Here’s the beef!
The Eadeses join a few other diet-book authors who are promoting the idea that a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, the opposite of accepted wisdom, is the key to good health. They claim less glucose intake, and thus less insulin production, will allow the body’s glucagon to consume stored energy.
WHEN THE EDRRORS AT BANTAM Books sat down with Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades last year to hear their idea for a diet book called “Protein Power,” they had every reason to be skeptical–at least as consumers. “Between us, we had tried every single diet to come along in the last 20 years, with the possible exception of sheep urine,” says Irwun Applebaum, Bantam’s president and publisher. But business is business. They acquired the book, tried the diet–and they swear it changed their lives. “I’m not what you would call a welldisciplined eater,” says Applebaum, who claims he lost 32 pounds and has kept it off for six months. “But I’ve been able to stay on this plan because it’s so simple: when in doubt, just eat protein and stay away from carbs.”
That’s right: eat protein and cut the carbs. Applebaum may have a book to sell, but he’s not the only one thing this strange line. After nearly 20 years of pancakes and pasta, dieters, fitness buffs and a few maverick medical experts are rediscovering meatballs. The backlash started a year ago when Dutton published Drs. Richard and Rachael Hener’s “Healthy for Life” and HarperCollins weighed in with Barry Sears’s “The Zone,” a protein-rich diet plan for health-obsessed gymgoers. (“The Zone” has had 15 printings and won a No. 4 slot on The New York Times best-seller list.) Now come the Eadeses to tell the sedentary masses that obesity and its attendant ills–high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes–are all consequences of what they thought was a healthful diet.
According to longstanding medical consensus, the key to a svelte body and a strong heart is to avoid saturated fat and eat more carbo-rich grains and greens. Nonsense, the Eadeses proclaim: “Not only does the low-fat diet fail to solve the health problems it addresses. It actually makes them worse.” But don’t rush to trade in your rice cakes for beefsteaks. The protein craze is based more on speculation than on hard clinical evidence. And while the Eadeses’ program may help you lose weight, there are better ways to knock calories out of your diet.
The new diets all focus on the relationship between carbohydrates and insulin, the hormone that enables us to store energy in fat and muscle cells. When we consume carbohydrates, whether as carrots or candy bars, they enter the bloodstream as glucose. And if a meal generates more glucose than we can use at the moment, our bodies produce insulin to squirrel away the excess. later, as blood sugar declines, a separate hormone called glucagon shuttles stored energy back into the blood. Everything hums along nicely as long as insulin and glucagon maintain a dynamic balance. But if we continually consume more carbs than we burn, insulin gets the upper hand, sending our weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels skyward. To the protein enthusiasts, cutting back on carbs is an ideal way to rein in the insulin response and to ward off everything that follows from it.
In the diets that most nutritionists favor, carbs account for 60 to 80 percent of total calories, while fat and protein play only minor roles. By contrast, the Sears and Eades diets call for nearly equal proportions of protein. carbohydrate and fat-30 percent, 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively. In Sears’s elaborate scheme, you compute your daily protein requirement (which depends on your size, build and activity level), then divide the total into seven-gram “protein blocks,” which you divvy up among meals and snacks. By eating a nine-gram carbs block with every seven-gram protein block, and adding monounsaturated fat as necessary, you supposedly end up in the high-energy, disease-free promised land he calls “The Zone.” The Eadeses propose roughly the same regimen for healthy people, but they have far stronger medicine for anyone trying to lose weight. On their remedial diets, you all but eliminate carbohydrates (just 30 to 55 grams a day, about two English muffins’ worth) and eat as much fat and protein as you want. As the Eadeses tell it, your overwrought insulin system will take a holiday, and glucagon will go to work on all that stored fat.
Is it possible these folks are on to something–that grain-based diets are a prescription for obesity and ill health, and that a little extra protein might save us? No one denies that diet affects insulin levels, or that excessive insulin can cause illness. But the connection between carbohydrates and disease is at best speculative. “The vast body of scientific data from epidemiological studies, animal studies and clinical trials shows the opposite of what they’re saying,” says Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., and a longtime champion of low-fat, high-carb cuisine. In one published study, heart patients spending a year on Ornish’s complex-carb-based diet have dropped an average of 22 pounds and reduced their LDL-cholesterol levels by 37 percent.
Except for an unpublished eight-week study involving just 15 diabetics, neither Sears nor the Eadeses has gathered such data. “We haven’t done any long-term research on our own patients,” says Michael Eades. “Mainly we kind of figured this thing out and … started trying it on people.” But if you doubt that carbs are dangerous, they say, just look at what has happened over the past decade. Egged on by the health establishment, Americans have cut back on fat, increased their carb intake and grown steadily more obese.
Carbohydrates are no doubt part of the problem, but not because they’re carbs. Candy bars, gin and broccoli are all carbrich foods. But whereas refined sugar and alcohol are high in calories and low in bulk and nutrients, vegetables and whole grains are just the opposite. To match the sugar in a single Hershey bar, you’d have to eat 10 cups of broccoli. And because the fiber in the broccoli would slow your absorption of the sugar, you wouldn’t get nearly the surge in insulin. As you might have guessed, broccoli is not Americas leading carbohydrate.
Research may someday validate the hunch that higher-protein diets are optimal. But for many Americans, the first question is how to shed 40 pounds. No one knows how the Eadeses’ weight-loss program affects the insulin system, its ostensible target. But they do seem to have found a perversely efficient way to cut people’s calories. On a mild version of the Eadeses’ regimen, a 190-pound man would have to restrict himself to 200 calories from carbs every day (those two English muffins). Even if he ate twice as much protein as usual, that would add only 720 more calories, pushing his daily total to 920. That’s less than half what a typical adult burns in a day. To get to 2,000 calories, he would have to consume more than 1,000 of them as pure fat. He could do that, but as Michael Eades concedes, he probably wouldn’t. “Nobody eats a stick of butter by itself,” be says. “If you don’t eat [fat] with carbohydrates, you can’t eat very much.”
Precisely. When you don’t eat as much, you tend to lose weight. But you don’t need to be in The Zone to know that.