We never failed to fail…

A couple of days ago somewhere in our travels I happened to catch a few minutes of Rachael Ray’s show on the Food Network. On this particular episode Rachael was being her chirpy self, prattling on about one of her 30-minute meals when (I was only about half listening) I heard the words: low-carb. I tuned in a little more and realized that Rachael was making a low-carb 30-minute meal. As I watched, it slowly dawned on me that Rachael doesn’t have a clue as to what low-carb really means. She was making a dish that was pasta-based (not the low-carb variety) and was adding dried apricots and other fairly high-carb stuff here and there along the way. After watching the remainder of the show closely, I realized that Rachael’s idea of low-carb is to avoid bread and potatoes – everything else seemed to be okay. Then I figured that if Rachael doesn’t know any better and really believes she’s cooking low-carb, so must many other people.

If many other people are doing low-carb in the same way Rachael is, then they’re in for some bitter disappointment.

The whole idea brings to mind an article I wrote for the now-defunct Low Carb Living magazine a year or so ago. Here it is in its entirety. Copy it and give it to someone who believes he or she is truly on a low-carb diet.

We Never Failed to Fail

We never failed to fail; it was the easiest thing to do, so say Crosby, Stills and Nash in their terrific song Southern Cross. Unfortunately, multitudes of low-carb dieters today will be crying these same words if they’re not careful because low-carb diets, if followed in a half-hearted manner will fail, and the resultant regain of lost weight will be the easiest thing to do.

Recently the NPD Group, a marketing research company that provides information to industry, tracked the eating habits of 11,000 people who were cutting carbs as part of a strategy to lose weight. The results of this study found in the report Carbohydrate Consumption Patterns show that virtually none of the 11,000 subjects, and by extrapolation, few to none of the population at large represented by the study subjects, were cutting carbohydrate intake to a meaningful degree. Instead of the 20-50 grams of carbohydrate per day recommended by us in our book Protein Power or by Atkins, South Beach, Sugar Busters, etc. men were consuming an average of 145 carbs per day while women were eating around 109 grams per day. Although these carb-consumption figures are less than the 210 grams of carbohydrate eaten by the non-low-carb dieter, they are not nearly low enough to bring about the benefits of low-carb dieting. We fear that the people making a modest stab at lowering carbohydrate intake are in for major disappointment.

Low-carb diets bring about a host of positive changes. Along with ditching excess fat followers of sound low-carbohydrate regimens see their triglycerides fall, their blood pressures normalize, their lipid profiles improve, and their blood sugar levels stabilize. They sleep better, get rid of bad indigestion, even GERD if they have it, have more energy and are much, much less hungry. And, seemingly magically, low-carb dieters can even consume more calories than their brethren on low-fat diets and lose more weight. But, and here’s the big but: low carb diets must be followed correctly to bring about all these benefits. If not, there is no magic.

Most cells in the body can use glucose or fat or even protein, for that matter, for energy, but certain cells can use glucose only. Those glucose-only cells are some of the cells in the brain, the red blood cells, cells in the kidney and cells in the retina. All these glucose-using cells consume about 120-150 grams of glucose per day (about 3/4 of a cup), so if we’re eating 210 grams of carbohydrate per day as the Carbohydrate Consumption Report shows, then we have plenty of glucose (most carbohydrates convert to glucose in the body) to feed them with 60-90grams left over. As long as we’re getting the carbohydrate in our diet to meet the needs of these glucose-only cells, then nothing much happens metabolically. If we get these carbs and more and eat a lot of calories, we gain weight; if we get these carbs, but cut our calories, then we can lose a little. But we have no low-carb magic. It’s only when we get the carbs significantly down below the 120-150 grams we need that the metabolic changes that make low-carb diets work kick in. But, you may be wondering, what about all those cells that have to have glucose? What happens to then when we cut our carbs way back? Let’s take a look.

Over the time we’ve been on earth as humans nature has endowed us with some pretty amazing metabolic protective features. Many times in our evolutionary history, in fact, during most of it, we probably didn’t get much more than 50 or 60 grams of carbohydrate per day, if that many. Most of the cells in our bodies respond to this carbohydrate restriction by kicking the sugar habit (for at least as long as there is no sugar around) looking to fat for their energy. Other cells, particularly the brain cells, learn to love ketone bodies; in fact ketone bodies become a substitute for glucose for the brain. The heart also uses ketone bodies, and, in fact, uses them much more efficiently than it does either glucose or fat. This switch from glucose to ketone bodies and fat leaves the small amount of ingested carbohydrate for the cells that absolutely have to have it. But, a sound low-carbohydrate diet restricts the carbohydrate intake to the point that even with the switch over to fat and ketone bodies for fuel there still isn’t enough incoming carbohydrate to meet the needs of all the glucose-dependent cells.

Not to worry, the body can make glucose from protein and, to a small extent, even from fat in a process called gluconeogenesis (making new sugar) that takes place in the liver. In fact, when it gets going the liver can crank out 200+ grams per day (a little over a cup), which is more than enough for all the glucose-dependent cells even if we weren’t eating any carbs at all. This ability of the liver to make plenty of sugar is what allows the Inuit, the Masai, and other groups of hunter populations to survive nicely for most of their lives on almost no carbohydrates at all. And it is this same ability that makes low-carb diets work as well as they do.

When the carbs quit coming in, blood sugar starts to fall slightly, which throws the switch for the whole sugar conserving process to begin. Insulin levels fall and glucagon levels rise, sending the signal to the liver to start making both ketone bodies and glucose. As the ratio of insulin to glucagon falls the fat cells (the very ones we want to get rid of) start releasing fat to be used by all the tissues switching to a higher-fat, lower-glucose diet and to be used by the liver to convert to the glucose-pinch-hitting ketone bodies. It takes more energy to convert either fat or protein to glucose then to burn the glucose than it does to burn the fat or protein directly. It is this extra energy-consuming step that increases the number of calories a low-carbohydrate diet burns.

As long as the carbohydrate restriction is in place, insulin levels stay low so that all these glucose-preserving and glucose-making processes continue because these metabolic processes can’t take place when insulin is high. And since elevated insulin levels are a driving force behind high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, lowered good cholesterol, glucose intolerance and all the rest of the problems associated with obesity, then lowering these elevated insulin levels undoes all these problems. But to get the insulin levels down and bring about all these benefits you’ve got to get your carb intake down to significantly below the 120-150 grams per day required by the glucose dependent cells. That’s why all the 11,000 people who think they are on low carb diets while consuming an average of 145 grams of carbohydrate per day will “never fail to fail” because it is indeed “the easiest thing to do” when you don’t keep your carbs low enough.

We and all the other authors of low-carbohydrate plans recommend that dieters reduce their carb consumption to the 20-50 grams per day level. We do that because we’ve all learned that the low-carb diet works at those levels, and now you know why. If you pussyfoot around with your carb restriction, you’ll go nowhere; if you commit, then you’ll bring all the wonderful metabolic pathways nature has endowed you with into play and you will experience the low-carb magic.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “We never failed to fail…

  1. Dr Mike – I have seen the program you’re talking about and remember being quite irked at Rachel’s misconceptions. I finally quit watching her show after a plethora of comments about the “no carb” recipes she comes up with for her friends and the constant chattering about how it’s not right of low carbers to give up fruits and vegetables. She obviously does not understand this WOE and I truly wish she would quit referring to a subject she doesn’t understand.

    Thank you for sharing that article. I did not get to see it in the magazine and appreciate having the chance to read it.

  2. I haven’t watched the Food Network in awhile but when I did they had a good Low Carb Show on there with a chef named George Stella who has lost over 200 lbs on a low carb diet and has kept it off for somewhere around 5 years I believe. In fact, his entire family lost huge amounts of weight on low carb. I believe his show was called “Low Carb and Lovin It.” He definately understands what low carb is. I have his cookbook and can say it is one of the best I own.

  3. A very nice blog, Dr. Eades. I find it rather disturbing that the misconception about what low carb really is seems to be everywhere. Low fat cheese on whole wheat pasta. It’s even worse culinarily than it is “healthy”.
    I agree with the above comments. George Stella is an inspiration

  4. Greetings, I came this way from the Low Carb Luxury, Feb issue. I’ve been a low-carber for three years and your take on the problem is right on.

    Over the years I have met many people with these same misconceptions, now I know what kind of people are feeding this lunacy.

    I, like Mary Cohen, have George Stella’s cookbook, Livin’ Low Carb….fabulous!

  5. Dear Dr. Mike,

    THANK YOU for addressing this issue. It is one I deal with quite frequently from the readers at my LivinLaVidaLowCarb.com blog.

    The problem is too many people haven’t read your fine book or any of the other low-carb books out there. They just ASSUME (wrongly!) that if they cut out pasta and potatoes that they must be eating “low-carb.” How foolish!

    For me, livin’ la vida low-carb is about making deliberate choices about what I eat by carefully checking the carbohydrate content of every morsel of food I bring to my lips. That may sound like micromanaging your food intake, but that’s exactly what I have to do to prevent myself from weighing over 400 pounds again!

    By the way, it was great meeting you and your lovely bride last weekend in Brooklyn, NY. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to speak with you and thank you for the EXCELLENT job you two are doing to promote the low-carb lifestyle to the masses.

    You guys are real low-carb giants and I only hope to follow in your footsteps as we continue to share how livin’ la vida low-carb can and is changing people’s lives. God bless you!

    Jimmy Moore, author of “Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb”

  6. I did not see the specific episode you refer to. However, I checked about four of Rachel Ray’s episodes that have Low Carb in the title and they really are low carb. Check out her two episodes coming up on Feb 2 at 6pm. “Check Your Carbs” and then “Leave Your Carbs at the Door”. They look just fine to me. Also see “Mellow Out in 30” on Feb 3 at 6pm which features cheeseburger salad (one of my standby dinners) and haricots frites, all low carb. Let’s give her some credit for taking low carb mainstream. She is probably still learning. I liked George Stella too, but they only have him on at 4am now!

  7. This brings to mind a true story I heard:

    A woman is claiming to be on Atkins. What does she eat for lunch? A cheeseburger (no bun) – good so far – and french fries and a chocolate shake! She says, “I have to be careful. I only get 30g a day.” Hello?! Yet she was totally convinced this was low carb eating.

  8. I have both your books and read your blog regularly. I have been doing low carb off and on for a few years. When I follow it “to the tooth” I have great success, and the bloodwork shows it. Then one day I fall off and stay off for a few days (I’m still working on that). This well-written article is great motivation, and a true eye opener of what happens when we “sorta” do low-carb.

    My parents and now my sister, have some of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. My sister recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (in her 40s).

    I wish your Protein Power books were available in Spanish as I would’ve sent them their way (they live in Puerto Vallarta). So far I translated some of the end-of-chapter summaries and sent them along with the supplements mentioned in the Protein Power Lifeplan.

    My mom had been doing low carb like the 11,000 people on the NPD study, for about 2 years off and on (apparently more off than on) and recently her fasting glucose was 140, my sister’s is 109, and my other sister had gestational diabetes. My recent spiels with the information on your books, have recruited them (hopefully for good) to the plan. I spent a couple of hours translating this article, and will make it available to them soon.

    Thank you for your desire to share this knowledge, and for your great penmanship! I enjoy your writings very much, and heck I even had a go at Cafe Americano and Espressos.


    Hi Alex–

    Thanks for your kind words. I really appreciate your support.

    Protein Power has been translated into many languages, and I’m pretty sure Spanish is one of them. If Protein Power isn’t in Spanish, I’m positive that the 30-day Low-Carb Diet Solution is.

    Maybe I’ll visit your family next time I’m in Puerto Vallarta – it’s one of my favorite places.

    Keep me posted.