Is a Low-Carb Diet Low in Antioxidants? by Dana Carpender

I find the pronouncements from the dieticians and the medical industry more and more amusing every day. I recently read a column by a dietician who admitted that all of the research demonstrates that a low carbohydrate diet works for weight loss, and contrary to the dire predictions, actually results in better blood work than a low fat/high carb diet. She also admitted that there have been no indications of a problem with low carb diets long term. Still, she said, people shouldn’t go on low carb diets because, after all, antioxidants are terribly important, and to get them we need to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

No argument about needing antioxidants; none at all. But how long are these people going to keep lining up the strawman arguments? How long are they going to criticize a low carb diet by making stuff up? How long will they ignore how people on low carbohydrate diets actually eat, and what low carb books actually say? How long will it take for them to figure out that LOW CARB DIETS INCLUDE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES?


But what about whole grains? Do we really need them? Guys, I’ve been obsessed with nutrition for over thirty years, and never have I found whole grains to be a teeming hotbed of antioxidants. But let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Which are the antioxidant nutrients? The most important are vitamins A, C, and E, and the minerals zinc, copper, and selenium, but there are a bunch more. Here’s a nifty list I poached direct from Medline Plus of antioxidants and their sources.

  • Allium sulphur compounds – leeks, onions and garlic.
  • Anthocyanins – eggplant, grapes and berries.
  • Beta-carotene (turns into vitamin A) – pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach and parsley.
  • Catechins – red wine and tea.
  • Copper – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
  • Cryptoxanthins – red capsicum, pumpkin and mangoes.
  • Flavonoids – tea, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, onion and apples.
  • Indoles – cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
  • Isoflavonoids – soybeans, tofu, lentils, peas and milk.
  • Lignans – sesame seeds, bran, whole grains and vegetables. Not listed at Medline, but a great source of lignans, is flax seed meal.
  • Lutein – leafy greens like spinach, and corn.
  • Lycopene – tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon.
  • Manganese – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
  • Polyphenols – thyme and oregano.
  • Selenium – seafood, offal (organ meats), lean meat and whole grains.
  • Vitamin C – oranges, black currants, kiwi fruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum and strawberries.
  • Vitamin E – vegetable oils (such as wheat germ oil), avocados, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
  • Zinc – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
  • Zoochemicals – red meat, offal and fish. Also derived from the plants animals eat.

Are you noticing something? The vast majority of these foods are fine for us. Add to this the fact that animal foods like eggs, butter, cream, and liver are the only sources of pre-formed vitamin A (plant foods contain carotenes, which must be converted to vitamin A by the body, a process some bodies perform more efficiently than others) and it begins to look as though a diet based on animal foods, non-starchy vegetables, low sugar fruits, and nuts and seeds will supply more antioxidants than a diet in which some or all of the animal proteins or vegetables are replaced with whole grains, and animal fats like cream and butter are replaced with vegetable oils.

(Interesting historical side note: When the whole discussion of the “dangers” of animal fats started decades ago, and the government started pushing vegetable oils instead of butter, and skim milk instead of whole, more than a few doctors came forward with concerns that this would cause vitamin A deficiencies.)

Vitamins A, C, and E, plus copper, zinc, and selenium are, as I mentioned, the most important antioxidants. Are whole grains a great source? Whole grains are not a source at all of vitamin A, nor of vitamin C. They’re a modestly good source of vitamin E, but E is found in plenty of low carb foods, including nuts, brussels sprouts, avocados, leafy greens, and the much-maligned egg.

How about anti-oxidant minerals? Whole wheat is a pretty good source of copper, but so are seafood, nuts, liver, and dark leafy greens, all great low carb foods. Grains are listed as a primary source of selenium, but so are fish, red meat, chicken, liver and kidney. Sounds like our diet has plenty of selenium. And zinc? Medline states straight out, “High-protein foods contain high amounts of zinc. Beef, pork, and lamb contain more zinc than fish. The dark meat of a chicken has more zinc than the light meat.”

I ran a quick analysis of two meals through my MasterCook program. Meal One, the conventional “healthy” meal, consists of 6 ounces of boneless, skinless chicken breast (low fat, don’t you know?), 1 cup of green beans, and 1 cup of cooked brown rice. Since we’re avoiding those dangerous animal fats, we’ll leave the butter off the rice and veggies.

Meal Two consists of 6 ounces of dark meat chicken, which is higher in fat (and nutrients!) than white meat, 1 cup of green beans, 2 cups of cauliflower (which will turn into roughly 1 cup of our favorite, Fauxtatoes), and since we’re not afraid of fat, 2 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon on the beans, one on the Fauxtatoes.

How do the meals stack up? Well, MasterCook doesn’t analyze for everything, but Meal One contains 18% of your RDA of vitamin A, and 39% of your zinc. It also contains 1057 calories – quite a lot for one meal.

Meal Two, on the other hand, contains 37% of your vitamin A, and 35% of your zinc, for a better antioxidant profile overall. And surprise, surprise, even with that generous slathering of butter, we’re looking at only 682 calories.

(By the way, I happened to look up it up in the USDA Nutrient Data Base – our low carb meal will also beat the conventional meal for vitamin E content.)

In short, the dietician who is worried about us not getting enough antioxidants needs to get some real-world facts in place of her prejudice and conjecture. The medical and dietary establishments need to start paying attention to what low carb diets really consist of, rather than making up strawman arguments based on the notion that we eat nothing but meat and eggs.

A low-carb diet is not low in antioxidants.

© 2010 by Dana Carpender. Used by kind permission of the anti-author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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