Rating Low-Carb Diets for Seniors

Low-carb diet advocates believe that the benefits of cutting carbs range from rapid weight-loss and increased energy to decreased blood pressure and increased HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol).

For seniors, a low-carb diet could possibly be the answer to alleviating or eliminating the symptoms of certain conditions or avoiding health conditions altogether.

Healthy Aging Image Gallery

There are numerous low-carb diets on the market today -- some that actually work well and others that do not. In this article, we will discuss three popular low-carb diets, to help you determine which one best suits your goals and lifestyle.

The following diets are covered in this article:

  • The Atkins Diet for Seniors
  • The Carbohydrates Addict's Lifespan Program for Seniors
  • Sugarbusters for Seniors

In the first section of this article, learn about the basics of the Atkins Diet for Seniors (Dr. Atkins' Age-Defying Diet Revolution) and find out if it's safe for you.

To learn more about senior health, see:

The Atkins Diet for Seniors

The Atkins Diet received a spike of popularity a few years ago. While some people continue to swear by it, this diet may not be right for seniors. Read on to learn about the Atkins Diet.

Quick Take

  • A high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet
  • Eliminates all refined carbohydrates and limits other carbohydrate sources
  • Does not require calorie counting; only counts grams of carbohydrates
  • Encourages taking a variety of supplements

This Diet Is Best For

No one.

It's full of half-truths, inadequate instructions about how to follow the diet, and a variety of supplement plans that encourage over-consumption of some compounds.

Who Should Not Try This Diet

Everyone should avoid this diet. It's the same high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, with an anti-aging twist that nutritionists have been warning against for 30 years now.

The Premise

Atkins, of high-protein diet fame, made a foray into anti-aging nutrition with this diet plan. He rightly contends that chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, accelerates the aging process no matter what your age. But defying the "prevailing beliefs" about aging, Atkins maintains that most of the physical and mental decline that we consider an inevitable part of aging is actually avoidable.

He blames the current medical establishment for presenting the public with "horribly misleading" information about disease prevention and health. He promises to be the first physician/author to tell readers the "hard truth" that excessive intake of refined carbohydrates shortens your life. The basis of Atkins' plan, like that of his other books, is a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, but this one has an antioxidant twist.

He maintains that antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, lipoic acid, and selenium are critical to holding back the hands of time, and he lays out a plan for how to build up your antioxidant shield. Atkins focuses on preventing two major killers: heart disease and diabetes. He does this in part by emphasizing the control of fat levels in the blood, especially high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides.

The Rationale

Atkins believes that his diet, coupled with an array of supplements, can boost your immunity, fend off chronic diseases, and keep you younger longer. The diet focuses on protein and avoids carbohydrates, especially those with a high glycemic index (foods that raise blood sugar levels the most). Avoiding high glycemic index foods is important because Atkins blames over-consumption of those foods for heart disease and diabetes.

His theory is that eating high glycemic index foods can trigger insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia (high levels of insulin in the blood), high blood sugar, and ultimately diabetes. Controlling insulin, says Atkins, is the key to forestalling aging.

Eating on the Atkins Diet

While Atkins talks a lot about foods that are rich in antioxidants, preaches the avoidance of refined carbohydrates, and promotes several different supplement regimens, there is little guidance about exactly what you should put on your plate at each meal. Milk consumption is discouraged because it contains lactose, a simple sugar, but cream is encouraged.

Fresh fruit is limited, and fruit juice is eliminated. For weight loss, Atkins suggests a total of 60 grams of carbohydrates a day, but he offers little information on the carbohydrate content of foods.

What the Experts Say

Few health and nutrition experts are fans of any of Atkins' diet plans, and this one is no exception. It follows the same pattern as his other diet books, in which he advocates a high protein intake and greatly restricts carbohydrates, especially those from table sugar and refined and processed foods.

A diet so low in carbohydrates can leave you feeling drained of energy and is seldom successful over the long-term. In addition, his over-the-top supplementation plans could easily lead to overdosing.

Because little guidance is given in terms of what the daily diet should be, it's hard to say if you'll lose weight on the plan. It would be easy to overeat or to fall short on some important nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D. Almost no mention is made of either of these nutrients in the diet. Calcium-rich milk is limited to one cup a day.

Without supplements, that's a sure-fire diet prescription for inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake, which can be bad news for bone health as you age. The diet unwisely encourages the consumption of some foods high in saturated fat, such as cream, which is not a good idea for someone trying to prevent heart disease.

Aside from the haphazard and sometimes inaccurate diet advice, the book offers no less than 12 supplement plans for a variety of health conditions, one of which is for weight loss.

But it doesn't say what to do if, for example, you want to lose weight while at the same time supplementing for diabetes, a common predicament for people over 50. Because the diet emphasizes protein foods and limits high-fiber whole grains, constipation could be a problem. In addition, a diet so high in animal protein could also be risky for seniors who need to limit, not increase, their iron intake.

Calorie quota: There is no calorie counting, nor is there portion size guidance or a food exchange plan. In fact, Atkins discourages all three. He suggests you "eat the amount that makes you feel comfortable."

Yes: High-protein foods, cream, low-carbohydrate vegetables, small amounts of whole grains (within the total grams of carbohydrate allowed), a wide variety of supplements

No: High-carbohydrate foods, especially refined carbs and those with a high glycemic index; milk and fresh fruit; fruit juice

Other similar diets: The Zone, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution

Continue to the next page to read about the Carbohydrates Addict's Lifespan Program for Seniors.

To learn more about senior health, see:

The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program

This is one in a series of diet books written by the husband and wife team of Richard and Rachael Heller. Most of the books are follow-ups to their original 1991 book, The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet. This updated version, written for the over-40 reader, is basically the same song with some different verses.

Quick Take

  • Maintains that excessive production of insulin triggers carbohydrate cravings, making you overeat
  • Restricts carbohydrate intake to control your cravings and help you lose weight
  • Requires that you eat foods in particular proportions to one another

This Diet Is Best For

Those who have trouble controlling cravings for carbohydrate foods. That's not because the diet magically alters metabolism and reduces cravings but because it restricts carbohydrate intake to only one meal a day. It also is best suited for those who can't deal with the virtual ban on carbohydrates required on the Atkins diet but still want to control their carbohydrate intake.

Who Should Not Try This Diet

Anyone with preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

The Premise

The Hellers believe that 75 percent of overweight people -- and many people of normal weight -- are addicted to carbohydrates and that dealing with that addiction is the key to successful weight loss. They define carbohydrate addiction as a compelling hunger, craving, or desire for carbohydrate-rich foods: an escalating, recurring need or drive for starches, snack foods, junk food, or sweets.

The Hellers maintain that eating carbohydrates for some people is like doing drugs, and they have devised a diet plan that greatly restricts carbohydrate intake, distributing it in measured amounts at a single meal.

The Rationale

According to the Hellers, overproduction of insulin is what triggers hunger and drives the carbohydrate addiction. Eating too many carbohydrates, they say, causes a spike in insulin production, triggering carbohydrate cravings. This drives you to eat even more carbohydrates, which creates a never-ending cycle of craving, over-consumption of carbohydrates, and overproduction of insulin.

An overindulgence in carbohydrate-rich foods, then, leads to weight gain and out-of-control eating. Their answer is to regulate and restrict carbohydrate intake, especially eliminating foods that contain refined carbs such as sugar and flour.

Eating on the Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program

Though the Hellers' plan is basically a low-carb diet, it doesn't restrict carbohydrates to the degree that the Atkins diet does. In fact, it allows for a single carbohydrate-rich meal each day. Their diet prescription calls for two no-carb meals and one controlled-carbohydrate meal (called a reward meal) each day.

The reward meal consists of one-third protein-rich foods, one-third carbohydrate-rich foods, and one-third non-starchy vegetables. You can eat as much as you want, but you must eat it all within a one-hour time limit.

The Hellers recommend complex carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and potatoes. Sugar is not on the menu. Once you've lost the weight, the plan allows you to add carbohydrates to your reward meal a little at a time if you're maintaining your weight.

What the Experts Say

While the "insulin-makes-you-fat" theory is a popular one, researchers have actually found that managing insulin levels does not help you lose weight. But it has been proved that losing weight can help control insulin levels. According to Gerald Reaven, M.D., professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and an expert on insulin metabolism, "The whole thing is mumbo-jumbo.

A calorie is a calorie; if you take in more than you need, you gain weight." Moreover, the Carbohydrate Addict's Quiz that's supposed to diagnose your carbohydrate addiction could diagnose almost everybody because it asks questions like, "Does the sight, smell, or even the thought of food sometimes stimulate you to eat?" Most people could answer yes to this question.

Though not as extreme as Atkins' diet, the Hellers' diet plan is just as likely to be low in calcium and fiber and high in cholesterol-raising saturated fat, making it bad for your bones and your heart and potentially causing constipation.

The symptoms that the Hellers attribute to carbohydrate craving, such as weakness, irritability, and dizziness, could be due to any number of medical conditions and should be checked out by your health care provider.

Ironically, the lack of concentration that they attribute to overindulging on carbohydrates is actually a symptom of not getting enough of them. That's because glucose, the sugar the body manufactures from the carbohydrates you eat, is the brain's primary fuel.

Like the other low-carb diets, the Hellers' plan is likely to result in weight loss, at least in the beginning. But the high-protein, high fat program is not the best choice for folks over 50 for several reasons.

First, a lot of high-protein meat means a high intake of iron, something you don't need more of at this stage of your life. Too much protein is also bad for your kidneys, as with age they become less efficient at clearing out protein's waste products. Lastly, this diet can mean you get too much of the wrong kind of fat, which is bad for your heart.

Calorie quota: Calories are not counted and there is no limit on calorie intake, but proportions of foods at each meal are controlled.

Yes: High-protein, high fat foods

No: Sugar-fat combinations and a lot of high-carb foods

Other similar diets: The Atkins' Lifespan Program, The Zone, SugarBusters!

In the next section, learn about Sugarbusters for Seniors. Continue to the next and final page of this article to find out if this diet is right for you.

To learn more about senior health, see:

Sugarbusters for Seniors

This diet book has become a virtual classic among calorie counters, especially those who believe that sugar is to blame for their weight problems. The message of the book is: Sugar makes you fat; only by avoiding it, as well as foods that cause blood sugar to rise, can you lose weight and keep it off.

Quick Take

  • Based on the belief that foods with high glycemic indexes stimulate the overproduction of insulin, which results in excess fat storage
  • Recommends lots of unprocessed, whole foods
  • Eliminates sugar and foods high in sugar

This Diet Is Best For

Anyone who wants to cut back on their intake of processed foods and eat more phytonutrient-rich plant foods

Who Should Not Try This Diet

No one, although if you exercise heavily it might not provide enough quick energy from simple carbohydrates. Anyone with diabetes whose diet has been very different from SugarBusters! should check with their doctor first.

The Premise

The diet doesn't restrict your total carbohydrate intake, but it forbids or severely restricts the intake of certain carbohydrate foods such as refined sugar, honey, watermelon, rice, pasta, and corn.

SugarBusters! also includes a little bit of food-combining theory in the mix. For instance, the authors recommend that you eat fruits by themselves, not in combination with other carbohydrates.

You don't need to count calories, weigh foods, or calculate grams of carbohydrates on this plan, but you are expected to balance the portions on your plate and "eyeball" your portion sizes. Not only does the diet promise to help you lose weight, it also says it can help control diabetes and prevent heart disease.

The Rationale

Some experts believe that much of the country's problems with weight stem from the fact that we eat too many sugary foods. Too much sugar, they say, causes the body to overproduce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and fat storage. It's not the excess calories we eat that are the problem, they say, it's the types of foods we eat and how we eat them.

The authors of the SugarBusters! diet go so far as to claim that fats are not necessarily the cause of weight gain. The theory is that by balancing the insulin-glucagon relationship in the body (insulin is a hormone that lowers blood sugar when it gets too high, and glucagon is a hormone that raises blood sugar when it goes too low), you'll lose body fat regardless of your calorie intake. In fact, the book says that "most of our body fat comes from ingested sugar, not fat."

Eating on Sugarbusters for Seniors

The SugarBusters! diet is based on low glycemic-index carbohydrates (those that have the least effect on blood sugar levels), including high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; lean meats; and fats.

The book has several charts showing the glycemic index of foods, as well as lists of acceptable foods and foods to avoid. The lower a food's glycemic index, the less effect it has on blood sugar levels and the better it is for weight loss, according to the SugarBusters! theory.

The book provides two weeks of sample menus; about a quarter of the book is devoted to recipes. Although you don't have to closely track carbohydrate intake, by avoiding refined sugar and processed grains, you'll likely eat far fewer carbohydrates than you do now.

What the Experts Say

This is an area of controversy. Proponents of the insulin theory say that eating a diet full of high glycemic-index foods causes the body to overproduce insulin, prevents the breakdown of fat, and encourages fat storage. Opponents believe that obesity causes insulin resistance, in which larger and larger amounts of insulin are pumped into the blood in an effort to lower blood sugar.

Insulin-theory proponents, on the other hand, say that overproduction of insulin is the cause, rather than the effect, of weight gain. There's research to back up both points of view. Still, most experts are sticking with the current opinion that obesity aggravates insulin production, not the other way around.

According to Hope Warshaw, MSc., R.D., a certified diabetes educator and author of Diabetes and Meal Planning Made Easy, eating too much of any kind of carbohydrate can cause too much insulin to be produced, and it can result in weight gain because of the extra calories. The general recommendation today is to tightly control the number of carbohydrate grams you eat rather than worry about the source of those carbohydrates.

If you set aside some unproven explanations as to why the diet works, SugarBusters! offers up a healthful diet plan that encourages eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while avoiding junk foods and sweet desserts.

Because insulin resistance becomes more common with age and increases your risk of heart disease, following the diet should help improve your blood sugar regulation and insulin levels as well as reduce your heart disease risk.

However, activity is all but dismissed as a waste of time in the battle of the bulge, something that research strongly contradicts. Very little dairy is included in the SugarBusters! diet plan, so it's likely to be low in calcium and vitamin D -- not good for keeping your bones strong as you get older. But a multivitamin plus a calcium supplement should be more than enough to make up the difference.

Calorie quota: Calories aren't counted. But if you follow the diet, your calorie intake will be low and you'll lose weight while shifting to a more healthful eating plan.

Yes: Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

No: Sugar and sugar-rich foods, desserts, most processed foods, and all foods with a high glycemic index, including rice, potatoes, beets, carrots, and corn

Other similar diets: The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program

To learn more about senior health, see:

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D. is the author of seven books, including Foods for Better Health, The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!, and Super Nutrition After 50. Webb also writes about health and nutrition for numerous magazines, including Family Circle, Fitness, Parade, Men's Fitness, and Redbook. She is a regular columnist for Woman's Day and Prevention magazines, a contributing writer for The New York Times, the associate editor of Environmental Nutrition newsletter, and a writer for the American Botanical Council.

Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D. is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition newsletter and a contributing writer for WebMD.com. She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.