Much of the low-carb and paleo reasoning revolves around insulin. To quote a paleo blogger, “carbohydrates increase insulin, the root of all evil when it comes to dieting and health.” So the logic follows that because carbs increase insulin, we should stick mostly to meat, which is fat and protein with no carbs, so no increase in insulin, right?
We’ve known for half a century that if you give someone just a steak: no carbs, no sugar, no starch; their insulin goes up. Carbs make our insulin go up, but so does protein.
In 1997 an insulin index of foods was published, ranking 38 foods to determine which stimulates higher insulin levels. Researchers compared a large apple and all its sugar, a cup of oatmeal packed with carbs, a cup and a half of white flour pasta, a big bun-less burger with no carbs at all, to half of a salmon fillet. As you can see in the graph in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise, the meat produced the highest insulin levels.
Researchers only looked at beef and fish, but subsequent data showed that that there’s no significant difference between the insulin spike from beef, chicken, or pork—they’re all just as high. Thus, protein and fat rich foods may induce substantial insulin secretion. In fact, meat protein causes as much insulin release as pure sugar.
So, based on the insulin logic, if low-carbers and paleo folks really believed insulin to be the root of all evil, then they would be eating big bowls of spaghetti day in and day out before they would ever consume meat.
They are correct in believing that having hyperinsulinemia, high levels of insulin in the blood like type 2 diabetics have, is not a good thing, and may increase cancer risk. But if low-carb and paleo dieters stuck to their own insulin theory, then they would be out telling everyone to start eating plant-based. Vegetarians have significantly lower insulin levels even at the same weight as omnivores. This is true for ovo-lacto-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians, and vegans. Meat-eaters have up to 50% higher insulin levels.
Researchers from the University of Memphis put a variety of people on a vegan diet (men, women, younger folks, older folks, skinny and fat) and their insulin levels dropped significantly within just three weeks. And then, just by adding egg whites back to their diet, their insulin production rose 60% within four days.
In a study out of MIT, researchers doubled participants’ carbohydrate intake, and their insulin levels went down. Why? Because the researchers weren’t feeding people jellybeans and sugar cookies, they were feeding people whole, plant foods, lots of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
What if we put someone on a very-low carb diet, like an Atkins diet? Low carb advocates such as Dr. Westman assumed that it would lower insulin levels. Dr. Westman is the author of the new Atkins books, after Dr. Atkins died obese with, according to the medical examiner, a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. But, Dr. Westman was wrong in his assumption. There are no significant drop in insulin levels on very low-carb diets. Instead, there is a significant rise in LDL cholesterol levels, the number one risk factor for our number one killer, heart disease.
Atkins is an easy target though. No matter how many “new” Atkins diets that come out, it’s still old news. What about the paleo diet? The paleo movement gets a lot of things right. They tell people to ditch dairy and doughnuts, eat lots of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and cut out a lot of processed junk food. But a new study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science is pretty concerning. Researchers took young healthy people, put them on a Paleolithic diet along with a CrossFit-based, high-intensity circuit training exercise program.
If you lose enough weight exercising, you can temporarily drop your cholesterol levels no matter what you eat. You can see that with stomach stapling surgery, tuberculosis, chemotherapy, a cocaine habit, etc. Just losing weight by any means can lower cholesterol, which makes the results of the Paleo/Crossfit study all the more troubling. After ten weeks of hardcore workouts and weight loss, the participants’ LDL cholesterol still went up. And it was even worse for those who started out the healthiest. Those starting out with excellent LDL’s (under 70), had a 20% elevation in LDL cholesterol, and their HDL dropped. Exercise is supposed to boost our good cholesterol, not lower it.
The paleo diet’s deleterious impact on blood fats was not only significant, but substantial enough to counteract the improvements commonly seen with improved fitness and body composition. Exercise is supposed to make things better.
On the other hand, if we put people instead on a plant-based diet and a modest exercise program, mostly just walking-based; within three weeks their bad cholesterol can drop 20% and their insulin levels 30%, despite a 75-80% carbohydrate diet, whereas the paleo diets appeared to “negate the positive effects of exercise.”
I touched on paleo diets before in Paleolithic Lessons, and I featured a guest blog on the subject: Will The Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?
but my favorite paleo videos are probably The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument and Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.
I wrote a book on low carb diets in general (now available free full-text online) and touched on it in Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping It Up and Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.
And if you’re thinking, but what about the size of the cholesterol, small and dense versus large and fluffy? Please see my video Does Cholesterol Size Matter?
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.
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