Diet trends come in waves. When I was younger, the biggest enemy was fat. Diet products were almost uniformly low-fat or fat-free, to the extent that many candy wrappers bragged that the sugar bomb contained within was a fat free food. Because 300 calories of processed sugar and artificial flavors are totally harmless so long as there’s no fat, right?
While the low-fat craze will always persist on some level, the low-carb and even no-carb trend has been dominating the diet industry for many years now. We’ve all heard of Dr. Atkins and his magical diet, on which you can eat all the bacon, pepperoni, and sausage you want, but shame on you if you eat a bowl of brown rice. Spoiler alert: These diets cause you to lose weight very quickly for a few weeks due to an unhealthy (for most people) process called ketosis. Eventually you plateau, and then you gain it all back and then some, and your arteries clog from all the processed meat and you have an increased risk of heart disease. Dr. Atkins himself died of a heart attack after years of following his own diet. I can’t make this shit up.
Lots of diets have sprung up to replace Atkins as the low-carb diet du jour. The Zone Diet, the South Beach Diet, the current Paleo trend — these are all variants of the same low-carb philosophy. Although there are significant differences between these diets, their common thread is a general disregard for certain carbohydrate sources, some of which are unquestionably healthy and essential to our health.
Here’s the deal: not all carbs are equal — just as not all fats are equal and not all proteins are equal. There is huge diversity within each macronutrient category; to eliminate fat, protein, or carbohydrates from your diet completely is a surefire way to plunge yourself into nutritional deficiency and illness.
Carbohydrate sources range from black beans to refined sugar, fresh fruit to microwave popcorn. Often the most processed carbs are also rich in processed fats; while munching on something you might think of as a corn or wheat product, you may also be ingesting a few grams of partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fat). Much of the time carbohydrates receive the blame for the negative impacts of junk food, but all those chips, candy bars, and crackers simply wouldn’t tantalize our taste buds without all the added fat.
Example: Wheat Thins crackers have wheat right there in the name, and the box brags about how a single serving contains a whopping FIVE GRAMS of whole grains. First of all, really? Five grams? When I want to get my fiber on, I’m looking for way more than five grams of whole grains. That’s bush league, Nabisco. Bush. League. Second, a single serving of Wheat Thins contains five grams of fat. A gram of fat contains nine calories, so it follows that a serving of Wheat Thins contains 45 calories from fat — which is 32% of a single serving’s 140 calories. Wheat Thins are not a whole grain food. Wheat Thins are a fatty food, and the fats are processed and damaged.
The culprit here isn’t the original carbohydrate or fat, it’s the PROCESS. The wheat and corn in junk food is so far from its original, whole form by the time it’s boxed that it would be foolish to lay blame on the plant itself. Same deal with the fat. Those oils came from plants, but the methods used to create the oils render natural, healthy fats damaged and devoid of nutritional value.
Check out a legitimate whole grain product next time you’re at the store. Quinoa, brown rice, etc. Take your pick. Look at the nutritional data and you’ll notice something peculiar: these products all contain a significant amount of protein and even a little bit of healthy fat. These macronutrients are found naturally in whole grains, along with a host of micronutrients like potassium and iron. When you subject whole grains to excessive processing, these nutrients are stripped away and all you’re left with is refined carbohydrate that’s not terribly different from white sugar.
Since the beginning of July 2012, my diet has been roughly 65% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 15% protein. Nearly all of my carbohydrate intake has come from fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Of course, I’ve made room for some processed carbs in my life. For the most part though, I’ve been emphasizing carbs that come from plants in their most natural and unaltered form.
By Zone Diet or Paleo standards, my diet is way too high in carbohydrate and I couldn’t possibly succeed in my weight loss goals. To date, I’ve lost nearly 70 pounds by emphasizing naturally carbohydrate-rich, high fiber foods. I’ve lowered my blood pressure enough that I’ve been able to kick my medication. I’ve overcome my previous battles with insomnia and I regularly get a full night’s sleep. I’ve become more energetic and motivated to reach new levels of fitness. The proof, as they say, is in the chia pudding.
I should mention that I have extensive experience with low-carb diets. I bought into the Atkins craze in the early 2000s and created my own variant called Mattkins (get it?). Basically, I allowed myself one serving of whole grains per day, usually in the form of whole wheat bread. Otherwise, I followed the Atkins program as directed by the good doctor himself. This was just one of the many times I lost 30 pounds, only to gain it back over the following six months or so. I also went on something like a Paleo diet during my sophomore year of college. For three months I ate nothing but meat, salad vegetables, and nuts. The only processed food I allowed myself was an occasional after-dinner pickle and a light sprinkle of grated parmesan on my salads. I lost 50 pounds, and it was totally awesome until I started having dizzy spells and nausea on a daily basis. It took a couple years to put the weight back on — and then some, because I ended up 40 pounds heavier than when I’d started.