Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #216: Is Low-Carb High-Protein or High-Fat?

The cognoscenti (my regular readers, who are “in-the-know”) know that the answer to this question is high-fat. But I squirm in my seat when I hear someone who appears to be informed on the subject of low-carb dieting say, “it is high-protein.”

That happened again last night while I was watching – reveling  really – in a discussion on one of my favorite TV shows in which the subject of an entire segment was the recent Wall Street JournalSaturday Essay,” titled, “The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease.” This person accurately blamed the obesity epidemic on the American (or Western) diet which is very high in carbs and processed foods; but then he proceeded instead to advocate for a diet high in protein! That is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

Of course, I shouldn’t complain about the “back side” of the message being garbled. The “front side” was right: diets that are very high in carbohydrates and processed foods ARE the reason we as a civilization for 50 years have been getting fatter and fatter.  And the Wall Street Journal article got it right. Had the person who “appears to be informed” done his homework (read the WSJ article), he would have known that. If you haven’t you should read the Journal piece now. They also correctly noted that the beginning of this very large, population-wide, public health “experiment” in eating “low-fat” can be attributed to Ancel Keys. Gary Taubes (#5 here) brought him to my attention, and I first wrote about Keys here (#3).

Keys was an American physiologist whose “Six Nation” and later “Seven Country Study” was just bad science and, incredibly, became dietary dogma when it was first published. Keys made the cover of Time Magazine in 1961 and joined the board of the American Heart Association. This was just a few years after President Eisenhower had had his heart attack and went on the Pritikin diet. Keys’s studies, which were later revealed to be “cherry picked,” focused on the Mediterranean Diet. He reported the use of very little red meat (there isn’t much red meat to eat there anyway) but the sampling was done during Lent in a Catholic country!

Anyway, a low-carb diet, which is the antidote to the fattening low-fat diet (you read that right), is high fat and not high-protein. Let’s talk numbers (percentages) for a few minutes. Diets can be classified in what are called Macronutrient Ratios:

The Low Fat Diet: The Standard American Diet (SAD, for short!) is high carb, moderate fat and low protein. The FDA’s Nutrition Panel on processed foods, based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, is comprised of 60% calories from carbs, 30% fat and 10% protein. The dietary Dictocrats have moved slightly away from that formulation in recent years, advocating as low as 40% to 50% carbs, but steadfastly maintaining at the same time a target of less than 30% fat. That can only mean an increase in protein. To the extent carbs are reduced (from 60%) and fats do not exceed 30% (and a lower percentage is advocated by the FDA), only protein can rise. Remember, there are only three macronutrients: carbs, fat and protein. Something’s gotta give.

Another thing: To the extent that the Vegan lobby has stealthily exercised its stranglehold on the government‘s dietary bureaucracy, a plant-based diet is increasingly being advocated. Plants are carbohydrates. Most protein (not all, there are some proteins in legumes and nuts) is animal-based. So, the struggle to maintain a high-carb, low-protein macronutrient ratio goes on within the establishment. It will be interesting to see the 2015 Nutritional Guidelines for Americans.

The Low Carb Diet: The macronutrient ratios for a low-carb diet are all over the place. This is okay with me since making a transition from 60% carb to 40 to 50% to say 20% is a very good thing – but it takes time and a lot of effort. Besides, there is no “official” percentage for a low-carb diet. So, let’s say for our purposes that a standard low-carb diet is 20% carb, 20% protein and 60% fat. That’s really scary to some people, especially when there is so much confusion about “good” fats. That’s why the WSJ article caused such a stir. (Google “the nutrition debate good fats” for some of my columns on fat.) But there is another mitigating factor: All these percentages are in calories, and since fat has more than twice as many calories per gram as both protein and carbohydrates (9 vs. 4), you really are eating less than half as much fat as you think.

Very Low Carb: When I first started low carb dieting, it was on Atkins Induction, which is actually Very Low Carb: My ratios (not Atkins’s) were 10% carb, 30% protein and 60% fat. I later tweaked that to 7% carb, 25% protein and 68% fat. Today, I aspire to eat 5% carb, 20% protein and 75% fat (by calorie, remember). Of course, you don’t eat percentages of food; you eat grams, which are actually a measure of weight of the macronutrient content of a particular food, not the weight of the food itself. These quantities are determined by software that some of the compulsive among us (including me) have used.

So, low-carb is really moderate protein and high fat. The lower the carb percentage, the higher the fat. Some call it LCHF. Google The Diet Doctor (Andreas, Eenfeldt, MD) if you want to learn more about LCHF.

What does your eating plan look like?


  1. Back in the day when I was fat my meat volume intake really was no different to today. Only real difference now is that it's not including chips and pasta and rice and noodles and bread, or covered in sugar sauces or breading or batter, and complemented with beer and Coke and ice cream, with the Snickers and crisps and cookies for snacks in between.

    Replaced instead with extra butter and drippings and olive oil and gin and dry red wine and 85% dark chocolate (classy as fuck). As for snacks - haven't needed one for years, but a couple times a month some macadamias or pork rinds don't go astray.

    As for being high protein, I'd be willing to bet my old diet was higher protein, because nowadays I often eat all the fat from my meal first and then only get half way through the lean before my hypothalamus says "that'll do pig, that'll do".

    That NEVER used to happen when the meal was surrounded by or sitting on or covered in carbs. I'd be the guy who'd scoffed his meal, and eyeing around the table to see which of the girls were looking after their figure the most and pounce on their leftovers as soon as the clink of the discarded cutlery occurred.

    Today was a Triple Cheeseburger sans buns with scrambled eggs for brekky - covered in butter. For dinner it was a whole Rainbow Trout (little bugger, only 250g before cooking) and a half a boiled carrot - all covered in champagne butter sauce. For dessert/snacks whilst watching Game Of Thrones I had 4 "fat bombs" (basically 85% dark choc bites with coconut oil) and 25g of pork rinds.

    According to MFP it's 81% fat, 16% protein, 2% carbs. Or in absolute measures - 187g of fat, 84g of protein, 11g of carbs.

    1. Boy, Ash, you eat really well (and write well too). You have reduced VLC (or LCHF) eating to its essentials, and made it very "accessible" in terms of real food. I also like your use of the tense in "when I WAS fat." You're lucky, I think, that you can eat over 2k kcal and maintain your weight. I assume you reached your goal at some point and are staying there. I am still "fat" by almost any definition, although I am way down from my starting point (375lbs), so I need to eat more in the range of 1,200 kcals (with similar macroratios) to lose and maintain good blood sugars. You haven't mentioned whether you have T2DM or just do VLC for weight control. It works equally well for both, of course, and I think my readers include both (although some that I know of are undiagnosed, many are pre-diabetic, and others simply in denial.).

    2. Ha, cheers - but this highlights the peril of basing stuff off food recall questionairres - if you'd asked yesterday I would have said almond bread, avocado, vegemite, bacon, eggs, then for dinner salmon with mashed potato, broccoli, followed by popcorn and chocolate and a shatload of wine.

      I'm 30-40lbs less than I used to be, but could do with dropping another 10-15 lbs, it's a fairly happy-medium place to be, mostly it's good because I know I can eat as much red meat and drink as much red wine as I like and will never put that weight back on in the absence of all the other junk I used to eat.

      Mostly I just eat as an opportunistic carnivore, not specifically keto or low carb, I just happen to prefer eating fatty meat 95% of the time.

    3. Ash, I like your style. In fact, I love it! Unfortunately, I'm not happy with the medium place my body is at the moment, so I still have to work on it. My meals are all small, but very filling, so I can do it (with a little self-control). I too am oportunistic feeder, and the visual stimulus is very powerful for me. So, so long as the opportunities are not there, I can manage to eat just three small meals a day -- sometimes just two (skipping lunch). My 3-egg breakfast, with 1 strip of bacon and coffee with H&H, will carry me 'till dinner w/o hunger. If I do snack before dinner, it is usually radishes with salt and butter (and a G&T). Otherwise, just diet tonic. I envy the place you are. I hope to get there some day.

  2. Dan, if the author of the article had said high fat instead of high protein, people would of stopped reading, so it's baby steps in the right direction. The message that high sugar/starch is bad for you is the most important right now and It's almost politically correct to say high protein. In fact, to get people listening we need to dispense with terms like high fat and low carb and just concentrate on high protein because the later two have been demonized for so long that people automatically plug their ears and say "la la la la la" when they hear them. It's unfortunate but there you have it.

    As a 64 year old female, I find it very difficult to lose weight, so I still have to watch my calories. As long as I keep my daily calories under 1500 and my carb grams under 10%, I lose weight without hunger. My diet is meat/fish and egg heavy with about 1 cup of low-carb veggies a day and maybe a few berries and plain yogurt.

    1. To you second paragraph first, 1500 calories and 10% are very doable for most people since, as you say, you can lose weight WITHOUT HUNGER. That's the takeaway that most people never get to see with LC, but it's real, if only people would try it.

      Now, as to calling a spade a spade. As long as there is a stigma attached to eating fat -- any kind, but especially saturated fat (and cholesterol) -- people will continue to avoid it (as you say).

      As for calling it high protein, the arsenal of the vegans (mostly plant food diets) is that "high protein" will CAUSE kidney problems. That myth has been dispelled in the scientific media, but not in the popular press or in the uninformed doctor's mind -- just as ketoacidosis is often confused with ketosis.

      Educating the public is what my column is all about, so I sense a wave -- almost a ground swelling -- of "good" news about fat these days: that saturated fats do not cause heart disease, that they are essential for health (vitamins A & D, etc); that there is more to cholesterol that TC and LDL (e.g. HDL and TGs and particle size and number, and ratios); that PUFAs are very bad and we need to cut down sharply on them avoiding all vegetable oils as much as possible (except for Omega 3s), etc. etc.

      I am encouraged by recent developments and news stories in the popular press and want to catch the wave of transition that I sense is catching on. That's what motivates me to write 2 columns a week. Thanks as always for reading and commenting.

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