Everyone seems to be jumping on the low-carb bandwagon lately thanks to the “Tim Noakes” Banting-style diet but, with winter’s nasty bugs on the way, will this new eating regime have a positive or a negative effect on your immune system?
According to Cape Town-based dietician Kim Hofmann, there are some benefits to be found in low-carbohydrate eating; as long as it’s low-carb and not no-carb.
Why you need some carbohydrates
“Carbohydrates are your unit of immediate 'energy food'. They control blood sugar levels and keep them stable, which is an important part of health. We (dietitians in SA) have always recommended a controlled carbohydrate intake with a limited intake of simple, low fibre, sugar carbohydrates. South Africans in general do follow a diet too high in carbohydrates, but cutting out complex, high fibre, healthier carbohydrates is not the best for your health,” she explains.
Watch: The lowdown on low-carbs
“Cutting out bread, pasta, and potatoes is often viewed as ‘low carb’ for the general public, but if you are still eating dairy, fruit and starchy veggies, this isn’t low-carb at all. Though it may be better controlled and therefore better for their overall health. For me, the biggest confusion comes in with the ‘no carb’ message that comes from the ‘Tim Noakes diet’. A no-carb diet is not best for the physiology of our bodies.”
Low-carb diets and immunity
So, given the current popularity of the low-carb/banting style of eating and the subsequent cutting out of processed foods and carbohydrates, does this type of diet deserve some credit for encouraging people to eat healthier? And could this way of eating in fact have a positive effect on our immune system? Kim says it could, if it’s done right.
She explains that diets which are high in refined starches, sugar and saturated and trans-fatty acid and low in natural antioxidants and fibre from fruit, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids cause more pro-inflammatory and less anti-inflammatory cytokines (regulatory proteins) – which basically means they produce more inflammation in the body. And you don’t want that.
Read: Carbs debate: the importance of GI
To boost your immune system’s functioning, you need to have a diet high in omega-3 fats, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains “and less saturated and trans-fats”.
The problem, Kim reiterates, is that many foods contain carbohydrates:
- Starches such as starchy veg (potatoes, sweet potatoes, mealies, peas, butternut, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots)
- Legumes (lentils, beans)
- Milk and yoghurt.
“Cutting out the healthier foods in these food groups will not help with the inflammatory process in our bodies.”
How to eat low-carb and stay healthy
So, if you are enjoying the low-carb way of eating and it’s working well for you by ensuring that you have plenty of “free” green vegetables (such as baby marrow, spinach etc.), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines), plant fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, and oils (raw – as in salad dressings – not cooked), you can have the best of both worlds.
However, Kim still advises that whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes all have a place in a balanced diet.
“Don’t cut out all carbohydrates in your diet, especially in the winter months. Still incorporate fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes in your diet to give your immune system all the support it needs.”
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Amy Froneman (ACE-certified Personal Trainer, The KettleBelle - Personal Training)
Reference: Kim Hofmann, Cape-Town-based dietician from The Lean Aubergine.