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.

Tame the Fires of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune Disease is a major health problem in our society. One in twelve people in general, and one in nine women, will be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. There are over one hundred different autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis, Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel diseases and Celiac disease. Together these conditions affect more people than cancer or heart disease and can rob patients of their quality of life, mobility and even take their lives.

Scientists worldwide are puzzled over the alarming rise in the rates of autoimmune disease, particularly in the Western world. The rates have more than doubled in the last three decades. Genetics can no longer be blamed as the only cause of autoimmune disease since our genetics can’t change that quickly.

As a naturopathic physician, I have treated many patients with a variety of autoimmune diseases in my years of practice. The familiar story is one of misdiagnosis, dismissal and frustration with limited treatment options. In half of all cases, women with autoimmune disease are told there is nothing wrong with them for an average of five years before receiving diagnosis and treatment. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment is focused on reducing symptoms but not treating the underlying factors that may have caused the disease. Commonly used immunosuppressant treatments can be lifesaving, but can also lead to significant long-term side effects.

The path to a long lasting recovery from autoimmune conditions focuses on correcting the underlying stress factors that may have caused the immune dysregulation that drives the disease.

Exciting research was recently presented at a gastroenterology convention I attended in Victoria. The immune system has well developed mechanisms to attack foreign invaders. In autoimmune disease, the immune system loses its ability to differentiate our own normal tissues from foreign invaders. That ability to temper the immune system’s inflammatory reactions to invaders is something our bodies must learn. And strangely enough, in fact, the teacher lives in our guts. The bacterial lining of the intestines (the intestinal microbiome) is responsible for educating our immune systems, letting them know when to attack and when to cease fire.

The delicate intestinal bacterial lining is made up of over 1000 species of bacteria and weighs about three pounds in an adult. We are created in a sterile womb, devoid of bacteria and acquire our first dose of beneficial bacteria in the birth canal. In the western world, there is an ever increasing trend towards delivering babies by C-section. Without that first dose of beneficial bacteria from the birth canal, the baby’s microbiome is different than a baby born via vaginal birth. Abundant research has shown that there are increased rates of asthma and autoimmune disease in those delivered by C-section. Researchers concluded that a C-section (or Caesarean section) raises the risk of type 1 diabetes by 20%. They also crunched the data from 23 studies and showed the same increased risk for asthma—20%—in children delivered by C-section.

Antibiotics are the other western phenomenon that disturbs the intestinal microbiome. We know not what we do when we take an antibiotic for an infection without consideration of the trillions of beneficial bacteria that form an integral part of our digestive and immune systems. Mice given antibiotics were more likely to develop inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.

Naturopathic physicians have long emphasized the importance of correcting deficiencies in the intestinal microbiome. Programs to repair the intestinal mucosal lining, replenish probiotics and kill off harmful elements of the microbiome have long been a mainstay of the treatment of autoimmune disease.

Vitamin D deficiency in northern countries have also been linked with increased rates of autoimmune disease. As we spend more time indoors and lessen our exposure to sunlight, thus using sunscreen more often (as those with paler skin tend to do) when we are outdoors, we play an active role in depleting our Vitamin D stores. Vitamin D has also been shown to play a role in the regulation of inflammatory fires of the immune system. Vitamin D helps tell the immune system to tolerate our own cells. Some studies show that Vitamin C inhibits induction of disease in autoimmune encephalomyelitis, thyroiditis, type-1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), lupus, rheumatoid and Lyme arthritis.

For my patients with joint pain associated with autoimmune disease, laser therapy is an excellent way to manage pain, reduce joint destruction and improve joint function. A recent Canadian expert panel determined that this painless laser therapy is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. I have been using a high tech laser light treatment for my patients for years. It is very effective for most patients with osteoarthritis and is part of an overall treatment for inflammatory arthritis too.

Natural anti-inflammatory medicines may reduce the dependence on harsh prescription drugs. A turmeric extract called Meriva has been shown to be a safe and defective pain reliever in arthritis. Fish oil is considered an essential part of auto-immune treatment in that it helps alleviate the inflammation that drives most symptoms. Most auto-immune disease involves high levels of oxidative stress, so sufferers who incorporate anti-oxidant foods and supplements into their daily regime are making a wise choice. Kale and blueberries are my favorite high anti-oxidant foods; grape seed extract and resveratrol are my favorite supplements.

Fatigue is often a crippling element of auto-immune disease. I also work with patients to support their adrenal gland through teaching them meditation and relaxation techniques using herbs like rhodiola.

Science is beginning to shed light on the complexities of the immune system and ways that we can influence the health of it. Take care of your immune system, and if you have an autoimmune disease, learn ways to tame your inflammation – naturally.

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician who has been practicing medicine for 16 years in downtown Courtenay. For more information, contact the Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine at (250) 897-0235 or via this website.