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Why Low Carb, Gluten-free and Paleo Don't Work for Me

Diets don’t work for me. As an RD, I’ve always been highly interested in nutrition and healthy eating. As an athlete, I’m very tuned into what may be able to help me perform better. And, I get really annoyed with nutrition advice that I feel conflicts with my interests and goals. The gluten-free movement and paleo diets are good examples of just plain bad advice.

Basically, gluten-free and paleo diets are the latest versions of a low carbohydrate diet.

Low carbohydrate diets (higher in protein and fat) have been around for at least 40 years and probably before that. As soon as someone discovered that when you remove an entire classification of foods you lose a tremendous amount of weight quickly (mostly as water), they were an instant success. This happens because when you remove all grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables, you also remove a lot of calories. And its not rocket science to realize that when you reduce calories, you lose weight. No one can eat enough protein and fat to make up for the calories lost by removing carbohydrates. Taste-wise, it’s boring and unsustainable for the long term. Since no one can stay on this diet (or any diet) permanently, the weight comes back as soon as the “diet” ends.

There is no question that gluten-free diets are essential for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires the complete removal of all gluten sources (the protein found in wheat). For everyone else (about 95% of us) who don’t have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, removing all wheat foods such as breads, pasta, cereals and baked products, drastically reduces calories even if replacing them with other types of carbohydrates and gluten-free foods. Removing carbohydrates also means that it takes longer to replace glycogen stores after exercise, particularly for people training for endurance events (marathon, triathlon, or any athletic event longer than one hour). And, removing wheat means removing the #1 source of fiber, folic acid, and iron (all critical for health) in most people’s diets because much of this comes from enriched wheat flour products such as breads, pasta and cereal. Since wheat often keeps company with other nutritious food groups (think peanut butter sandwiches, milk and cereal, spaghetti with marinara), you can lose out on those nutrients too.

The other latest version of the low carb diet is the Paleo diet (short for Paleolithic diet). This diet removes all domesticated animal foods and cultivated crops (grains, diary products, legumes, potatoes, etc.) that would not have been available during the Paleolithic period which ended about 10,000 years ago. The effect of eating a “paleo” diet is that you remove most of the carbohydrates from the diet leaving protein foods (lean meat, fish, eggs, game and nuts), vegetables and fruits (but only certain ones), and oils and fats (avocados, coconut oil, etc.). This type of diet, besides being too low in carbohydrates for endurance athletes, is also too low in calcium for everyone. Calcium is critical to muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and many other metabolic processes. If we don’t take in enough calcium, our bodies use our bones to keep blood levels stable. Cavemen didn’t live to be 80 years old as far as we know and had no need for maintaining bone health beyond age 30. We live considerably longer lives and for our bones to remain strong, biologically available sources of calcium from dairy foods are critical unless we choose to use supplements instead. Leafy greens and vegetables are vital to the healthfulness of the diet but they do not provide enough calcium and what they do provide is not well absorbed.

And beyond the real health issues involved with both of these diets is this: can life really be worth living without bread and pasta? I’d rather not find out.

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