The Diet Wars – Vegan vs Low Carb

You have no doubt noticed that there are two trends in nutrition these days that are at odds with one another.  If you walk down the book aisle at Costco, you’ll see ten books on low carbohydrate diets – Low GI, Paleo, Atkins etc.  These diets recommend one eat lots of meat and fat, and little flour and sugar.  You’ll also see ten books on the Vegan diet – lots of veggies and grains, and no meat or dairy.  Each convincingly states its case that it is the superior diet for preventing disease yet they are vastly different diets.  So what is the truth?

This conflict was played out at a recent naturopathic medical conference.  The focus of the conference was cardiology and we had two keynote speakers who were well known cardiologists.  They both started their talks the same way by saying,  “After years of practicing interventional cardiology, I got tired of performing an angioplasty on a patient one year, then seeing them back a few years later for bypass surgery. I realized that I wasn’t part of the real solution which is to prevent and reverse this disease. I went on a mission to find lasting solutions for cardiovascular disease.”

The first speaker was Dr. Mimi Guarneri, Director of Scripps Centre for Integrative Medicine. She said, “I realized the culprit was animal fat.”  She became a proponent of the new Ornish program and recommends a Vegan diet.  The second speaker was Dr. William Davis, who wrote the book Wheat Belly.  His conclusion was that the reason for the rise in cardiovascular disease is the sugar, pasta, muffins and bread that North Americans have eaten more of since the low fat craze in the 80’s.  He says that high carb diets are causing obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation, which all cause cardiovascular disease and more.  He recommends that we stop eating bread, sugar, and other carbs and eat all the meat we want.  In fact, when I asked him if is possible to be a healthy vegan, he basically said “no”.

I went on a quest to find the answer to this dilemma and to negotiate some peace in the diet wars. But first we have to understand the players.  The vegan diet and the low carb diets each have their strengths and weaknesses.  And is there a third path that might take the best of both worlds and leave the rest?

A vegan diet is certainly intended to be high in nutrient dense whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and beans.  Science tells us that low animal fat diets are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and reducing red meat reduces colon cancer risk.  The high fiber content of a good vegan diet is great for blood sugar and cancer.  In addition, there is no doubt that a vegan diet is kinder to animals and the environment.   I respect people who chose a vegan diet because they care about animals and our planet.  I do think you can be healthy on a vegan diet with dedication and education.

However the real world challenge of a vegan diet is that often I see people filling up on refined carbs like bread, pasta, and sweets and not eating enough protein.  Those are the folks who gain weight on a vegan diet and impair their blood sugar. Potatoe chips, fries, pop and candy are all technically vegan.  Also, there are many nutrients that are challenging to get on a vegan diet, including fish oils, which lower heart disease.  Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and iodine can become deficient on a vegan diet.

The low carb diets, such as the Paleolithic diet and Atkins are very low on carbs and focus on vegetables, meat and fats.  A survey showed that 55% of U.S. adults said they were avoiding or eating less sugars and carbohydrates.  That’s good news for blood sugar and diabetes prevention for sure.  The low carb diets work as well or better than traditional diabetic diets.   Research comparing different diets for weight loss have shown that the low carb diets do have a slight advantage in helping people lose weight.  People on a low carb diet feel more satisfied with less calories.  There may also be a metabolic advantage that promotes fat burning.  That’s great, because being overweight and having diabetes both increase the risk of cancer.  But what about heart disease?

The research shows that a low carb diet is no better than the standard American diet (S.A.D.) in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease.  The high levels of animal fat in this diet are pro-inflammatory and we know that damages arteries.   These diets tend to be low in fiber, which can cause constipation.  If fruit is eliminated, a valuable source of phytonutrients is lost.  Also, some carbohydrates are needed to make serotonin. Studies show that if people are prone to depression, restricting carbs can make it worse.

So which diet wins the diet war?  Any extreme diet has nutritional issues and can be hard to maintain in the real world.  Why don’t we combine the best of the vegan diet (high plant based foods, low animal fat, low red meat) and the best of the low carb diets (low in refined sugar and flour).  The DASH diet does just that.  The Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension diet is based on extensive research and is a healthy balanced diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, low saturated fat meat like turkey and chicken breasts, fish and low fat dairy.  It is low in sugar and refined flour.  Grains are ideally whole, as in brown rice and quinoa.  Salt is limited, which basically means cooking at home since restaurant food is loaded with salt. A beautiful, whole food diet, rich in flavour and nutrition can be attained with this way of eating.  It is a way of life that can be sustained and therefore will produce the results we all want – long lasting vibrant health.