Although very late to the “low-carb” party, here are my experiences of the impact on my blood lipid profile:
Courtesy of The Times 2016 . Please bear in mind this is just a personal experiment, not a trial! Nor am I claiming it is for everyone. And I am well aware it is not a proper LCHF diet – nor was it ever intended to be. It is simply a demonstration that excess carbs can significantly affect your lipid profile – for a number of possible reasons. I have published it here because people have asked me to – not trying to ram it down anyone’s throat.
You would have to have been living on another planet for the last couple of years to have missed sugar’s rise to the forefront of the debate about healthy eating. We all know that fizzy drinks, cake and confectionery are unhealthy, but what about the sugars contained in more complex starchy carbohydrates like bread and pasta – the sort of foods that make up around half our daily calorific intake?
There has been growing concern that starchy foods may not be as healthy as previously thought. Low-carb campaigners once dismissed as mavericks are fast becoming mainstream, and the low-fat / high-carb mantra that has pervaded healthy eating for decades is being questioned. It has certainly piqued my interest, so I have decided to make carbohydrates the subject of my New Year’s resolution.
I am a pretty healthy chap. At 6’ 2” and 14 stone my weight is acceptable. I am active, training at least four times a week, and I eat a low-fat diet with plenty of fruit and veg. But despite all this I have a poor cholesterol profile – something that is all the more worrying because of my family history of early heart disease.
At 7.5 mmol/l my cholesterol level is 50% higher than “ideal” but it is the mix of fats in my blood that concerns me more. I don’t have that much “good cholesterol” (HDL) and far too many triglycerides – both factors associated with an increased risk of an early heart attack and stroke, and, coincidentally, a high intake of carbohydrates. And more detailed testing reveals other worrying trends too, including a high Lp-PLA2 reading ( the PLAC test associated with unstable arterial plaque formation – although interpretation is still controversial).
The low-fat approach hasn’t made much impact on my blood chemistry so for 2016 I have decided to try a different tack. Thanks to a sweet tooth and a love of bread I eat far too many carbs so I am going to cut back for 6 weeks and see what it does to my cholesterol profile.
Starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes are supposed to make up around 50% of the energy you consume every day, but my intake is at least 65%. Which means I am consuming a lot of sugar, because that is what starchy carbohydrates are made of – hundreds of little sugar molecules bound together ready to be broken up and absorbed into the bloodstream.
It is generally accepted that big spikes in your blood sugar level are not good for myriad reasons, and starchy carbohydrates often raise it more than refined carbohydrates like sugar. Nutritionists use the Glycaemic Index (GI) to measure this effect on blood sugar using a scale that goes from 0 – 100 where low is good and high is bad, and you may be surprised to discover that granulated sugar has a similar GI to wholegrain bread (58 v 51). A white baguette, my particular bête noir, has a GI index of 95, around half as high again as Coca Cola.
My plan is a simple one. Studies have shown that a low carbohydrate diet can raise your good cholesterol and lower your triglycerides –just what I need – so over the next 6 weeks I am going to put that to the test.
I am not going crazy or super low-carb. The aim is to consume no more than 150 grams a day, which equates to 600 calories, or about 25% of my daily requirement. I will report back with the results.
Six weeks later….
I have been bowled over by the results. The details are outlined below but I shed half a stone in weight, my cholesterol level dropped 20%, my triglyceride level is down by a third and, according to the risk calculator favoured by the NHS, my odds of succumbing to an early heart attack or stroke have dropped by around 15%. Not quite the benefit you might expect from taking a statin but as near as dammit.
I am well aware that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and just because cutting back on carbs has helped my blood fats, doesn’t mean it will work as well for you. But if you are one of the five million or so middle-aged people like me who, thanks to a combination of poor family history and high cholesterol levels, are now eligible for statins then I would urge you to take a look at your diet first. So what changes did I make, and where have the benefits come from?
First some context. At 6’2” and 14 stone I wasn’t particularly overweight but I had a touch of middle-aged spread with a BMI of 26 (25 is the upper limit of healthy). My cholesterol was raised (between 7 and 8 over recent years – under 5 being “ideal”) and although I ate a healthy diet, I have a sweet tooth and limitless appetite for bread.
The plan was simple. I cut out all fruit juices, bread, cakes, biscuits and confectionery. And I restricted my intake of other starchy foods like rice, pasta and potatoes. I carried on eating fruit and taking sugar in my tea and coffee, and I had a free day every week that, on at least one occasion, included sticky toffee pudding. I made no other changes to my lifestyle. It wasn’t a particularly low-carb diet but it represented a significant reduction for me.
The resulting improvement in my blood profile could have come about in a number of ways. Firstly the weight loss will have altered my metabolism for the better. The drop in triglycerides (high levels of which are a risk factor for heart disease) is a direct result of fewer carbs, but the big reduction in other fats may also have been helped by the fact that I have eaten hardly any butter in the last six weeks. Not only is butter a key component of all the sandwiches I eat, it also features in many carb-rich foods like cakes and other treats.
The hardiest low-carb enthusiasts favour making up lost calories by eating more fat but, with the exception of cheese and eggs (which are both surprisingly cholesterol neutral) I was careful not to do this – an approach that seems to have worked for me.
Up until I started this trial I was considering statins – something I have tried in the past – but my cardiovascular risk (www.qrisk.org ) has now dropped below the new 10% threshold so I am not going to worry for now.
My only regret is that I wish I had tried this in my twenties. I have never subscribed to the view that sugar is the root of the 21st malaise – there is so much more to obesity, diabetes and related disease than just one nutrient – but I am a convert to the view that too much sugar and other carbs (which the body converts to sugar) is more harmful than most appreciate. My local bakery and sandwich shop may regret my decision, but it is low-carbs for me from now on.
Results at a glance
- After 6 weeks cutting back on carbs my weight dropped from 14 stone (89 kg) to 13 stone 7 lbs (86 kg)
- My fasting cholesterol level fell from 7.3mmol/l to 5.9 and my triglycerides from 2.5 to 1.5
- My “good” cholesterol (HDL) fell slightly from 1.3 to 1.2
- I did not monitor my blood sugar levels as these have always been well into the healthy range, but those at risk of diabetes should expect a significant drop here too.
- Refined carbohydrates should make up no more than 5% of daily energy intake – that equates to around 30 grams or 7 teaspoons of sugar a day for the average adult (less than the amount in just one can of cola)
- Current guidance advises total carbohydrate intake – sugars plus starchy foods – should make up around 50% of your daily calories (230g for the average woman and 300g for the average man, where 1 gram = 4 calories approx)