Sure you have heard about the low carbohydrate diet typical for the once so popular Atkins diet or the low carb high fat diet called LCHF. Or the Paleo diet? Followers of these diets are trying to avoid eating grain-based foods. Atkinites because they see carbohydrates as the evil behind obesity and Paleolites because they claim grains weren’t around when our genome was settled some 10,000 years ago. Fancy that!
There is also a theory around that carbohydrate and gluten consumption may cause or contribute to dementia. But avoiding grains might be a mistake.
Carbohydrates the cause of all evil?
Of course we are all are looking for a culprit on which to blame expanding waistlines, the diabetes epidemic, and the continuing need for cholesterol and blood pressure medications. And breakfast cereal and the humble bread sandwich is bearing the brunt of the blame. Mind you it is not that fat-laden salami, the thick slice of full-fat cheese or the generous butter on top of the sandwich they blame, it is the bread itself. And now grains are also named as a possible trigger for Alzheimer’s disease.
All doom and gloom, but is there any scientific facts on which all this is based?
If we start with dementia, the observation that high blood sugar levels are linked with Alzheimer’s disease seems to be true. People suffering from diabetes with higher blood sugar levels are at elevated risk of developing dementia. So it was not that farfetched to reason that because carbohydrates are broken down to sugars during digestion they should be avoided as a way to keep blood sugar low. The assumption was that this might protect the brain, too.
Wrong according to new theories
Now there is a “newish” theory doing its rounds claiming the carbophobiacs are wrong. Avoiding healthy carbohydrate-containing foods turns out to be the last thing you would want to do for diabetes, obesity, or Alzheimer’s disease.
The scientists point to Japan where in the past the dietary staple was rice high in carbohydrates, and yet diabetes was rare. With a westernised diet, meat replaced rice and fat intake quickly climbed, while carbohydrate consumption plummeted. Now the diabetes prevalence has risen dramatically. Peculiarly, the increase in fatty food consumption led to elevated blood sugars and a diabetes epidemic.
Or take Americans who have almost doubled meat consumption over the last century, increased cheese consumption per capita almost ten-fold, and substantially reduced grain consumption over the same period, although lately on the rebound. Maybe it is not bread, rice, or grains in general that have caused blood sugars to rise or diabetes to become an epidemic. Some scientists believe it could be the opposite. That the transition to a diet heavily based on animal products, especially meat and cheese, could be the real culprit in the current epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
A little difficult to comprehend
But how could fatty foods, such as cheeseburgers and processed meat, increase blood sugar? The answer appears to lie in the accumulation of fats inside muscle and liver cells. The metabolism of these intracellular lipids appears to disrupt insulin signalling causing insulin resistance. In people with type 2 diabetes, a low-fat, plant-based diet causes significant weight loss and dramatic improvements in blood sugar control.
To add to the evidence, a research group has shown that saturated and trans fats are associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk. On the one hand, it appears that the effect of these “bad” fats on cholesterol metabolism influences aspects of beta-amyloid deposition in the brain. On the other hand, high intake of unsaturated, unhydrogenated fats may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
So whom to believe?
As usual on diet issues I have a foot in each camp. I like my cereal in the morning and sandwich to lunch. But I also noticed that when I stopped eating bread to dinner the weight stabilised.
Proponents of the new findings claim that a plant-based diet reopens narrowed arteries, trims waistlines, lowers blood pressure, and is more powerful against diabetes than any other regimen. Yes, I want one of those as well.
I would be happy to agree that healthy grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits have power that no other regimen can match. As long as the weight is not increasing beyond control.
Is that too much to ask for?