Low carbing, the latest diet craze of the new millennium, has certainly swept America. With nearly two-thirds of all Americans overweight and increasingly dire warnings from every medical expert who can get on CNN, we Americans are finally beginning to pay closer attention to what we eat.
More than half of all Americans have tried a low carb diet. The most popular, Atkins, South Beach and The Zone, have inspired millions and have also helped people to lose weight. Unfortunately, for many of these people the weight loss is temporary. Americans seem to be quicker on the uptake about the problems related to low carb diets than they were about the hazards of the low fat diet. There are several excellent scientific reasons why low carb diets will help you lose weight, but they won't help you keep it off and they can harm your health in the long-term.
Before your brain shuts down and you say to yourself, "I've heard this before and it's all bunk," take a few minutes to consider the following: The simplest reason why low-carb diets don't work in the long run is that they're like every other diet. They can get boring after a while. After some time, people get tired of them and quit the diet. Unfortunately, after they fall off the diet, former Atkins followers are likely to start eating lots of carbs, yet they keep eating the high levels of protein they've become accustomed to. When they add the buns and fries to those bacon double cheeseburgers, you know what happens: rapid re-gain of weight.
Many doctors are reporting increasing instances of this startling phenomenon. "It seems like they start bingeing on both protein and carbs, perhaps in response to some primal need to fuel their bodies," one colleague told me. I think my colleague was right on the mark. There's also a complex physiological chain of events that is triggered when someone begins an extreme low-carbohydrate diet, like the Atkins diet.
In the induction phase of this diet when fewer than 20 grams of carbohydrates are consumed per day, the body is forced to use stored carbohydrates (known as glycogen) as fuel. This glycogen is located mainly in the liver and the muscles. When those stored carbs have been used up, the body enters a starvation mode called ketosis, in which protein instead of carbs, is used for energy. Ketosis causes loss of muscle mass. Since metabolism, the rate at which calories are burned, is directly related to the amount of muscle mass, in simple terms the more muscle mass you have, the more efficiently your body burns calories. So with an extreme low carbohydrate diet, as you lose weight, your body burns calories more slowly and weight loss slows.
In addition, an ancient self-preservation mechanism sets in and in response to your body's perceived semi-starvation, is does every thing it can to conserve its use of calories, primarily by slowing metabolism even further. Returning to eating carbohydrates, even in modest amounts of 100 to 150 grams a day, will cause weight re-gain because the slowed metabolism can't handle the incoming calories, so, like all excess calories, they're stored as fat.
But the fact is, carbs are essential for energy. High quality carbohydrates, like whole grains, legumes and fruits and vegetables, have been part of the human diet since the beginning of time. They give us a feeling of satisfaction and fullness, probably because they are linked to increased levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Eating complex carbs is also intertwined with hormonal function in women, which is probably why low carb diets are much harder on women's bodies and less successful for them in the long term.
So how do you eat your healthy carbs without gaining weight? Phase 2, a starch neutralizer extracted from white kidney beans, has been proven in clinical trials to block the absorption of carbohydrates. This is accomplished by Phase 2's unique ability to inhibit amylase, the enzyme that digests complex carbohydrates. In simple terms, what this means is that about 66% of the complex carbohydrates you eat passes harmlessly through your digestive tract. These carbohydrates are not broken down into simple sugars and they actually act as a quasi-dietary fiber as they pass through the digestive tract, providing all the benefits of fiber. Phase 2 will soon be available in specially formulated breads and other bakery products. In my experience, it's a sensible means of cutting the calories from complex carbohydrates without the risk of the serious long-term consequences of extreme low carb diets.
Steven Rosenblatt, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician with additional degrees in psychology and oriental medicine. Board certified in Family Practice, he is a leading authority on complementary medicine and has served as director of the complementary medicine program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.