Are you one of the want-to-lose set who have ditched your brown rice and veggies for steak, eggs and cheese in search of leaner abs? If so, there are some things you ought to consider about this carb-cutting trend. Given a choice, the body burns carbs for energy first. But if you cut back far enough on carbs, your cells will reorganize to turn fat into your primary fuel. You are then in a state called ketosis.
Is ketosis healthy? It's a controversy. There's no doubt you'll pee more and therefore lose more minerals when in ketosis. There's also no doubt that ketones (compounds that appear when you're in ketosis) are acidic. While high-protein gurus say the body adapts to ketosis, many holistic types see it differently. They believe ketosis robs precious minerals from your bones and organs as the body tries to buffer the acidic ketones (normal body pH is alkaline), and that this mineral drain could lead to osteoporosis or cancer.
A recent study found no health issues associated with ketosis after six months to a year, but we don't know how the body handles the state over the long term. One thing everyone can applaud, though, is that high-protein diets get you off white sugar and flour, foods that throw your insulin and fat storage systems into overdrive and also acidify you.
If you decide to try a high-protein approach to eating, the research indicates you're better off with more moderate approaches like the Atkins diet than with extreme high-protein, low-fat, low-calorie menus (often called "protein-sparing fasts"). Rule out pregnancy or kidney problems before you start. Line up your water bottles and multivitamin and mineral supplements. And be prepared to ditch the whole venture if you're one of those who gets side effects - nausea, a funny taste in the mouth, constipation and headaches. what the experts say "The Atkins approach consists of four phases. The first is a brief induction phase during which 30 to 35 per cent of total calories are protein, 60 per cent fat and 5 to 10 per cent carbohydrates. (Carbohydrate intake gradually increases after the induction phase.) Risk factors associated with high fat do not show up in research trials when carbohydrates are low enough, because you're burning the fat for fuel. When 50 per cent of your calories are coming from carbohydrates, you won't burn that fat and it can create certain health risks. Ketosis is a benign, normal state of man. No research associates a controlled-carbohydrate program with cancer."
COLETTE HEIMOWITZ, MS, Atkins Health and Medical Information Services, NYC "No single diet works for everybody. (In my practice) half the people who try high-protein diets feel dizzy or weak, get headaches or have to stop for some reason. Some people can tolerate ketosis well because of genetics (people with type O blood tolerate it best), but I don't think it's a good idea because it causes cell damage. Ketones put the person into an acid condition; most diseases are caused by an acid condition. Diseased animals are a big problem. That never enters into the Atkins people's calculations. If you have a family history of breast, colon or prostate cancer or heart disease, I wouldn't recommend a high-protein diet. Probably the best way at this point to determine what to eat is to see a practitioner who does individual biochemical testing."
ZOLTAN RONA, MD, MSc "Having enough protein and fat in your diet does stabilize your blood sugar and makes you feel full. (On high-protein diets) people stop eating refined sugar and flour, which is positive at any time. There are two main downsides. You excrete more calcium, so compensate by taking a calcium supplement. There's also a controversy about high protein and cancer. A high-protein diet tends to acidify the system, and cancer tends to prefer acidic environments, so really committing to lots of alkalizing foods - the vegetables - is important. You should be getting seven to nine servings daily; otherwise, you're putting your cardiovascular system at risk."
JEN GREEN, naturopath "High-protein diets are low in fibre because they don't encourage fruits and vegetables. Another problem is too little variety. People eat the same foods over and over; they usually get tired of it. A lot of people do lose weight with the Atkins diet. Mainly it's because they don't eat a lot of carbohydrates, so the total amount of calories taken in is less. I don't think there is a problem over the short term, but over the long term you do worry about (this diet causing) elevated cholesterol."
PHILORIA LAU, dietitian "The American Heart Association says high-protein diets are not recommended because they restrict healthful foods that provide essential nutrients. They say individuals who follow these diets are therefore at risk for compromised vitamin and mineral intake, as well as potential cardiac, renal, bone and liver abnormalities overall."
JENNY McQUEEN, Toronto Vegetarian Association