Luther Vandross knows a thing or two about rhythm and blues, having won the Grammy award for that category five times. The singer also knows something about dieting, since he admits to having a lifelong weight problem. Vandross has lost 100 pounds off his 6’3′ frame no less than 13 times, confirming the adage that it’s easier to lose fat than keep it off. But his most recent effort at weight loss has proved the most successful. ‘I’ve never been more healthy than I am now,’ he says. ‘I wish I was this healthy when I was 25.’
So what’s his secret? In 1998 Vandross weighed almost 340 pounds. He had high blood pressure and diabetes and an admitted addiction to food. He decided to try a diet that arouses more controversy than any other: low carbohydrate, high protein. It worked. The corpulent crooner dropped 120 pounds of melodious but malevolent bodyfat. He cut out all starches’no rice, pasta or potatoes were allowed.
Vandross has kept his weight off for four years following the low-carb plan. His waist went from 52 down to a svelte 34. He looks undeniably better, and he feels better too. By dropping his excess weight, Vandross may also have avoided the inevitable consequences of carrying too much fat for too long, such as cardiovascular disease and full-blown diabetes.
Despite his success, many so-called nutrition experts decry Vandross’ dieting methods. The high-protein, low-carb diet continues to arouse the ire of mainstream medical professionals, who ascribe a litany of evils to it, but a closer look at the critiques exposes them as nothing more than another type of protein: red herring.
The Case Against Low Carbs
Most critics of low-carb diets declare that it’s not carbs that make you fat, but rather a combination of too many calories and too little exercise. While no one doubts that reducing calories is the cornerstone of any weight-loss plan, other aspects of dieting, such as appetite control and hormonal mechanisms, are often overlooked. All diets in the low-carb category, despite the plethora of names, focus on insulin control.
Insulin is primarily a storage hormone. Secreted by the beta cells of the pancreas after a meal, it helps ferry sugars into cells, which is its best-known function. Many bodybuilders are familiar with insulin’s anabolic effects, which involve aiding amino acid uptake into muscle and decreasing muscle catabolism, or breakdown. Insulin’s dark side is that it’s the body’s most potent lipogenic, or fat-synthesizing, hormone.
Insulin itself doesn’t synthesize fat but promotes every mechanism in the body that does, such as upgraded fat-cell enzyme activity. Insulin also impedes processes that mobilize bodyfat. In effect, when the body is secreting insulin, somewhere it’s synthesizing fat. The basic tenet of low-carb diets is to control insulin release by limiting the intake of the macronutrient that promotes the greatest release of insulin: carbohydrates.
Low-carb critics say that without excess calories, insulin itself won’t make you fat. That’s true for about 25 percent of people, but the other 75 percent tend to oversecrete insulin after a meal. That effect, known as hyperinsulinemia, is most often associated with excess bodyfat, leading to a chicken-and-egg theory about whether the excess insulin or the fat caused insulin insensitivity. Some comparatively lean people may also excrete excess insulin, particularly if they are genetically predisposed to diabetes. Recent in vitro, or isolated-cell, studies show that when fat cells are exposed to insulin alone, nothing happens. But add some simple sugar to the mix, and the fat-synthesizing machinery of the cell revs into turbo mode. That doesn’t occur with protein or fat, only carbs.
Another clue to carb power involves recent surveys showing that Americans are fatter than ever, despite the continuing emphasis on lowfat foods. Low-carb-diet critics often note that fat, at 9.3 calories per gram, is about 2 1/2 times more calorically dense than carbs. That’s true, but it’s a mistake to think that they can eat lowfat snacks and foods with impunity because such foods simply substitute carbs for fat. It’s simple physics: Eat too much of anything and you’ll get fat.
Another frequently voiced charge against low-carb diets involves ketosis. A lack of carbs leads to an increased mobilization of fat for energy purposes, which means your body switches from being a sugar-burning machine to a fat-burner. But even when you use more fat as an energy source, you don’t burn it completely. Instead there’s an increase of by-products called ketones, which are metabolic acids. The good news about ketones is that they may help blunt appetite, a definite asset for dieting purposes. They also have a protein-sparing effect, helping you maintain muscle mass while losing fat, and they can be used as an alternative source of energy for muscle and other tissues.
Self-styled nutrition experts obfuscate the ketone issue by stressing side effects of increased ketones under pathological conditions, including the uncontrolled acidosis linked to poorly treated diabetes or the increased ketosis associated with extended fasting or starvation’neither of which apply to low-carb diets. In fact, most pregnant women show the kind of ketosis levels linked to low-carb diets, with no harm to either the mother or developing baby.
The one truth about low-carb ketosis is that it is involved in raising acid levels of the blood, but the problems that creates can be easily dealt with (more on that later). The point here is that for most low-carb dieters the worst thing about the mild ketosis they may experience is a type of acetone breath caused by expelled ketones.
Low-carb diets are considered bad because they are high in protein. Some experts who are apparently ignorant of recent research are not aware that protein itself is a potent appetite suppressant. Other studies show that the alleged bad effects of a higher protein intake, such as calcium loss and kidney disease, don’t apply to healthy people.
In fact, a high-protein intake is one of the ‘secrets’ of the low-carb diet’s effectiveness. Whether you reduce calories or carbs, you must increase protein, or you could catabolize your own body protein stores, which will come mainly from muscle. As you lose muscle, your resting metabolic rate will decrease, which explains the frequent failures of diets that count only calories. If you don’t take in enough protein, you lose muscle, your resting metabolism drops, and the weight comes back faster than you can say Oprah Winfrey.
During a low-carb diet as much as 57 percent of the excess protein you eat is converted in the liver into glucose, a process called gluconeogenesis. That’s important because your brain and central nervous system function better using glucose as fuel, though in a pinch they can use such fuels as lactate and ketones. Low-carb critics never mention the gluconeogenesis effect.
The critics also like to point out that initial weight loss on low carbs is mainly water. As you limit carb intake, the body breaks down carbs stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Each gram of glycogen is stored with 2.7 grams of water, so when glycogen is broken down into glucose, the water stored with the glycogen is released and excreted.
But research has documented that when diets have the same number of total calories but different carb contents, the lower-carb diets most often lead to more bodyfat losses and less muscle loss. So it isn’t only water, as the anti-low-carb groups like to say.
A little-known fact never mentioned by those who consider low-carb dieting dangerous and ineffective is that there is no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. How can that be? Gluconeogenesis, cited above, converts such nutrients as amino acids, lactate and even glycerol, which accounts for 10 percent of the triglyceride (fat) structure, into the glucose it makes. What the body does need, however, are the other nutritional factors found mainly in higher-carb foods, including fiber and various phytochemicals associated with preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer, the primary killers. As you’ll shortly see, however, you can deal with that potentially serious drawback of low-carb dieting.
Can you live without carbs? Bodybuilders who’ve been on zero-carb diets usually live to tell about it. While it’s true that stringent carb control is most often a temporary eating plan, such as for precontest fat loss, some people have stayed on nearly zero-carb diets for years with no apparent harm.
One example is the Inuit, or Eskimo, people. Since carb staples like fruit and vegetables aren’t readily available in the Arctic tundra, the Inuits subsist mainly on protein and fat. A famous Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, tried the Inuit diet of meat and fish, finding he felt ill only when he cooked the fish to make it more palatable. Later, he and a colleague traveled north and dined with the Inuits, following their limited and so-called dangerous diet for nearly five years, with neither man suffering any ill effects at all.
In 1928, in an effort to convince the medical community of the lack of problems associated with Inuit cuisine, Stefansson admitted himself to Bellevue Hospital in New York for a year of observation, which involved an extended study of the long-term metabolic effects of low-carb eating. At the end of the study, Steffansson was not only healthy but showed a decline in blood cholesterol levels, despite having derived 80 percent of his daily calories from fat.
Most recent studies that have monitored popular low-carb diets have likewise shown effects considered to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. That’s true despite the stern warnings from low-carb critics that the higher-fat intake inevitably leads to cardiovascular complications.
In a study presented at the 2002 meeting of the scientific session of the American Heart Association (AHA), Dr. Eric Westman of Duke University compared a low-carb diet to the Step-1 lowfat diet suggested by the AHA. Those on the low-carb diet ate a mere 20 grams of carbs daily, with 60 percent of total calories derived from fat. They lost 31 pounds, while the subjects on the AHA lowfat plan lost 20 pounds. The low-carb group also showed an 11 percent rise in protective HDL cholesterol, with a 49 percent drop in blood triglycerides. Those following the lowfat diet showed no change in HDL and a 22 percent drop in triglycerides. Those results concurred with an earlier six-month study conducted by Dr. Westman.1
In another study presented at the same meeting, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Cincinnati showed that after six months of following either a lowfat or low-carb diet, only those in the low-carb group showed reductions in C-reactive protein, a blood marker of inflammation that is more important in predicting cardiovascular disease than cholesterol levels.
Another study found that a group of men on a diet containing only 8 percent carbs also showed several beneficial cardiovascular changes, including a 34 percent drop in resting insulin levels and a change in their LDL cholesterol.2 In another study using the same subjects, 70 percent of the weight loss during the diet was linked to the lower insulin levels.3 That study also showed no bad effects on any hormones, including growth hormone and testosterone. Nor was thyroid function affected. Most impressive, however, was the finding that the weight loss consisted entirely of fat, while subjects also had an increase in muscle mass.
The researchers suggest that the elevated ketones that occurred during the diet may have helped to spare muscle, though they don’t rule out other possible explanations, such as greater growth hormone activity. That’s a plausible theory, since excess carbs always blunt GH secretion.
Still another study found that when people with hyperinsulinemia went on either a high-carb or a low-carb diet for four weeks, those on the low-carb diet lost more bodyfat.4 So if you do secrete excess insulin with a meal, like most people with excess bodyfat, insulin control does make a difference.
Dealing With Low-carb Problems
Although low-carb dieting is an effective way to lose excess bodyfat while maintaining muscle, it poses several potentially serious problems. As noted earlier, a combination of restricted carb intake and increased protein tends to shift the body toward a higher acidity state. The increased acidity, in turn, may cause the body to lose calcium and present kidney problems.
One possible remedy is potassium carbonate. While sodium carbonate, better known as baking soda, is more available, it contains too much sodium. Studies have shown that potassium bicarb neutralizes much of the increased acid that results from low-carb dieting and helps to preserve lean tissue.
Another, far simpler way to offset increased acidity involves eating alkaline foods; however, most of those foods are fruits and vegetables. While you must be judicious with fruit during ultralow-carb periods, in which you get fewer than 20 grams of carbs daily, you don’t need to go that low for efficient fat loss. So it’s a good idea to eat some low-glycemic-index fruits and vegetables.
Besides combating the increased acidity resulting from low-carb, higher-protein intake, fruits and veggies also provide essential nutrients. Low-carb diets provide a diuretic action, resulting in a considerable loss of sodium and water. But minerals like potassium are lost as well, which can lead to muscle cramps and weakness. You can take supplemental potassium, but in tablet form it’s highly irritating to the gastrointestinal tract. Fruits and veggies are a far better source. Another option is using salt substitutes containing potassium chloride.
Fruits and veggies also contain a cornucopia of substances called phytochemicals, numbering in the hundreds, which provide potent protection against most degenerative diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Most are not yet available in supplement form, which, I believe, is the primary problem with typical low-carb diets. Fruits and veggies will also supply the required fiber often missing from such eating plans. Lack of fiber causes problems ranging from constipation to hemorrhoid flare-ups. You can, however, get fiber from unprocessed wheat bran and various soluble-fiber supplements. In fact, you’re advised to take several supplements during low-carb diets, including a multivitamin rich in antioxidants and vitamins C, E and others. (A good multimineral is also vital to offsetting the lack of calcium and other minerals that can occur.)
While fat is almost irrelevant during a low-carb diet, I still think it’s important to make sure you take in essential fatty acids, such as omega-3s. You can get them from fattier fish, such as salmon and halibut, and it’s best to eat at least four to five servings each week. Omega-3s offer the added bonus of increased insulin sensitivity, thus making a low-carb diet even more effective. Those who hate fish can take fish-oil supplements’at least five grams daily.
Also, several studies clearly show that active people can eat surprisingly large amounts of carbs right after a workout, with no fear of either inhibiting fat loss or converting the carbs into fat. The body uses carbs taken in shortly after training to help synthesize depleted glycogen stores in muscle, which is its top priority at that time. Adding protein to the mix works even better and will significantly aid workout recovery and foster an anabolic environment conducive to building muscle.
Here’s a typical low-carb diet:
Cheese omelet with
3 whole eggs and
2 ounces cheddar cheese
2 slices bacon
1 cup coffee with
lowfat milk or cream
Meal 2 6-ounce can of water-pack tuna
with lowfat mayo if desired
4 ounces cheese
Diet drink (containing
Meal 3 6 ounces grilled chicken,
1 cup green beans
3 ounces broccoli
4 ounces red wine
Meal 4 8 ounces lean beef
1 cup tossed salad
with vinegar-and-oil dressing
Meal 5 Milk protein drink with water
1 apple or any other fruit
Another Approach: Get-Ripped Carb-Stacking Diet
While low-carb diets work, there’s no question that carbs are important to fill muscle-glycogen stores after a workout so you get optimal recovery and big, full muscles. An insulin spike after a workout is important, too, to make glycogen storage and protein delivery more efficient. That being the case, instead of low-carbing it all day, you may want to try carb stacking. That simply means tailoring some of your meals so they are low in carbohydrates, stacking the majority of your carbs in the morning after an all-night fast, and immediately after you train, when your muscles are primed to pull in the glucose and store it as glycogen. Those are two prime anabolic windows. The following 2,050-calorie plan maximizes those windows while keeping your total carbs at a moderate 29 percent (140 grams), fat at 29 percent (64 grams) and muscle-building protein at 42 percent (215 grams):
Meal 1, 6 a.m.
Raisin Bran, 1 cup
All-Bran, 1/2 cup
Orange juice, 1/2 cup
Pro-Fusion, 1 scoop in water, poured on cereal
Coffee, 1 cup
Supplements: multivitamin-and-multimineral capsule, 1; Omega Stak, 2; fruit-and-vegetable capsules, 2
Meal 2, 9 a.m.
Muscle Meals, 1 packet in water
Meal 3, 11:45 a.m.
Broiled chicken, 8 ounces
Vegetables (cruciferous, such as broccoli), 4 ounces
Boiled egg, 1
Supplements: antioxidants, 2; Omega Stak, 3
Meal 4, 2:30 p.m.
Pro-Fusion, 2 scoops in water
ECA fat burner, 1-2 capsules (optional)
Workout, 4 p.m.
Meal 5, 5:30 p.m.
Postworkout shake in water:
RecoverX*, 1 serving
CreaSol, 1 serving
Ribose Size, 2 scoops
Cort-Bloc, 4 capsules
Meal 6, 6:30 p.m. Cottage cheese, 10 ounces
Pro-Fusion, 1 scoop in water
Supplements: Omega Stak, 3
*On days you don’t train, use a micellar casein-and-whey protein powder, like Pro-Fusion, instead of RecoverX. That will lower your carbs and calories slightly on those days.
Editor’s Note: The above alternate approach is from the book Train, Eat, Grow’The Positions-of-Flexion Muscle-Training Method. It’s a diet used by the author, Steve Holman, in his final cutting phase. He gradually decreases calories to the above over a 10-week period. His higher-calorie diets used in the weeks prior to the above are listed in Chapter 15. This book can be ordered from Home-Gym.com.
1 Westman, E.C., et al. (2002). Effect of six-month adherence to a very low-carbohydrate diet program. Am J Med. 113:30-36.
2 Volek, J., et al. (2002). A ketogenic diet favorably affects serum biomarkers for cardiovascular disease in normal-weight men. J Nutr. 132:1879-1885.
3 Volek, J., et al. (2002). Body composition and hormonal responses to a carbohydrate-restricted diet. Metabolism. 51:864-870.
4 Torbay, N., et al. (2002). High protein vs. high carbohydrate hypoenergetic diet in treatment of obese normoinsulinemic and hyperinsulinemic subjects. Nutr Res. 22:586-598. IM