It's official. We're in the midst of what I predict will be another five years of nutritional single-mindedness.
Of course, this isn't the first iteration of nutrient demonization. For ten years I've defended fats as a whole; now I just have to broaden my scope. You already know why. There's been a distinct paradigm shift.
Low-carb hype rules the day.
Of course, the low-carb craze will come to an end and Westerners will slowly start to grasp that no one nutrient is evil. Eventually the public will understand that there are good fats and bad fats, good carbs and bad carbs. Basically, it's a matter of choose your weapon. Carbohydrates and fats are the energy macronutrients. (Protein of course also has 4 kcal per gram but isn't a preferred bodily fuel source).
Family history of disease, exercise regime (you know, F.I.T.T.: frequency, intensity, time/ duration, and type), and personal history such as nutritional experiences, weight history and medical past should help guide one's choice of primary fuel. Perhaps by 2010 we'll wise up. But since that time is quite a way off, let's zoom-out and take a "big picture" look at the good and the bad of what the low-carb craze has brought to us weightlifters.
After two decades of having no convenient protein on which to snack, we now have dozens, if not hundreds of low-carb, high protein products. I no longer have to comb the Internet for super-pricey, dietary supplement-type protein snacks (bars, savory snacks, whatever). Do you know how hard it was to get-in 200 grams of protein per day when there were basically no good protein convenience foods? Pork rinds don't count. Peanuts are good but aren't high enough in total protein content or protein quality to replace meat, milk proteins, eggs, etc. And toting dry powder while searching for water fountains is just a pain sometimes. Now with a little selective shopping I have new options.
Oh yeah, the more I read about fiber, particularly the soluble type but actually any form, the more I'm convinced that I need 30-40 grams daily. I'm not just talking regularity or reduced colon cancer risk, people. I'm talking slowed and reduced uptake of dietary carbohydrate, on the intestinal lumen side of things. I'm talking lower insulin concentrations and yet improved muscle uptake (e.g. glucose transporters) on the bloodstream / transport side of things. And let's not forget all-important behavioral compliance! Fiber is a portion-boosting "free food" from a kcal standpoint. Charles Staley recently pointed out to me how much I harp on the wonders of fiber. Although I hadn't realized just how much, he's right; I do, and with good reason.
The low-carb craze has brought a plethora of fiber-rich products to the market. I admit that I enjoy a low-carb, fiber-boosted peanut butter sandwich or low-carb tortilla sporting eight grams of fiber and stuffed with meat and vegetables. These things just weren't readily available a few years ago. So what if companies are just including the fiber to replace "evil" starches? The fact remains that it's there and that does us all some good.
This one is pretty specific but for ages if I wanted some quick protein before bed, I'd have to ingest 24 grams of lactose in my two cups of milk. And "light" yogurt is little different in this regard. Low-glycemic index or not, the carbs were still there and I've always tended to view milk products as a protein source, often forgetting about the carbs therein. And let's not forget the lactose intolerant folks out there. Reduced carb milk is also very-low lactose milk. Although cost is a factor, we can all enjoy our evening milk again!
Nowadays when I do eat out, I can actually ask for large vegetable side dishes instead of garlic bread and creamy potatoes. And I can do it without the waitress rolling her eyes! In fact, I've actually heard jokes to the contrary: apparently anyone daring to order starchy foods in LA can nearly shut down a restaurant–patrons, staff and all–due to the magnitude of the transgression. Even fast food restaurants offer a few low-carb and vegetable-containing choices that are acceptable. Food programs on television are demonstrating all kinds of awesome-looking vegetable dishes. We have a looong way to go but if it takes a low-carb movement to introduce the public to the long-forgotten world of vegetables, so be it!
You heard right. Yes, I know I said this was a boon, not a bane for us. What did Walt Whitman say? "Do I contradict myself, very well then, I contradict myself. I am great; I contain multitudes." You see, I have to also critique the protein product proclivity (how's that for some nifty alliteration?) of today's marketplace. Unfortunately, the protein that's added to many products comes in the form of gluten and soy.
Gluten is an endless source of confusion to many consumers. Walk into a health food store (not a supplement store, per se, let's stop confusing the two) and what do you see? On the left you see banners exclaiming "gluten free!" On the right you see "high protein!" yet an inspection of the ingredients list on these products often reveals a heavy gluten content.
So is gluten good or is it bad? That's a tough one. Along with added fiber, gluten does indeed enable lower carb bread products to exist. Unfortunately, some people have serious medical problems with gluten (as in gluten-sensitive enteropathy) and indeed, sub-clinical gluten intolerance may also be more common than previously thought. And on top of this, it's a grain protein that's incomplete (lacking the amino acid, lysine).
I can't give a recommendation on whether or not to include gluten products except to say be aware of intolerance symptoms and your family history–and consider these low-carb bread products a treat, not a staple of your diet. They can become a crutch when you should be focusing on better alternatives like fruits and vegetables.
And what about soy? You know the story. Some people have serious concerns over hormonal effects. Soy isoflavones are indeed phytoestrogens (weak plant-derived estrogens that are both pro- and anti-estrogenic depending on one's hormonal state). Do they really feminize men? That's the current debate. Books and articles aplenty have flooded the media on both sides. Commercial and even gender issues cloud the debate.
As with gluten, the recommendation comes down to prudence and personal choice. Soy does present debatable risks to men and boys but also has some supposed healthy qualities for us like reduced risk of certain types of prostate disease. Soy protein snacks can be a nice little low-carb, high-protein excursion from your usual diet but it's not a bad idea to maintain tried-and-true portable foods like canned tuna and whey/casein protein powder in a plastic bottle.
I wrote an article of similar title a year ago and the low-carb craze has made the proliferation of freaky, fakey foods even worse. When as a culture are we going to recognize bandwagon marketing? You know: everybody's doing it... so should you. Sadly, this kind of thing does work. Purveyors of pre-packaged foods know this. The food industry has a history of creating supposedly "healthy alternatives" to meet demand. These food items are designed to maintain peer pressure and exploit our accompanying weaknesses. Unfortunately, these "health foods" often have disastrous consequences. Remember the introduction of margarine? It's just one example of many. And specific to the low-carb craze, let me ask you this: Which do you think is healthier? A low-carb, sorbitol-, corn oil- and soy-loaded chocolate snack bar or an APPLE? Duh!
At least for dieters, a focus on fats as the preferred fuel source creates a far easier climate to over-consume total kcal over the course of the day. Sure, moderated insulin concentrations over the course of the day help reduce fat gain but we can't dismiss the fact that total energy balance does matter. Fat has nine kcal per gram, carbohydrate only four kcal per gram. Eat an equal weight of each and the fat meal provides more than double the calories. I'm no fan of high-carb, low-fat diets - by any means - but the calorie equation is something to ponder.
We need to also keep tabs on the type of fat that comprises our low-carb, fat-focused diets. Indiscriminate consumption of saturated fats, trans fats and even the necessary but over-consumed omega-6 fats is not a good idea. At least the low-fat era led to naturally improved omega-6 to omega-3 ratios in our tissues. Conversely, today's environment encourages intake of junk fats and subsequent detrimental changes in out tissue lipids.
Wigging out on the kind of grease that's within easy reach nowadays shows blatant lack of respect for the pharmaceutical nature of fatty acids. Here's another question: Do you believe the commercials touting fried chicken as a low-carb healthy diet food?!
Take the higher road to health and physique impressiveness. Plan ahead to seek out monounsaturates like olive oil or omega-3 fats like fish, walnuts and flax. Oh, and eat at home, not at restaurants when possible.
In the end, the smart physique athletes will continue doing what they've long practiced: eating higher protein, carb-timed, healthy fat diets rich in lean meats, low-fat dairy and natural whole foods. Moderation is always the key. Diet fads come and go but the fact remains that we live in a world where the diet pendulum has swung too far yet again. Although just another iteration of the undisciplined public looking for a quick fix, we can, with a little prudence, glean some benefits and conveniences as fully aware weight lifters.