Is Your Low-Carb Diet Hurting Your Bones?
Everywhere I turn it seems that there’s another spin on low-carb diets. There’s Atkins, Paleo, LCHF (low-carb, high-fat) and meat and cheese diets, to name a few, with a new one popping up seemingly every week. As a nutritionist for 25 years, that means I’ve seen a lot of low-carb diets come and go over the years. I’ve also heard a lot of questions inquiring whether these diets are a healthy option at all. Not all low-carb diets are created equally; some help and some outright harm the body, particularly when it comes to the bones.
New research in the European Journal of Nutrition found that a low-carb, high-fat diet like its namesake LCHF, meat and cheese and Atkins diets may pose a threat to bone health, particularly in men. In this study scientists found that a low-carb, high-fat diet negatively affected three markers for bone health and bone building, including: blood levels of growth hormone, bone volume and a compound that determines new growth of bones (called bone formation marker P1NP). The same study found that this was a male-specific effect and low-carb, high-fat diets did not have the same effect on female bones.
Does that mean that women should run out and gorge on bacon, pork chops and cheese platters? Absolutely not. A Harvard University study published in the journal Nature found that in as little as two days of eating a diet high in meat and cheese, the resident microbes in the human gut shift to higher numbers of inflammation-causing ones. Considering that even low grade inflammation is increasingly linked to dozens of diseases including arthritis, heart disease and cancer, anything that increases the numbers of inflammation-causing gut microbes is not a good indicator for long-term health.
So, how can you tell if your low-carb diet is right for you? Here are some of the factors I consider when evaluating low-carb diets:
1) Any diet that eliminates or reduces “good carbs” like vegetables and legumes is unlikely to support health in the long-term. An ever-growing volume of research shows the value of plant-based diets.
2) Any diet that does not differentiate between sources of proteins, claiming that all protein sources are beneficial or acceptable on the diet, is of little value. The reality is that there is a huge difference between the body’s ability to digest and absorb amino acids from different types of protein. And, let’s face it: nitrite-packed, high-fat bacon does not offer the same health benefits as raw nuts, seeds or fish.
3) If you’re worried about bone health and are male, you should definitely skip low-carb diets that are also high in fat.
4) Gut health is increasingly linked to the health of every other part of the body. Throwing off gut health through consumption of high amounts of meat and cheese is never going to be a strategy for health.
5) Even a plant-based diet should include a small amount of protein (4 to 6 ounces of fish or chicken) or a handful of nuts or seeds every few hours to help keep blood sugar levels stable. Stable blood sugar levels means balanced energy and moods, less risk of obesity and improved overall health.
6) Your diet should differentiate between real food and “faux food”—what I refer to as chemical-laced, additive-rich “foods” that don’t really resemble anything actually grown or raised in nature, such as margarine or soda.
7) A diet should differentiate between good carbs (nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes) and bad carbs (candy bars, cakes, pastries, soda, white rice, white sugar, white flour, etc.). Obviously, a diet high in good carbs and low in bad carbs is superior to one that doesn’t differentiate between them.