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.

How Carbs Can Trigger Food Cravings

Are all calories created equal? A new study suggests that in at least one important way, they may not be.  The New York Times reported on research showing that sugary foods and drinks, bread, and other processed carbohydrates that are known to cause abrupt spikes and falls in blood sugar appear to stimulate parts of the brain involved in hunger, cravings and reward. The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shed new light on why eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates like sweet, bread, pasta, crackers etc. are associated with weight gain.  The more you eat, the more you want.

A much more satisfying nutrition plan is to eat healthy, lean protein at every meal, vegetables at almost every meal, and enjoy some fruit and whole grains like brown rice and quinoa.  You’ll stay full on fewer calories, making it easier to shrink your waist line.

7 Low Carb Breakfast Ideas

Start your day with a low calorie breakfast that will keep you full for hours. No more mid morning carb cravings after a high carb breakfast of toast, cereal or pancakes. It’s a great way to not only lose weight, but ensure optimal energy throughout the day.

1. Egg white scramble:                                        egg white scramble
Just stir fry some vegetables, like tomatoe, kale, spinach, onions, basil, celery – whatever you’ve got on hand, then add lightly scrambled egg whites and a bit of salt. I have come to appreciate the convenience of the egg whites that come in a small cardboard “milk” container. It is so easy to just pour about ½ cup per person. I put the scramble in a bowl and tell myself it’s a casserole, so I don’t miss the toast. I figure this filling breakfast comes out to about 100 calories, which is a great way to start the day if weight loss is your goal.

2. Egg white omelette:
Do the same as above, just don’t stir. Gently lift the edges of the omelette and tip the frying pan to allow some of the egg white to slide under the edge. If you can put your frying pan under the broiler for a minute you can speed the cooking of the top.

3. Hot Coconut Flaxseed Cereal:
½ cup coconut milk or your favorite “milk”
½ cup ground flaxseeds
¼ cup unsweetened coconut
¼ cup chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds
Ground cinnamon to taste
¼ cup sliced strawberries, blueberries, blackberries

Combine the milk, flax, coconut and walnuts / seeds in simmer in a pot for 5 minutes (or microwave in a bowl for 1 minute if you prefer). Serve topped with cinnamon and berries.

4. Chickpea flour pancakes:Chickpea flour comes from garbanzo beans / chickpeas and is a source of protein and vitamins as well as some carbs. It is gluten free and you can find it at Edible Island in Courtenay. I love it and use it regularly when I want to dial down the carb factor in muffins / zucchini loaf, and yes, pancakes. There are many recipes on-line for chickpea pancakes, which are also called Socca or Farinata.

5. Left-overs:
Chicken, fish, veggies, stirfry all make perfectly good breakfast food. Say what? That’s right, get outside the box and you’ll discover that healthy food tastes good at any time of the day.

6. Protein smoothies
Smoothies are a great way to pack a mountain of nutrition into a fast and easy breakfast. I always have chopped kale in the freezer ready to throw into smoothies. If that sounds strange, start with a little spinach and frozen mango. With a good blender and an adventurous heart, you can add carrots, beets, frozen broccoli as well as fresh and frozen fruit. We try and eat blueberries several times a week, so they always go in smoothies. For protein, you can add a protein powder, like the professional product we have at our clinic called Ultra Protein Plus (pea protein and vitamins) . You can also experiment with soft tofu, yogurt, almond butter, even sprouted raw mung beans! A couple of drops of Stevia sweetens up the smoothie without having to add the carbs and calories that honey or agave would.

We recently purchased a great little blender that works as well as a Vitamix (the gold standard of blenders, but expensive). It’s the NutriBullet, available for around $100 at Canadian Tire in Courtenay / Campbell River / Powell River.

7. Tofu scramble

My husband wasn’t sure the first time I served him a tofu scramble, but was a quick convert to the yummy flavours you can add to tofu to make it quite palatable. Here’s a recipe we enjoy:

• 1/2 yellow onion, diced
• 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
• 1 block organic extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
• 2 tbsp oil or margarine
• 1 tsp garlic powder
• 1 tsp onion powder
• 1 tbsp soy sauce
• 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
• 1/2 tsp turmeric (optional)

Slice the tofu into approximately one inch cubes. Then, using either your hands or a fork, crumble it slightly. Sautee onion, pepper and crumbled tofu in oil for 3-5 minutes, stirring often. Add remaining ingredients, reduce heat to medium and allow to cook 5-7 more minutes, stirring frequently and adding more oil if needed.
Serve with a bit of salsa or top with soy or dairy cheese. Serves two.
Experiment with spinach and tomatoes, curry powder and more.