Anyone who knows Vancouver chef Karen Barnaby
can attest that her generous laugh was once
matched by her proportions. She's not a tall
woman, but three years ago she tipped the scales
at 235 pounds. Today, she weighs 165, and joins
a growing list of celebrities -- including
Jennifer Aniston -- who credit low-carb eating
for the dramatic change.
For the past two
decades the dominant chorus of weight-loss
advice from experts in nutrition and the medical
establishment has boiled down to this:
Eat less fat, especially saturated fat. Limit
your protein intake. Increase your consumption
of carbohydrates -- fruits and vegetables and
Yes, that's super-simplified. But it's the
essence of Canada's Food Guide and the American
nutrition pyramid. The advice sounds good, looks
attractive and, for lots of people, undoubtedly
works. But not for all.
Many are now finding that their individual
key to weight loss and better health -- the one
that fits their body chemistry -- is to turn
that rainbow inside-out, to re-order the labels
on the food pyramid. They've become disciples of
low-carb eating, and have substantially slender
silhouettes and more energy to show for their
Instead of relegating protein to a tiny
corner of their plates, they increase their
intake. They enjoy moderate amounts of butter,
good cheese and rich mayonnaise. They find new
passion for leafy green vegetables.
What they cut back on -- way, way back -- is
carbohydrates, which form a huge component of
most North American diets. Carbs are simple and
complex sugars, though most bear little
resemblance to the refined sweet white granules
we toss in our coffee. The category includes
grains, fruits and vegetables, starches, fibre,
plus the more recognizable sugars that are
"As as low-carber riding B.C. Ferries, try to
find something to eat. The majority of people's
diets are carbohydrates," declares Barnaby with
her usual big laugh. Pasta, bread, starches,
sweets, root vegetables (Want fries with that?)
"I'm extremely passionate about this -- I
could talk for days. I've shed 70 pounds and I
think it saved me from a downward spiral
health-wise," she says between sips of San
Pellegrino water. We're chatting in the dining
room of the Fish House in Stanley Park, where
she's been the executive chef since 1995, and
where working in the kitchen offers endless
temptation, mostly in the form of carbohydrates.
There's always one last french fry left in a
bowl to nibble on; the bread station is too
close for comfort; an endless parade of sweet
desserts would test a saint's willpower,
especially given that desserts have long been a
Barnaby signature item.
"I couldn't understand why at 5 o'clock every
day, I'd turn into this raging banshee -- it was
terrible. It was from sugar." Then the
realization dawned that she was hooked on carbs
in all their forms.
Eating more carbohydrates makes the body
increase production of insulin, which has many
metabolic functions. It controls our levels of
blood sugar (essential to proper functioning of
the brain) and it also controls the mechanism
that turns excess carbos into fat.
"When you eat carbohydrates, if they're not
being used as energy, your body stores them as
fat," Barnaby explains.
The gist of low-carbing is: control the
amount of insulin and you'll also control the
fat, and force the body to use what it has
"I used to drink two litres of Coke a day; I
had a serious Coke habit," says Barnaby,
stressing the serious. "I was fine-tuning my
highs and lows with sugar, and it wasn't
When that carb consumption was set off by
something going awry in the kitchen, the result
was erratic mood swings. "It was like a
continuing state of PMS, and I'd come to accept
it," she says with that self-effacing laugh.
In her previous eating mode, Barnaby's
morning began with toast and coffee (no, not
black), and through the day there was always
lots of bread and pasta. "I used to be a huge
Then three years ago, she discovered a book
on low-carb eating. Why not try that one? She'd
tried most of the other weight-loss regimens.
Prior to that she'd made a serious attempt to
follow a low-fat diet. "I was stringent about
it. What a joke. I lost 10 pounds and I was
never so miserable in my life."
The book she lit on is called Protein Power
(Bantam paperback; $9.99), by Dr. Michael Eades
and Dr. Mary Dan Eades, husband-and-wife
physicians who have a clinic in Little Rock,
Ark. Theirs is not the first low-carb regimen,
not by a long shot.
There was Dr. Robert Atkins's "diet
revolution" book in the '70s (updated and
reissued last year), and more recently, Dr.
Barry Sears's volumes on The Zone.
The Eadeses trace the theory back to 1825 and
French author-gastronome-jurist Jean-Anthelme
Brillat-Savarin, who in his Physiology of Taste
pinpoints grains and starches as the cause of
"fatty congestion." Low-carbing was apparently
highly popular at times in 19th century England,
Barnaby says she liked Protein Power because
it explains the scientific basis for how the
regime works, and the way it's adopted as a life
style, not just a short-term diet. "Don't treat
it as a diet because you're going to a wedding
in June and need to lose 30 pounds. It has to be
for life because if you go back to your old
ways, guess what? The pounds come right back.
You gain more and it gets harder to lose them."
She admits it wasn't easy, especially the
first six months when she lost the most weight.
"I'd look at things [in the kitchen] and say
'That's poison, it's Satan.' "
The easily accessible carbs in her kitchen no
longer hold the temptation they once did, says
the chef, and she finds eating mainly leafy
vegetables and protein, especially seafood, is
"highly satisfying." The bread and pasta are
gone: they were simply vehicles for other foods
and aren't needed, she says.
And while it took two years, she can now
drink her three daily cups of coffee "perfectly
black." ("I used to think people who could do
that were so butch.")
Barnaby's first solo cookbook, published in
the mid-'90s, was called Pacific Passions, and
her new eating passion is obviously low-carb.
It's something she's now sharing with customers
through occasional special dinners at The Fish
For an Italian-themed evening in February,
the main course was prosciutto-wrapped cod with
caper-tomato-basil vinaigrette and a cauliflower
and goat cheese puree. Dessert was an
almost-frozen torte: ricotta semi-freddo with
rhubarb compote. Sound like denial eating? Not
at all, and it didn't taste like it, either.
On May 30, she gives a low-carb twist to
Indian dining. it will start with Madras tomato
soup with coconut cream; the entree is tandoori
grilled prawns. (The multi-course meal is $60
for food and wine; call 604-681-7275 for
information or reservations, or visit www.fishhousestanleypark.com)
The other place she's sharing her knowledge
is a website: www.lowcarb.ca, which has links to
many sites and books that deal with the subject,
as well as an archive of Barnaby's recipes. She
says she was about the third person involved
when the site started, and that it now has more
than 10,000 participants in various discussion
"They find it hard to get through the
physical addiction [to carbs], and then the
mental addiction. It's sort of an online support
"It's remarkable. People report that their
HDL and LDL [cholesterol] get in balance, and
that all sorts of things clear up, like
arthritic pain, brain fog, little aches."
Her own changes, she says, are the result of
"finding what works for your body chemistry."
We're all different, and low-carbers like
Barnaby have found what works for them.
Rock star Randy Bachman, who's based in
southwest B.C., is another person in the public
eye who has shed a lot of weight, but for the
moment he's keeping mum on how he did it.
Earlier this month, Bachman told Sun writer
John Mackie that through exercise and changed
eating habits, he's lost about 118 pounds from
his six-foot-plus frame, which at times carried
up to 300 pounds. Right now, says a member of
his staff, Bachman thinks it's "premature" to
talk about how he did it -- he's working on a
book on the physical changes he's gone through
and the accompanying issues that has raised.
Says the staffer: stay tuned.
GOING BY THE BOOK
The book that helped Karen Barnaby lose
weight, Protein Power, by Dr. Michael Eades and
Dr. Mary Dan Eades was based on 10 years of
treating patients at their clinic in Little
They refrain from promising the regimen will
work for everyone, citing "biochemical
individuality." They're confident, though, that
a high-protein, low-carb diet will "probably"
work for most.
"Basically, it doesn't matter how you lose
the weight, as long as you lose it," says Dr.
Greg Bondy, associate director of the Healthy
Heart Lipid Clinic at St. Paul's Hospital.
While Bondy says he doesn't see any
particular safety issues with adopting such a
regimen, he does point out that the body needs
some carbohydrates for such things as proper
"A lot of people do have success with
low-carbohydrate diets. The only problem is that
they can be very boring. You have to eat a lot
of protein and a lot of fat."
He cautions that attention should be paid to
what kind of fat dominates. "The fat should be
the desirable type -- olive oil, avocadoes ...
the Mediterranean diet. Saturated fats are
definitely bad for you; lean red meats are
fine." Saturated fats are mostly from red meat,
dairy products and tropical oils.
If you're contemplating a new diet, a
consultation with a dietitian-nutritionist could
be useful, he says, adding that they're likely
to know more about how the diet would work than
most medical doctors.