Santa Barbara Wellness Directory
Ayurveda and the High Protein-Low Carb Diet

Eat Your Carbs

by Claudia Ward, L.Ac, Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist

I have been studying nutrition since I was 13 years old. Growing up on a rich Austrian-Bavarian diet with lots of homemade cakes and pastries, I simply had to. So I have seen many fad diets come and go. For a while low fat diets such as the Pritikin Diet were popular. In Ayurveda fat is “sneha” which is a synonym for “love”. So there were a lot of love-deprived people running around! Today we know that (healthy) fats are an essential part of the diet, and low fat diets can actually increase the risk of diabetes.

During the current low-carb/pro-protein diet craze, carbohydrates including grains and starchy vegetables have been demonized -- accused of causing weight gain, sugar cravings, diabetes, and blamed as the reason people can't lose weight.

People do lose weight on high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, though the weight loss is due to water loss and reduced calories, not to lower insulin levels as advocates claim. First, the weight loss is difficult to maintain over the long term. Second, there is some evidence that these diets may increase the risk of coronary heart disease and kidney damage and since a high protein diet is often recommended for people with diabetes, who are already at high risk for heart or kidney problems, it might aggravate their condition in the long run. And a diet high in animal protein can increase the risk for inflammation in the body and certain cancers.

Scientists have found that when you stop eating carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin, a chemical that elevates mood and suppresses appetite. And only carbohydrate consumption naturally stimulates production of serotonin.

Serotonin is essential not only to control your appetite and stop you from overeating; it's essential to keep your moods regulated.

Antidepressants are intended to activate serotonin in the brain in order to regulate moods. Carbohydrates raise serotonin levels naturally and act like a natural tranquilizer.

Scientists discovered that the brain makes serotonin only after a person consumes carbohydrates. But these carbohydrates must be eaten in combination with very little or no protein!

So a meal like rice and vegetables or a snack like a whole grain muffin will allow the brain to make serotonin, but eating chicken and potatoes or snacking on string cheese will actually prevent serotonin from being made.

Especially women have much less serotonin in their brains than men, so a serotonin-depleting diet will make women feel irritable and prone to over-eating.

Some people need to eat a certain amount of carbohydrates to keep their moods steady. They experience a change in their mood, usually in the late afternoon or mid-evening. And with this mood change comes a yearning to eat something sweet or starchy.

This is not a question of will power, the brain is sending out signals to eat carbohydrates. If the carbohydrate craver eats protein instead, he or she will become grumpy, irritable or restless. Furthermore, filling up on fatty foods like cheese makes you tired and lethargic. Not to mention the dubious quality of fish, meat and most cheeses these days. Will eating a lot of fat and protein, while staying away from carbohydrates turn you into an emotional zombie?

I have been thinking about how this translates into Ayurveda. I like to compare different health systems. According to Ayurveda a high protein diet without grains will create a doshic imbalance and increase Pitta. A Pitta imbalance will manifest in irritablilty, grumpiness, impatience and anger. I am not saying that protein isn’t important, especially in the cold season. Dr. Mishra claims that we all need some kind of animal protein in our diet, otherwise we lose our self-confidence. An interesting thought! But we don’t need a huge steak or protein with every meal, as the high protein/low carb advocates claim. We need to include more grains into our diet.

Grains in Ayurveda, have a grounding, nourishing and calming effect, which corresponds to the serotonin theory above.

Of course I am not talking about carbohydrates in the form of sugar, white flour or fruit juices. I am talking about complex carbohydrates in the form of grains such as rye, millet, quinoa and amaranth. And of course also starchy vegetables like potatoes, beets, yams, parsnips etc.. Basmati rice is consumed a lot in Ayurvedic cooking, and the reason behind it is that it is easy on the digestion, so even though the outer hull of the grain is removed, the body is able to pull out more nutrients because it does not have to work as hard.

I have traveled the world and in most cultures whole grains and vegetables are consumed in great amounts with only a little bit of meat or fish. Just think of the Asian diet or the Mediterranean diet. And you don’t see any obese people there. America is the country with the highest cost of health care and yet the worst health compared to other countries due to the rise in the so-called civilization diseases. I believe the high protein/ low carb craze is just a fad that will soon be replaced by yet another one. So go ahead you protein fanatics and have your mid-afternoon string cheese snack, or beef jerky, I for my part, will jumpstart my serotonin levels with a homemade oatmeal cookie and a nice cup of chai!!!

About the Author

Claudia Ward, L.Ac. is cofounder of The Prana Center, Santa Barbara's exclusive healing center for Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, offering authentic Ayurvedic bodywork, marma therapy, consultations, nutrition, acupuncture and Pancha Karma cleanses. She is a Licensed Acupuncturist, Diplomate of Acupuncture, Diplomate of Chinese Herbology and an Ayurvedic practitioner.

Claudia may be contacted at:

USA Phone and Fax: 805-560-9727
email: [email protected]

See Claudia's page in The Santa Barbara Wellness Directory

Read the article "Oh Baby! Prenatal and Postpartum the Ayurvedic Way"
- by Gina Tolleson, Santa Barbara News-Press, July 31, 2006

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