Exiting the Zone:
Leaving Carbo-Phobia Behind

©1996-2000 Robyn Landis ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Do not reprint without written permission. Just let me know how it will be used and I'm happy to grant permission!

I get lots of calls and letters asking me what I think of the "anti-carb movement" or "high-protein movement"--particularly books like The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet, Dr. Atkin's New Diet Revolution, and Enter the Zone. I did address high-protein, low-carb diets generally and The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet specifically in my own book, BodyFueling®. However, a particularly strong "high-protein comeback" phenomenon post-dates the publication of BodyFueling®, and has become so widespread that other health educators and consumer advocates (among them Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Neal Barnard, Howard Lyman, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Nutrition Action Newsletter) have been forced to comment (mostly unfavorably). I join their ranks with my own answers.

* Check out my Myth Bust analysis of the May 1997 Delicious! article "Confused About Carbohydrates?" and my Myth Bust Letter to Organic Style about the South Beach Diet.  These both address similar issues.
* Also see this page of what experts say about high-protein, anti-carb fads.
* Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy says it all really well on pages 156-169, as does John Robbins' Food Revolution. See Featured Books.
* I comment on Fit for Life in this answer to a reader's question--see site Q&A.

There is little evidence for the "Zone" theories and claims, and plenty of evidence against them.

A lot of sources make an issue of Sears' research not being published, and that no established body of evidence produced by others corroborates the claims. I don't rest much of my answer on this, because I think a narrow focus on classical, published U.S. research can be limiting and brings its own biases. (See Chapter Three of my new book Herbal Defense for detailed perspectives on research.) I'm the first to emphasize that scientific research is not everything. Traditional and historical accounts, and anecdotes and personal experience, are meaningful and useful and should be taken into consideration.

But in this case, even historical/traditional evidence contradicts carbo-phobic claims. I value historical and traditional evidence, as well as population and epidemiological research. The fact is, historically, looking at nations' diets across a broad spectrum, people do not do well on a high-protein, high fat, low-carbohydrate diet. In fact, the countries whose health stats we admire the most eat a grain-based diet--the diet that carbo-phobics are bashing.

The experience of other populations does not back up carbo-phobic claims. Other practitioners and authorities I respect don't support them. My own personal experience, observations, and client feedback don't support them. They don't make sense. I could leave it at that, but to support you in analyzing such claims yourself, let's reason through it...

If high complex carb, lower-fat diets that emphasize plant foods really caused insulin resistance, obesity, and other diseases, then all the nations that eat such a diet would be fat and sick.

Instead, all those nations have dramatically less diabetes (for which insulin resistance is a precursor) as well as heart disease, cancer and stroke than we do. And that's not genetics/heredity, because migration studies show that people from other cultures who move here have an increased risk of disease comparable to ours once they move here, and their kids have no more protection than we do.

Protein is painted as a panacea, while carbohydrates are blamed for disease.

Anyone who emphasizes protein, especially meat proteins, is dismissing just about all the evidence that exists about diet. Scores of studies show that reduction in intake of meat and meat products result in better health in just about every area. Whether it is the amount or kind of fat, the healthy foods they displace, or something else in the meat does not change the end result: more meat, from an epidemiological point of view, means more disease; there is no disputing the evidence in favor of reduced meat consumption.

Vegetarians are invariably the healthiest Americans; and nations that eat less or no meat (as well as those that eat less protein and more grains, regardless of protein source) have the lowest rates of those diseases that carbo-phobics mistakenly attribute to carbs! Vegetarian women are less than one-fourth as likely to get breast cancer as meat-eaters. Vegetarian men have nearly fifty percent less chance of a heart attack as meat-eaters. Vegetarian diets appear to prevent and treat strokes, osteoporosis, kidney stones, cancers, diabetes, arthritis, ulcers, obesity, high blood pressure, asthma and many other diseases.

Fact: Countries and populations with more meat consumption have more of all these diseases, and countries that emphasize a plant-based diet see very low rates of those diseases.

Animal protein consumption is also now being linked to many negative "symptoms" of aging, including senility and Alzheimer's. And vegetarians live longer: the greater the meat consumption, the greater the death rate from all causes combined.

The great majority of meats add more fat to our diets than is healthy, and it's the worst kind of fat our bodies could possibly have to deal with. In addition, hormones and antibiotics are routinely injected into the animals we eat; animals also might eat contaminated or chemically treated feed.

Finally, meat and dairy products are a source of a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which converts to inflammatory chemical messenger molecules such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These are responsible for the joint damage found in several forms of arthritis, the reactions experienced in allergies and asthma, and many other chronic illnesses.

Despite the evidence, the "hot" new claim is that carbohydrates cause most disease.

(NOTE: Many of these diets not only emphasize protein, but give you full license to load up on as much high-fat protein as you want--cheeseburgers, ribs and fried chicken--as long as you cut out that "evil" pasta and bread. )

In most cases, the only time a COMPLEX-carbohydrate, lowfat diet, moderate protein diet doesn't work is when people don't do it.

And most people don't! These books/diets present an extremely unrealistic view of what people are really doing, with which I strongly disagree, as do statistics and the majority of professional/expert observations about Americans' eating. Barry Sears, for example, claims that people are eating less fat, and yet are fatter than ever. He "deduces" from this that they are fatter because they are eating less fat. He further concludes that carbohydrates are the problem, and that favoring protein and fat is the correct alternative.

There are two problems with this. One is that Americans are not eating less fat, and two is that even if the more mainstream advice didn't work, that wouldn't automatically make carbo-phobia the right alternative. (If pushing button A doesn't work, that doesn't prove button B is the answer. All it means is that pushing button A doesn't work.)

People are not eating less fat. They are eating more calories, so by some accounts the percentage of fat has dropped (even then, only slightly). By other accounts, total fat consumption has increased. Even if the percentage has inched down a bit, that doesn't mean total fat consumption has dropped. (If you add more water to a quarter-cup of oil, the percentage of oil in the mix will be lower, but you still have a quarter-cup of oil.)

Sears writes, "...the American public has dramatically cut back on the amount of fat consumed..." Huh? According to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics, fat intake has nudged upward. The average American ate 81.4 grams of fat a day in the late 1970s, and 82 grams a day in the late 1980s. (NAN, July/August 1996) And either one is high.

This opinion about "lower fat consumption" is used as "proof" that high-carbo, lowfat eating doesn't work. But it does work; what doesn't work is that most people still don't do it. I make it my business to watch what people are doing, and trust me: few people I observe under any circumstances are consistently eating a pristine, high-complex-carb, low-fat diet. And the few who do are not becoming obese as a result! In my observation, people are fatter then ever because they still diet, still starve, still eat a lot of fat, and are still sedentary. Those four things add up to overfat/obesity.

(Just try to find one large-scale study in which subjects are actually observed to eat a high-complex-carbohydrate, moderate protein, low-fat diet consistently for several years--and actually become fatter and more insulin dependent! Good luck and happy searching! I'd also love to see a large group of obese people "fuel"--again, a varied, high-complex-carbohydrate, moderate protein, moderately low-fat diet consistently for several years--and walk daily for that period. Who says they won't get leaner, fitter and healthier? We don't know, because people rarely do this. Dr. Dean Ornish's work comes close, though, and is extremely compelling. Carbo-phobics do not explain how Dr. Ornish's groups become so much healthier and leaner eating an even higher-carbohydrate, lower-fat diet than I generally recommend!)

High-protein diets are a cyclic fad.

High-protein "diets" keep making a comeback. They killed dozens of people in the 1970s in their heyday, but they keep resurfacing. Why? People jump on the bandwagon because it's "new." The diet and diet product industries and the media all profit from what's "new, more, better." "Low-fat/high carb" is not news after a while, no matter how true, so something needs to be different in order to sell magazines. "The same as yesterday" is not sexy. Facts are not sexy. Headlines, to be juicy and "newsworthy," must shout that all bets are off and now we "really" know the truth. (Until tomorrow.)

By bashing all the most basic, sound health/eating advice that has been given (and that has worked) over the years, the "new" high-protein diets get to "be different" than everyone else--and in our culture, that makes it interesting and newsworthy. (That doesn't make it right or healthy.) Consumers who subscribe to that definition of "news" are the natural prey of these kinds of diets. Those who favor fads over facts pay the price.

If you always believe the latest about-face, you will be yanked this way and that by changing headlines because they must change to sell magazines. But they have nothing to do with your life and how you should live it. Hype is not in your interest. Do what is right, not the "latest thing."

Excessive protein consumption is unhealthy.


Too little carbohydrate to run the body results in conversion of protein to carbohydrate to meet fuel needs.

Excess (unused) protein is converted to fat.

Converting protein either to fat or glucose is hard work, toxic--and unnecessary.

High protein diets are toxic to the body. The human body is not meant to subsist on protein, and must perform complicated finagling to fuel itself as a result. When deprived of sufficient carbohydrate fuel, protein must be converted to carbohydrate, but with stressful extra work and toxic byproducts that could be avoided by just eating carbohydrate to begin with.

And excess protein cannot be stored as protein, so unused protein is converted to and stored as fat. When you've consumed more protein than the body can use in the next several hours, your body will break down the excess protein and convert it to fat. (That's in addition to the fat that was already present in the food.)

Many popular high-protein diets recommend that 40 percent of your calories come from carbohydrate. That means a combined 60 percent of your calories would come from a combination of protein and fat. You do the math. (And they say carbohydrate makes you fat?!)

Further, every time you convert protein to carbohydrate for fuel or to fat for storage, the deamination (breaking down) of protein's building blocks, the amino acids, results in byproducts that are toxic and disease-producing. You place undue stress on organs that wouldn't be called on otherwise, dealing with waste products that must be treated and excreted.

Also, too much protein in the body has been shown to "leach" calcium from the system. Further, water loss is a result of protein breakdown, because the body uses as much water as possible to flush the poisonous ash of protein-burning out of the body. (This water loss caused by protein breakdown is misinterpreted as a happy circumstance by people who confuse "weight" loss with fat loss.)

Finally, high-protein diets (particularly animal protein) are associated in population studies with almost as much disease as high-fat diets are. Excess protein in the diet has been and continues to be linked to diseases ranging from some forms of arthritis to senile dementia to skin conditions, as well as cardiovascular disease. (There is plenty of research on all this, and I discuss it even further in my new book Herbal Defense.)

It is ironic that carbo-phobia books blame carbohydrates for being the cause of most diseases, when the high-protein diets they recommend cause predictable and unhealthy biochemical reactions, and are known to cause toxicity and ill health.

(By the way, if I ate 30% of my 2400 daily calories as protein, I'd be eating 720 calories of protein a day. That's 180 grams of protein a day--almost three times as much as the U.S. RDA for protein. I'm all for exceeding the conservative U.S. RDA by a bit--I get 70-80 grams a day as opposed to the recommended 54 for women--but tripling the recommendation?)

Carbo-phobia doesn't distinguish simple carbs from complex.

This lack of distinction is a crucial problem. According to the carbo-phobia books, cake and pie is the same as rice and potatoes. Bread and cereal are lumped in with cookies and candy bars. Whole grains are not distinguished from sugar. This "fuzzing" of the issues is totally misleading.

High simple carbohydrate consumption, along with high fat consumption and the obesity that results, IS unhealthy. And it can cause insulin resistance/insensitivity, a known precursor for diabetes. Sears uses this condition as "evidence" that Americans' [supposed] high-carb eating causes harm.

But here's what's so silly about that: Insulin resistance/insensitivity is linked to the real average American diet, which is high in fat, meat and protein (everything carbo-phobics recommend you emphasize) and low in complex carbs and fiber (the foods carbo-phobics bash, even though these foods have actually proven to prevent disease).

Obesity is also strongly linked to insulin insensitivity. And obesity is caused by fat, sugar, dieting and sedentary behavior--not by high-fiber complex carbs! High complex carb, high fiber and lowfat diets are strongly associated with reduced diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions in countless studies.

It's absolutely true that sugar-filled processed snacks and refined carbs should be avoided, but that doesn't lead in any way to a conclusion that you should also stop eating ricen, beans, spaghetti, unsweetened whole grain cereals and breads, potatoes, lentils, quinoia, buckwheat...

Here ARE good reasons to avoid
sugar and other refined carbs:
  They can be addictive because of the way they rapidly raise and then lower blood sugar, causing a low-energy state, headaches, jitters--and a craving for more of the same junk.
  They don't satisfy hunger in a long-term way.
  They are not usually an ingredient of nutritious food.
  You get a lot of other junk along with them in the same "package," often including a lot of fat.
  Highly refined diets are linked to the most common and serious diseases.
  Highly refined diets, especially refined sugar, are linked to less serious but equally aggaravating conditions such as candida (yeast) overgrowth, arthritis, allergies and fatigue syndromes.


Many health professionals do agree that insulin resistance is widespread in the American population--but there is no evidence this is caused by a complex carbohydrate-based diet!

To the contrary, a plant-based high-fiber diet along with regular exercise and low bodyfat levels is the proven prevention and cure for this condition. The fitter a person is, the more sensitive and responsive muscles and other tissues are to insulin.

There is a great deal of evidence that a lifestyle high in dietary fat, refined sugar and processed foods, and low on exercise, causes insulin resistance.

Low-carb recommendations fly in the face of everything that has solidly proven successful in treating diabetes type II, which is insulin resistance that's progressed to a serious degree.

Dietary intervention has a high success rate in diabetes, and the diet of choice in treatment is high carbohydrate and emphasizes plant fiber. Knowledgeable health authorities around the world agree that both diabetics and hypoglycemics benefit from a 60-percent or so complex carbohydrate diet with 30 percent or less fat calories. The therapeutic diet emphasizes grains, legumes, root vegetables, and potatoes in large amounts, and limits or excludes simple sugars, processed grains, and saturated fat. This diet results in better control of blood sugar; increases insulin sensitivity, reduces cholesterol and triglycerides; increases HDL cholesterol; and promotes progressive body fat reduction, all of which reduce the need for insulin.

Not only does the high-carb, high-plant-fiber diet treat diabetes, it has consistently proven to prevent the disease. Diabetes, currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, is strongly associated with the American diet and lifestyle (that is, the American dietary REALITY of high fat, high sugar and low fiber--not the imaginary one in which Americans eat low-fat and high-complex-carb and get fat anyway).

In cultures that rely on a more traditional diet based primarly on high-fiber high-carb plant foods, diabetes is very rare.

Population studies show that as cultures that switch from their native foods to the commercial processed diets common to America, their rate of diabetes rises in proportion to ours. Dr. Joseph Pizzorno and Dr. Michael Murray state that "the epidemiological evidence indicting the Western diet and lifestyle as the ultimate etiological factor in diabetes mellitus is overwhelming." (Textbook of Natural Medicine)

More than 90 percent of diabetics in our culture are type II, or NIDDM (Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus), usually diagnosed after age 40. NIDDM is characterized by loss of sensitivity to insulin. Tissues lose their ability to respond to the hormone, even though levels in the blood may actually be elevated, as the pancreas tries to compensate for the high blood sugar that results when tissues cannot take up the sugar in the blood.

So carbo-phobics are right that this condition exists and is common. They just blame it on the wrong things. (They blame it on the diet that really prevents this condition--when people actually do it.)

Obesity, a high-fat/high-sugar diet, smoking, and lack of exercise are all shown by many studies to be major risk factors for insulin insensitivity and NIDDM (not to mention other serious diseases that are epidemic in our culture, such as heart disease and cancer).

Obesity in particular is a serious factor--an estimated 90 percent of type II diabetics are obese! (And they are not obese from eating lentils and brown rice!) Many obese diabetics are able to restore normal blood sugar levels solely by achieving ideal body fat level.

Even when insulin resistance has not progressed enough to warrant the official diagnosis of diabetes, large body fat gains result in carbohydrate intolerance, higher blood insulin, and insulin insensitivity.

(Note: the evidence suggests that obesity causes progressive insulin insensitivity, but the carbo-phobics claim that it's the other way around--that insulin insensitivity causes obesity.)

Ironically, though carbo-phobia encourages less carbs and more fats, including animal protein sources, it is crucial for diabetics (and "pre-diabetics" experiencing progressive insulin insensitivity) to maintain low blood levels of both triglycerides and cholesterol. This means avoiding saturated fat in meats and hydrogenated oils as much as possible (completely, if possible), and keeping total fat consumption low (at about 20 percent of calories).

Also ironically, cutting carbohydrate back would reduce fiber intake. Fiber comes from carbohydrate foods, not proteins and fats. Plentiful fiber in the diet not only helps control blood sugar, but is associated with lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

"Entering the Zone"claims that "when we eat too much carbohydrate, we're essentially sending a hormonal message, via insulin, to the body...The message: Store fat."

This is typical of diet thinking in that it drastically oversimplifies a fact and leaves out all the relevant subtleties, selectively providing only the information that supports carbo-phobic assertions.

Yes, eating carbohydrate raises blood levels of insulin. What's conveniently omitted here is that eating protein or fat raises blood levels of insulin too. Eating anything causes insulin to be produced, because insulin is a hormone that manages the digestion and usage of ALL macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrate.

Further, it is incomplete to say that insulin is capable of sending only ONE "hormonal message" and that is to "store fat." Insulin is more sophisticated than that. It can send various messages to help various fuels be either stored or burned. Insulin plays a complex role in metabolism. It is not a simple "one-trick pony" fat-storer that can simply be eliminated from the picture by cutting back on carbohydrates.

Here's the full story. It is true that insulin helps escort fat into fat cells. What Sears doesn't make clear is that insulin also helps carbohydrate fuel (glucose) into muscle cells to be burned for energy, something that's necessary for us to function.

Further, glucose feeds the brain, and neither fat nor protein can replace that function. That's why, if you restrict carbohydrate enough that there is a deficit of food for the nervous system, a portion of all that protein that the carbo-phobics exhort you to pack in will get converted to carbohydrate anyway (at great expense to you and your health).

Here's more food for thought: when insulin does tell your body to store fat, the fat that is present will get escorted into fat cells. It's still the case that the more fat you eat, the more is going to get stored.

The strategy of eating equal amounts of protein and carbohydrate at every meal to solve the "problem" of insulin secretion is also illogical. Protein will increase insulin secretion whether eaten alone or with other foods. Carbohydrate will increase insulin secretion whether eaten alone or with other foods. FOOD increases insulin secretion because insulin manages the metabolism of all macronutrients, and is released when you eat any of them.

This not the first time that a normal body mechanism has been presented either as a disease (another example is when not eating for 7 hours results in low blood sugar which is then described as the "disease" hypoglycemia) or as the cause of disease, and it probably won't be the last. This is a good example of why, in my work, I make sure you understand the entire big picture of how the body and specific processes and functions work, so that you can spot sins of omission like this.


Very special "tweaking" of macronutrient ratios may offer performance benefits to athletes on a short-term basis, but that doesn't make them the ideal way to live for the average person's long-term health.

Most of us are not competitive athletes, like the Stanford University swimmers that form the basis for most of Barry Sears' observations. The results that he and his special sports bars produced with one college swim team do not necessarily apply to the rest of the population.

Many of the high-protein authors are making a business out of selling "companion" sports bars that use the diet's signature protein-fat-carb ratio.

Draw your own conclusions.

Most health professionals note that the only reason these "diets" works for "weight" loss is that it cuts calories.

"Although Sears hides it, the book advocates a low-calorie diet," says Alice Lichtenstein, a researcher at the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. "If you follow his advice, it adds up to about 1,700 calories a day." (NAN July/August 1996)

Well, of course you'll be cutting calories when you eliminate most of the grains you eat!

With a carbo-phobic diet, as with all "weight loss diets," you will lose "weight" if you starve yourself of carbohydrate. You will destroy body tissue. That's how the body works--when deprived of carbohydrate, its most needed fuel, it will convert other less appropriate fuels (protein, including lean muscle tissue) to carbohydrate to meet the need. As a result you will lose body tissue, and thus "weight." It just won't be primarily the body tissue you wanted to lose. It won't be healthy.

The question is what you're really after.

Weight loss, fat loss, whatever--that's "the zone" you're entering with carbo-phobia. It's a stone on the path in search of the perfect body, and of the perfect, short-term dietary manipulation to produce that body just as fast as you can.

If you want to know what I think of "weight" loss and "calorie-cutting," just read BodyFueling®.

Fat-phobia is unhealthy, but carbo-phobia is no solution.

I agree that America has gotten simplistically fat-phobic, for all the wrong reasons. Carbo-phobia preys on the fact of this, and other admittedly unproductive fads, as a platform for their own messages.

But these diets perpetuate the lust for Answers, by serving up a platter of oversimplified explanations to replace the ones that already aren't working.

For long-term health and energy, as well as a nice-looking, healthy body, moderately high COMPLEX carbs, limited simple carbs, low-to-moderate fat and protein consumption works--IF YOU REALLY DO IT.

And eating that way is not about "weight loss," it's about health. It's about working with your body, being consistent, taking good care of yourself because you want to invest in your future, enjoying a wide variety of foods, and not obsessing with food and diet (including weight, calories, fat grams, or any other compulsive measurement!).

BodyFuelers® don't get insulin resistant--because we're doing what's right, and we're doing it right. BodyFueling® is not about the latest/greatest "One Answer." It is not a "high-carbohydrate diet." It is not a "low-fat diet." (And it certainly does NOT exclude protein!) "Fueling," to me, represents a whole way of thinking and of living. It means understanding your body, caring for it, and working with it--consistently, willingly, for life. And it emphasizes having a fairly sophisticated knowledge about carbohydrate AND fat AND protein AND exercise.

I've been eating a 60 percent carb, 20 percent protein, 20 percent fat diet for 10 years now, and I'm healthier and leaner than I ever was (certainly more so than when I ate a lot more fat and fewer complex carbs!). No wonder so many of my readers and clients call and write to say "What are these people TALKING about?"

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