To carb or not to carb

Unless you've been living under a rock, you will be very much aware of the debate that has been raging around sport scientist Tim Noakes’s high-protein, high-fat, low-carb dietary approach. The sparks have been flying between followers and critics about the benefits and potential dangers of this diet and emotions are still running high.  

Noakes claims that the diet has helped him to reach his lightest weight and fastest running times in 20 years. Cardiologists, however, warn that this diet could be dangerous, as numerous studies have shown high-fat diets to be linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. Dieticians also warn that there's no research available on the long-term safety of this kind of diet and that most people will not be able to stick to it in the long run.

The "Tim Noakes" diet is nothing new, though. It’s based on another popular high-protein eating plan called the Paleo Diet, which basically prescribes eating the foods early humans ate, thousands of years ago, during the Paleolithic (Cave Man) era. It includes foods that could be hunted, fished and gathered (such as meat, fish, eggs, fruit, seeds, mushrooms and vegetables) and excluded foods (such as grains, legumes, dairy and sugar), that were only introduced to our diet when we started farming 10 000 years ago. The result is a diet high in fat and protein, and low in carbs.

Unfortunately carbs have been getting a very bad rap over the last few years. Though there is no argument that refined carbs, together with hidden sugars and fats (as found in fast foods, sugary drinks, cakes and pies) have a definite role to play in the worldwide obesity crisis, the real issue is that people simply eat too much; and they’re eating the wrong kind of carbs.

According to DietDoc, the body needs carbohydrates for energy, and fibre for good digestion. While fruit and vegetables do contain carbs, whole grains, cereals, legumes and potatoes will help sustain your energy levels throughout the day. This means that you will feel full for longer and therefore not be tempted to overeat. Unrefined carbs are also low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals, especially B-vitamins which help to keep your body's metabolism going strong.

Should you decide to switch to a high-fat, high-protein diet, do yourself a favour and visit your GP for a quick check-up. Knowing your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels is crucial to your health. If you already have health problems, it is even more important to get the advice of your specialist or doctor first. After all, Tim Noakes himself has said that this diet is not necessarily suitable for everyone and that people should consult a dietician for guidance.

- (Birgit Ottermann, Eat Well newsletter, September 2012)

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