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All of these myths come from food writers, health and fitness experts, and other people whose opinions I generally respect. In other words, from people who ought to know better.
Myth: Lowcarb is high-protein
Truth: Lowcarb is adequate protein
The protein requirements for lowcarbers are not any different from those for lowfatters or people not dieting at all. Lowcarb diets tend to pay attention to protein more than other eating plans though. If you are a meateater you are most likely getting plenty of protein already so your intake probably won't change if you go lowcarb. If you are a vegetarian, especially if you are a vegan, you might not be getting enough protein on a standard high-carb diet. If you choose vegetarian lowcarb your protein level is likely to increase to healthier levels (because you will be more mindful of it).
I aim for about 60 grams of protein a day. I defy anyone to tell me that's dangerously high. Before I went lowcarb I doubt if I was getting half of that. Not for any deliberate reason, but because I didn't pay attention.
It is true that some meateating lowcarbers take in quite a bit of protein. This helps them feel satisfied and stay on the diet (muscle meat has no carbs). But it's hardly necessary or even desirable to take in more than a couple hundred grams of protein a day. Vegetarian lowcarbers rarely overdo it on the protein.
One writer whose work on weight-training is groundbreaking (Miriam Nelson, whose books I recommend to anyone who will listen) has quite twisted views on lowcarb. She writes (in Strong Women Stay Thin): "If you cut carbohydrates drastically and add a corresponding amount of protein..." Come again? I have never ever heard of anyone doing this. Does she honestly believe that people are eating 300 or more grams of protein a day, on top of the protein they were eating pre-lowcarb? It's possible that some lowcarbers misinterpret the diets this way but certainly no competent lowcarb writer will suggest doing anything of the sort.
Unfortunately, when people want to debunk an idea, the way they often go about it is to choose the most extreme manifestation of that idea in practice and use it as "proof" that use of the idea is dangerous. Yes, some people do lowcarb wrong. It doesn't make lowcarb bad.
Myth: Lowcarb is synonymous with those liquid protein diets of a couple decades ago
Truth: These two diets have nothing to do with each other
Actually, I've never heard anyone say that a lowcarb diet is the same as a liquid protein diet, but when you hear their list of warnings, they can see they are really talking about the latter. Liquid protein diets were popular in the 1970's and 80's and they are indeed quite dangerous. They don't just eliminate most carbs, but most fat too (funny, no one uses their dangers to attempt to debunk a lowfat diet). They are also quite low in calories. I've known people who did well on liquid protein, but they were monitored every step of the way by an MD!
When someone says "lowcarb is bad for you," stop to ask them if they are talking about the diet you are really eating, or something else entirely. Chances are they won't know, because they're just repeating warnings they read from an author repeating warnings they read about a different diet.
Myth: Lowcarb is bad for your kidneys
Truth: Where's the proof?
This is an oldie but goodie. How many people attempting to lowcarb have been scared off by dire warnings that their kidneys would explode or some such? Occasionally I'll hear the myth aimed at the liver. This myth assumes that 1) the lowcarber is eating enormous amounts of protein; 2) said protein is dangerous for the kidneys. First of all, you probably aren't eating more protein as a lowcarber than you would as a high-carber. Second, there's no proof whatsoever that people without diagnosed kidney disease run any risks by eating a lot of meat or other protein sources. Dr. Atkins, a cardiologist, has repeatedly asked the naysayers to show him the studies. No one has.
Myth: Lowcarb only works because you're really eating a low-calorie diet
Truth: Lowcarb is not a low-calorie diet
I see this one all the time. I've even read one author who claimed she'd seen lowcarb diets calling for under 1000 calories a day. Sure, you can find variations on any diet. Some people who eat lowcarb are also eating low-calorie; some even combine lowcarb with lowfat. There are probably published diet plans that advocate this. But low-calorie not only isn't a part of Atkins, Protein Power, or any of the other lowcarb standards, it's actively discouraged.
Newcomers on the lowcarb newsgroups and mailing lists will often post that they are hungry when they lowcarb. They are told to eat more! and not low-calorie food either; they're encouraged to eat more fat or any other food that doesn't have a lot of carbs. If you look at the actual calorie counts of successful lowcarbers, they are in the range suggested by diet writers who do not believe in low-calorie diets. In other words, they are average calories. Of course, eating average, normal amounts of calories is a huge calorie drop for some overweight people. But for others it's a jump up or no change at all.
Weight loss stalls are naturally a major topic of conversation on the lowcarb lists. Sometimes someone will be eating too many calories and will have to reduce them to lose weight. But it's far more common that someone will be eating too little and can't lose weight until they increase their calories. Lowcarbers don't need to count calories, just carbs. But it's a good idea to keep an eye on them, just like for protein and micronutrient intake.
Myth: It makes no sense to count carbs; the only thing that counts is calories
Your weight is a simple result of calories in and activity out. To lose weight, all you have to do is cut calories and/or add exercise
Truth: The connection between calories and weight is far more complicated than most writers will have you believe
Of course it is true that energy in is balanced with energy out. Weight gain or loss (in fat) happens when the balance is off on one end or the other. The problem is that even subtle changes can make a big difference in your energy consumption and you can't predict how your body will react.
Lowcarb changes the equation. A lot of people, including some fervent lowcarbers, disagree and say it all comes down to calories, that there is nothing special about lowcarb in that way. But it makes sense to me. I suggest you read what Atkins and the Eades (in Protein Power) have to say on the subject. See if you agree with their reasoning. Even if you don't, at least you'll know where they're coming from.
The way lowcarb changes things is by normalizing insulin. Just because most people can handle the wide swings in blood sugar and insulin levels brought on by a modern diet doesn't mean they are healthy or desirable. For those of us who have diabetes, hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, or a similar disorder, the stabilizing effect of lowcarb is like striking lifelong metal chains from our bodies.
Lowcarb also changes calorie use by making the body burn fat (dietary or stored) instead of dietary carbs for fuel. Your body does this readily and it's perfectly safe. But is less efficient so it burns more calories. People who lowcarb for health but who do not need to lose weight have to be certain they get enough fat so they don't keep losing.
Health experts from all diet persuasions will tell you that lowering calories changes your metabolism. For people who aren't overeaters, eating fewer calories may not lead to losing weight. A great many diets, lowfat, lowcarb, or the so-called "balanced" diets, advocate eating calories within a certain healthy range. For people from normal weight to about 100 lbs overweight, this range is generally about 10 calories per pound of current weight. There are different formulas, some based on age and activity level, but 10 calories per pound is a good place to start. People who are very overweight should eat more total calories than people of lower weight, but not as high as 10 calories per pound (the formula isn't linear).
Increasing your activity level (if it's not already high) is always a good idea, if your health allows it. It does help you to improve health and lose fat, but that's true for any diet you might be on. Lowcarb is no exception.
Myth: Lowcarb only works because it keeps people from bingeing on carbs
Truth: And this is a bad thing because???
This is a variation of the lowcarb is low-calorie myth. I was pretty floored when I read this. How on earth does this (true for many) fact make lowcarb a bad diet? The truth is that people who reduce their carbs radically as a result of lowcarb end up eating in the same range of calories as people whose original carb intake wasn't as high. Some carb-bingers don't have to go lowcarb in order to lose weight and regain health, they can eat moderate-carb diets. But most need lowcarb for at least a little while to break the cycle.
Myth: Lowcarb only makes you lose water, you don't actually lose any fat
Truth: Everyone loses water when they lose fat, lowcarb is no different
I know several lowcarbers who laugh out loud when they hear this myth. "Well I guess I lost 170 lbs of water then!" they exclaim.
The water loss happens in two ways. First, when you start lowcarb you do lose a bit of excess water. This ranges from 3-10 lbs for most people. The more weight you have to lose the more water you'll lose in the first week. Given that a lot of people with high blood pressure suddenly find themselves on the way to normal in that first week, I have to conclude that this water loss is a positive thing. People who cheat on lowcarb often find themselves gaining 5 lbs overnight. This is the water weight returning. People on other diets will sometimes lose that bit of water too.
The other way you lose water while dieting is from losing fat. Every fat molecule is bound up with several (3?) molecules of water. Lose that fat and the water goes with it. But this has nothing to do with lowcarb, it's true for anyone losing fat. Of course if you're on a diet that is making you lose muscle or bone (all low-calorie diets do this and you'll lose some of each on any diet where you lose too fast or don't do strength training or similar exercise--some diets are worse than others but lowcarb appears to minimize these undesirable losses) then you won't be losing as much water.
Myth: Your brain and muscles need glucose to work, so you have to eat carbs
Truth: Carbs are only one source of glucose. Your body can easily convert dietary fat and protein and stored fat to glucose
Myth: Lowcarb puts you into ketosis which is extremely dangerous
Truth: Not all lowcarbers are in ketosis and ketosis is not dangerous in and of itself, but for diabetics it's a sign of something being terribly wrong
Your body will use dietary carbohydrates for fuel if they are available. If they are not, your body will use dietary protein and fat or stored fat or muscle. Fat and protein get converted to glucose just like carbs do, though with much less efficiency. If your body is relying on fat (dietary or stored, makes no difference) for fuel then you will go into ketosis, a state characterized by the byproduct of ketones in your urine (diabetics and some lowcarbers monitor their urine using inexpensive strips).
Ketosis is an extremely bad thing for a diabetic. Why? Because if the diabetic is eating average amounts of carbs yet their body is burning fat for fuel, this means their insulin is way too low or something else is very very wrong. If you are eating carbs but your body isn't using them, your blood sugar will rise to dangerous levels and you risk going into metabolic shock, which can kill you. The presence of ketones in the urine is a sign diabetics pay close attention to.
But ketosis isn't bad in and of itself. It's just a sign. If you are burning fat because there aren't carbs to use instead, that's perfectly safe. Note: the presence of ketones can mean you aren't eating enough. It's often found in people who are ill and not keeping food down, or in some people with eating disorders and sometimes means they are using up their own muscles for fuel, not just fat. Not getting enough food is of course a bad thing and ketosis in this case reflects a problem. But if you're getting plenty of calories and nutrition on a lowcarb diet and you're in ketosis, you're doing just fine.
Atkins is a big advocate of staying in ketosis. In fact, he has people following his version of lowcarb measure their ketone levels (the level doesn't matter, just that they are present) to see if they are doing the diet correctly. The Eades, in Protein Power, say that it's okay to be in ketosis, but it isn't necessary. Other lowcarb diets tend to side with the Eades.
If you are a diabetic who needs to monitor ketone levels to make sure your insulin is on track, you probably want to stay out of ketosis if you lowcarb, but that's something to discuss with your doctor. There is also some evidence that ketosis may not be a great idea if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, but I don't believe this has been documented. If you don't want to go into ketosis for any reason, then keep your carb levels just high enough to avoid it (the urine strips are useful here). It probably won't make any difference in your success on lowcarb.
Myth: Lowcarb is a low-fiber diet
Truth: There's no reason why it should be
The lowcarb diet plans tend not to emphasize fiber, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. All the major lowcarb writers insist that fiber be a regular part of the diet. It is true that some lowcarbers eat very low fiber, but then people on any diet can be low on fiber. If you're following lowfat with white rice and white flour pasta and not many vegetables, you won't be getting any more fiber than a lowcarber who fills up on meat and a handful of overcooked green beans.
In the US and many other countries, the "total carbohydrate" listing on food labels includes sugar, starch (listed as "other"), and fiber. Protein Power's plan has followers subtracting fiber. This means that if fiber is being counted as part of your carb totals, you subtract it out and only count the sugar and starch. What's left after discounting the fiber is called "usable carbs."
At first Atkins discouraged subtracting all types of fiber, but now he endorses it. Some lowcarbers count fiber in their food as part of their carb allowance because it makes the diet easier for them, discourages eating too many carbs, or for other reasons. These people (if they have any sense) will eat extras such as psyllium husks (which have essentially no usable carbs) or flax seed, as will anyone on any diet who isn't getting enough fiber through their food.
Vegetarian lowcarbers, especially vegans, usually get plenty of fiber as our protein sources are generally full of it.
Myth: Lowcarb includes almost no fruits and vegetables
Truth: Fruits are limited but any good lowcarber eats their vegetables
The lowcarb lists are filled with people who use lowcarb as an excuse to stop eating their vegetables. Some of these people claim you can get any missed nutrients from a pill (not that this means they're actually taking said pills). Others just don't think it's important. These people are following the letter of lowcarb and ignoring the spirit of improved health.
Those of us who know better eat our vegetables! There are only a few vegetables (corn, potatoes, etc) that lowcarbers have to avoid entirely and a few more (onions, tomato paste, carrots, etc) that we have to limit. Otherwise, we can stuff ourselves silly with yummy vegetables until the cows come home. Once you subtract out the fiber, many vegetables have so few carbs they practically count as unlimited freebies.
Lowcarbers aren't the only people who end up avoiding vegetables. A lowfatter who eats mostly pasta with tomato sauce and maybe a bit of onion on their chicken is hardly doing well in this department. Your standard American meat and (peeled) potatoes eater rarely gets enough either.
It's true that lowcarbers need to avoid most fruits. Berries and cantaloupe and a few others are fairly lowcarb but the higher carb ones are off limits for the most part. But non-lowcarbers often don't eat much fruit either. When they do, it's usually in the form of juice. Juice is a refined product, stripped of fiber and often much of the nutrition. Some juice is super-processed beyond the point of recognition. Some juice isn't even juice, it's juice-flavored sugar water.
Eating lots of whole vegetables and a few whole fruits gives you plenty of fiber and micronutrients. There is no reason in the world why this isn't compatible with a lowcarb diet.
Some people will point out that Atkins tells lowcarbers to avoid fruits and limit vegetables to one cup of salad a day. But this is only for induction, which is the two week period where you first plunge into the diet. After that you increase carbs slowly to a point that's right for you (if you emphasize health--and not all lowcarbers do--you will add vegetables before you add extra cheese, cream, and unnecessary treats). Some people stay on induction for longer than two weeks, but they are told to make sure they get enough vegetables. Induction carb levels are under 20 grams a day. If you plan carefully, you can easily fit several servings of vegetables in there. There really is no excuse to avoid eating vegetables.
Myth: Lowcarbers eat way too much fat
Truth: Fat is not the evil it's made out to be
Everybody needs some fat. Read Ann Gittleman's book Beyond Pritikin for a wonderful explanation of why, from a former Pritikin (no-fat) nutritionist. The truth is that research on fat in the last several decades has been distorted by political aims, force of personality, and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with health (or science). Most studies lump unhealthy fats in with healthy ones and then conclude they're all bad. What get call "bad fats" are not always bad and the real health risks are not always acknowledged.
Forget what you've seen about saturated fat being evil and mono and polyunsaturated fat being good. All of these can be good or bad. The real bad fats are hydrogenated fats (trans-fatty acids) as found in most margarine, mayonnaise, shortening, crackers, and other products. Rancid fats (you'd be surprised how many are), overheated fats (also common), and fats filled with pesticide residue, and for animal fats, hormone and antibiotic residue. These are the truly evil fats.
Lowcarbers must eat more fat than the standard recommendations. It's the only way to make up the calories lost when they cut back on the carbs. We're not going to make them up with protein (see above). As long as the fats are good ones, this is not a problem. A few people have trouble with certain animal fats raising cholesterol but this is not the majority. The myth that dietary cholesterol is linked directly with blood cholesterol is alive and well, but there's little to no truth to it.
If you want to avoid saturated fats, animal fats, or any other type, you can. None of these are essential on a lowcarb diet (though some saturated fat and other specific kinds is important for health). You don't even have to eat any animal products at all. Just be sure you're getting enough essential fatty acids (flax seed is your friend, so is fish if you eat it) and that you eat enough good fats (olive oil is a winner) to keep your calories at the right level.
Myth: Lowcarb diets include lots of junk like bacon
Truth: Any diet can be filled with healthy foods or junk foods
Anti-lowcarbers often point to the predilection some lowcarbers have for processed meats, artificial sweeteners, and other junk food. I agree that these are not healthy foods (if you can call some of them food). But then they claim this means lowcarb is an unhealthy diet. No, it means that some lowcarbers are making unhealthy choices. How many lowfatters live on Snackwell cookies, Wow potato chips, diet soda, and white flour pasta? Is this proof that lowfat is inherently unhealthy? No, it's proof that some lowfatters don't take their health seriously and just care about the pounds (if they even lose at all). Lowcarbers are no different from anyone else. Some eat well, some eat poorly. The only difference is in which kinds of junky foods they tend to overdo. There is nothing about lowcarb itself that rules out eating fresh whole foods, grown organically and processed minimally. Lowcarb is no excuse for eating bad foods (neither is lowfat or any other diet).