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Turning conventional food wisdom upside down

Murray McMillan
Vancouver Sun

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 whole-grain products.

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 efforts.

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 pervasive.

How pervasive?

"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?) are everywhere.

"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 already stored.

"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 illegal."

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 pasta eater."

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, too.

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 House.

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

The other place she's sharing her knowledge is a website:, 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 groups.

"They find it hard to get through the physical addiction [to carbs], and then the mental addiction. It's sort of an online support group.

"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.

[email protected]


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 Rock, Arkansas.

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 brain function.

"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.


 Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun

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