pasta is not the problem, it is the drastic lowering of the quality of carbohydrate foods as a result of modern technology – into ingredients such as white flour that is rampant in our breads, muffins, pizza crusts, crackers, and cookies and corn syrup, a sweetener cheaper than sugar (therefor loved by manufacturers who add it in mass quantities into juices, sodas, salad dressing, jam, ice cream, and many other foods). High fructose corn syrup is particularly problematic because the body does not handle large amounts of fructose well. These foods trigger bursts of high blood sugar and corresponding insulin secretion. As William Davis, MD explains in “The Wheat Belly Diet”, even the quality of our whole wheat products is problematic due to the questionable digestibility of new gluten structures and the over-consumption of wheat in general.
We understand that adopting a completely wheat-free (or “gluten-free”) diet would be extremely difficult for the average individual. The most important processed foods to avoid are anything containing white flour and/or corn syrup, which spike blood sugar and insulin levels and harm the pancreas. Packaged foods are also sources of dangerous “trans fats.” Avoid any ingredient labelled as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Even if the label says “0 trans fats per serving”, there could still be 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving since nutrient contents are rounded down and manufacturers love to list small serving sizes.
What to eat?
Low carb diets imply an increase in other food groups: protein and fat. Increased fat intake is particularly a concern if it’s an increase in saturated fats for the reasons outlined above, and excess protein can work against weight-management efforts. A recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, concluded that with regard to the amounts of weight lost, the subjects who ate a higher-protein, lower-carb diet did not fare any better than those on a standard-protein, higher-carb diet. Other studies show that most people consume more protein than their bodies need. The daily recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams for every kilogram of body weight (an adult male weighing 220 pounds should not exceed 80 grams of protein daily). Dr. Weil recommends aiming for a diet that is 30% protein, 20-30% fat, the rest carbohydrates.
We like lean protein sources such as fish, eggs, tempeh, and quinoa. Coldwater fish (salmon, sardines, mackeral, herring) are recommended as they are high in essential fatty acids. Consume only organic hormone-free animal products and only grass-fed beef products of the leanest variety. For adding to shakes and other foods, choose a whey protein isolate powder which is recommended as a protein source by renowned naturalpath Dr. John Matsen. We like Bluebonnet’s 100% Natural Whey Protein Isolate.
Healthy fats are a great source of energy and often result in feeling more satiated when consumed compared to other food groups. Healthy fats come from seeds, nuts, and plant-based oils, which are sources of omega 3 fatty acids and help boost the nutrient value of fruits and vegetables they are consumed with. Omega 3 fatty acids are critical for cardiovascular, neurological, and mental health; they supply DHA, the main structural component of cell membranes in the brain.
We like to get our healthy fat from flax oil, walnuts, walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil, avocado, chia and extra virgin olive oil. When buying plant-based oils, buy small amounts and use them when they are as fresh as possible, do not allow them to go rancid and oxidized. Avoid polyunsaturated veggie oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, soy) but these are less commonly consumed so not a huge concern. Never heat oil to point of smoking, never breathe smoke of heated oil or fat, it is highly toxic.
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients required for energy and human brain function but are often treated as the enemy when it comes to dieting and weight loss because of their relation to insulin and the storage of glucose as fat. After we consume carbohydrate foods, insulin is secreted by the pancreas, which manages the influx of glucose into the bloodstream. Insulin also encourages the body to store calories as fat, promotes arterial damage, and may accelerate tumor growth. Frequent insulin production by the pancreas has caused decrease sensitivity to the hormone in some people (“insulin resistance”, a condition where fewer insulin receptors are made which can lead to obesity, difficulty losing weight, abnormal blood fat, high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased cardiovascular risks such as heart attack and stroke). While we understand why these diets recommend low-carbohydrate intake to lose weight and optimize health, we do not agree with eliminating carbohydrates from the diet.
To avoid the effects of high blood sugar and insulin try consuming only carbohydrate foods that provide more slow and sustained energy. These foods have been categorized on a scale called the “glycemic index” (GI) which measures the effects foods have on blood glucose levels. On this scale, glucose represents a value of 100 with all other carbohydrates falling below 100. A GI food below 55 is considered to have a low glycemic index, 55-70 is considered intermediate, and above 70 indicates a high glycemic food. Check out this GI Database for lists of low glycemic foods as well as a search tool to measure GI of a given food. There are ways to lower the glycemic effect of foods. The presence of fiber and fat (healthy fats!) can create a barrier around foods, restricting access to the starch within. Beans and oats for example digest more slowly due to their soluble fiber content. In addition to omega 3 fats and other healthy plant fats such as olive oil, adding acids such as lemon juice and apple cider vinegar can also slow down stomach emptying and therefor digestion.
We must acknowledge the difference between whole food forms of carbs (fruit, potatoes, brown rice, quinoa) and processed forms (bread, pasta, cookies, candies, soda, and other packaged foods). It is the latter that are problematic. The former, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables should be eaten in abundance for their fiber and vitamin content (both essential for preventing disease and obesity). We love high nutrient root vegetables such as sweet potato and beets, in addition to anti-cancer greens such as kale and broccoli. We recommend against the low-carb rules of eliminating healthy whole grains such as quinoa and legumes such as beans and lentils. For sweets we love home-made sugar-free apple sauce, organic dried mango (no sugar or sulphur added) and dark chocolate, which is recommended by Dr. Weil for its health benefits.
The three diets we reviewed present strategies for weight loss and optimal health by completely restricting carbohydrate foods, which we find counterproductive to weight loss and good health because of the associated lack of fiber, vitamins, and minerals contained in whole food forms of carbs. Restricting an entire food group is not a balanced diet and would prove to be an extreme challenge for the average individual to sustain over the long-term, likely resulting in only temporary weight loss and possibly binge eating on “cheat days” and so forth. Our recommendation is to eat a balanced diet and eliminate only the foods that are most likely to cause weight gain and other health complications, which we outlined above.
Today, in order to find whole grain and minimally processed foods we need to look in specialty food stores and often in the health sections. It takes a lot of time and effort to read ingredient labels on foods, cook at home, and healthier options are also expensive. Cooking at home as often as possible is certainly the only way to ensure no harmful ingredients sneak into your meals. We like buying grains such as quinoa and lentils in bulk and sweet potatoes by the bag, which can be found at Whole Foods, along with a variety of other organic bulk foods and hormone-free, grass-fed meats. We also feel that with most things in life, it might be worth adopting the 80/20 rule of following your diet 80% of the time. Diets should never be so restrictive that they interfere with the quality of life instead of enhancing it.