Monday, August 8, 2011

Carbs Are Not the Devil

My personal thoughts on diet have been constantly evolving, and I've found that ideas of just what is a healthy diet is probably one of the most contentious issue there is amongst all people and all cultures.

There are so many variables to each person's individual situation and health...and so many differences in personal experiences, but they all lead to this idea that many people adopt, that there is ONE WAY to eat for optimal health.

To the vegans and vegetarians, it's avoiding animal products.

To the fruitarians, it's all about overdosing on fructose and exercising at insane levels of chronic cardio.

Than we have the Low Carb/Very Low Carb/Zero Carb (LC/VLC/ZC) community, the Weston Price Foundation traditional eaters, and finally, we have the Paleo camp.

From my own point of view, when discussing dietary issues, I use "Paleo" as a kind of short-hand reference. It has the benefit of being easily memorable and someone who's interested in the topic after my discussion with them, can easily use google and find the paleo blogosphere... which can be a life changing discovery for those who grasp the basic concepts and apply them. (I've had a colleague lose over 100 lbs. and reverse diabetes simply by referring her to Mark's Daily Apple.)

But anyone who's a regular reader of the Paleo blogosphere is going to eventually discover that while there is a basic, overarching framework that most agree on, there's plenty of disagreements in particular topics and food items and macro-nutrient ratios, especially when it comes to carbohydrates.

Which in my own ruminations, have brought me full circle back to the original Atkins diet proscription.

In other words, I've come to the personal opinion that there is a purpose for a LC/VLC/ZC diet, but it should not be a permanent state except for in the worst cases.

I think the genesis of so much debate and disagreement comes from this: when people first start to explore different dietary lifestyles, they usually do so because they are experiencing the negative effects from a lifetime of eating the standard fare of our Subsidized Corporate Agricultural and Industrial Feed society. Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, IBS, Crohn's etc.

For most of these cases, the discovery of LC/VLC/ZC diets seems like a miracle, when they discover how easy it is to lose the weight and lower their blood pressure etc. while gorging themselves on bacon cheeseburgers without the bun and pizza toppings without the crust.

This leads many, many people to become carbo-phobes and protein fanatics. They embrace the legend of Two Brave Men Who Ate Nothing But Meat for an Entire Year, and look at ALL carbohydrates as the equivalent of cyanide or arsenic and people should never eat any carbs...ever.

I think the original Atkins diet plan had the basic concept right - reduce and eliminate carb consumption if your overweight or suffering from health problems caused by the Standard American Diet, and once you reached your goals and healed yourself, to slowly add starchy carbs like potatoes and rice back into your diet.

The problem here is that everyone is different.

For myself, I've never had digestion problems in terms of IBS, celiac, crohn's etc. I was simply getting overweight.

I've gone through a VLC period, and have remained LC for years.

But based on the works of people like Dr. Kurt Harris and Melissa McEwen, I've been adding more carbs back into my diet for the past 3 months or so. No weight gain, and a bit better energy levels and performance in endeavors that require endurance.

Now, I just try to minimize or avoid wheat flour and whole grains as much as possible. I'll eat a moderate portion of white rice, or use traditionally prepared (nixtamalización) corn tortillas, and I eat a lot of variety's of tubers as well - potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, etc. and once in a great while, I buy a loaf of rye sourdough bread and make sandwiches and burgers with it.

Compared to a year ago, the amount of carbs I eat is nearly tripled...but my weight and health have remained the same since I first began VLC/LC dieting and lost 35 lbs of excess fat from my frame.

This was a little surprising to me at first, especially now that I've had a complete change to my lifestyle thanks to Paleo Baby, I've never exercised LESS than in the last year of my adult life.

Yet I've had no change in my weight or health, despite eating more carbs than ever before since losing all that weight. I think this is the point both Harris and McEwen have come to - carbs by themselves are not bad. But to recover your health from a lifetime of SAD, a LC/VLC would be beneficial for a short period of time - not because carbs by itself makes one fat and sickly, but because a person who is in bad shape needs to change their metabolism and reverse insulin resistance.

As Dr. Harris wrote:

1) Reject the alternative hypothesis of saturated fat or cholesterol as a Neolithic agent – the so-called diet/heart hypothesis

2) Believe that obtaining a substantial fraction of nutrition from animal sources is necessary for health

3) Discount the absolute importance of macronutrient ratios in the nutritional transition.

4) Believe that a whole foods diet that includes adequate micronutrients is the best way to eat healthy.

5) Believe that tubers, root vegetables and other sources of starch can be healthy for normal people, but that most grains are a suboptimal source of nutrition in other than small amounts.

#3 was the one I had the hardest time accepting...but no more.

My additional thoughts to Dr. Harris though would be this:

Other than the issues with cereal grains - the glutens, WGA, phytates, lectins, and other issues found in the grain protein and bran, people who are not overweight or suffering any diet related degenerative conditions should not really focus on carbs...but most importantly to focus on the FAT in their diet.

Understanding the importance of a balanced Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid ratio in your overall diet. One really important point people should understand is that Omega 6 fatty acids are not "bad." They are, afterall, ESSENTIAL fatty acids. The real problem is the skewed ratios in the SAD, because most Westerners get their O6 from the rancid poly-unsaturated vegetable and grain oils, and not enough O3 because most food animals are no longer raised in natural conditions eating their natural foods (grass!). You DO require some Omega 6 fatty acids in your diet...just make sure you get them from natural, non-rancid and non-oxidized sources, like roasted nuts like Walnuts and almonds.

Understanding that the fat is vital in how you handle the protein (google "Rabbit Starvation" to understand that high-protein/low-fat diets are a potential disaster).

Same goes for the carbs. What makes french fries and potato chips particularly toxic? The rancid, oxidized, poly-unsaturated canola or soybean oils that are now ubiquitous in the restaurant and snack food industry...and that's without even mentioning the hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils used in most baked goods. These industrial oils contribute to inflammation on a cellular level, and combined with a blood sugar spike from eating a bag of chips, can lead to all sorts of problems. It's not the carbs per's the amount of carbs and the FAT you're consuming with those carbs.

Yukon gold potatoes deep-fried in extra virgin coconut oil tastes divine, and I get a kick out of knowing that such fare actually good for you.

Oh, and one final caveat: as much as I try to avoid wheat and other "whole grain" foods, I have never fully given up on grains...I just drink them after they've been malted, roasted, fermented and in certain cases, distilled.


Jack Dublin said...

Excellent post, especially considering the view those of us who go primal, and suddenly look and feel good, can get towards carbs.

I've become sensitive and need to avoid more than a few 'glasses of grain' a week or I get sinus issues and sneeze all day. But a bad day every now and then is a fair trade for feeling great most of the time and then reminding myself why I eat as I do.

The Original Hermit said...

Great post. I always have a problem fine-tuning my carb intake. I've never been over-weight, but I was skinny-fat until I started eating Paleo. My problem is that when I do eat more than a small amount of carbs, I can't stop eating them. I do feel better with some, but I overdo it and always pack on a few pounds in my belly. I've also been doing a Crossfit style exercise regimen lately, and that gives me an insatiable appetite some days, and it always seems to be the days I don't have easy fat/protein around.

I agree that carbs aren't evil, but I would have to say that they have a way of doing evil things to your willpower.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

^ this

Anonymous said...

All I know is this, if you weight lift and want to maintain muscle mass you absolutely need carbs. For a couple months I was taking powdered carbs (pure carbs if you will) in my morning health shake. My workouts were great and I suffered very little energy loss during the day all the while losing my spare tire. For the last two weeks I've been without them due to lack of supply and my workouts have been generally less productive and my energy levels during the day have suffered to the point where I skipped some workouts. They only change in my diet was missing those carbs. That alone has showed me the need for them just on personal anecdote.

Frost said...

I also find that dark bread doesn't negatively affect my energy levels, and I still feel "light" after eating a slice or two with a meal. Life goes on.

Also mix small amounts of potatoes and wild rice with a lot of meals. Same as above.

VLC is great for rapidly losing weight, but if you're at your ideal body size, I think we'll survive a slice of rye toast with the bacon and eggs.



Anonymous said...

@Anon (workout carbs)

I don't think this is generally true. I maintain a pretty strict low-carb (probably in keto 95% of the time), and building muscle is not hard. It sounds to me that you might not have given yourself enough time to fully keto-adapt. Because I'm pretty fit (not a ton of bodyfat), it took me about a month to fully adjust.

@Original Post
Carbs may not be the devil, but a strong insulin response to blood sugar is. Slow carbs are much better, but I guess I just don't see the point in incorporating much in the way of carbs (for adults) assuming your caloric needs can be affordably met with P&F.

Keoni Galt said...

Make no mistake about it anon - I still get the majority of my calories from P&F. If you were to look at my meals with my carbs included, the carbs usually make up only 20%-30% of the total serving.

I was LC for a long time (not enough to be in constant ketosis, but I did go through a phase in which the only carbs I ever ate were cruciferous veggies and fruit, no potatos, rice etc.

Keoni Galt said...

My problem is that when I do eat more than a small amount of carbs, I can't stop eating them. I do feel better with some, but I overdo it and always pack on a few pounds in my belly.

In my own experience, this is where the fat is so important. I can't overeat tuberes fried in coconut oil, it's pretty satiating.

I never ever eat carbs by itself.

The Original Hermit said...

For example, a couple days ago I made chicken curry for the family(chicken thighs, coconut milk, curry powder, ginger, bell peppers and rice). My rice cooker will burn the rice if I put less than 1 cup dry in it, and nobody else really eats much rice. Not thinking about it, I filled my bowl up with rice and soaked it in the curry mixture. Due to the high fat and protein of the coconut and chicken, the meal itself wasn't too high in carbs, but I ate such a large serving and even though my stomach was physically full, I still craved more.
Occasionally I will splurge and go for a sugary candy, generally if it doesn't have the fat/protein to fill me up I will eat a whole box of Mike and Ike's, or large quantities of something similar.
I don't think I'm alone in this, but the vast majority of carb addicts don't eat Paleo and aren't self aware enough to tell the difference. Paleo man (Grok, if you will), could get away with eating like that occasionally when the opportunity presented itslef, because he didn't have endless supplies of carbs year round.

There was a documentary I watched a few years back, about 500lb+ people that were essentially food addicts. Many had gotten gastric bypass surgeries, and still went back to eating non-stop all day. One guy (who had put all his weight back on) made the point about how alcoholics and other drug addicts that recovered did so by getting rid of the drug that they were addicted to entirely from their life. With food addicts, it's not so easy: what if you still had to have a litle bit of alcohol, a little bit of heroine, etc. daily just to live? They have done research and found that carbs do cause a dopamine response, and are addictive in a similar way to heroine or cocaine. I can understand people that demonize carbs, yes they do become killjoys about it to a certain extent in a similar way to 12 steppers, but they're trying to protect themselves from their own lack of willpower.

I like your idea of fried potatoes. It's a lot harder to overeat those.

PaleoPaleo said...

What never made since to me about VLC is the fact that the average person requires 150 grams of glucose per day. Why spend big money on grass fed beef only to have it converted into glucose when a dollar's worth of potatoes does the same (plus provides valuable potassium).

Keoni, have you read any of Ray Peat's work? I'm back eating fruit and drinking whole milk after listening to all of his podcast interviews. And amazingly I've lost that stubborn last five pounds (for a grand total of 65lbs.)

It's kind of funny. Paleo has essentially become the diet of a 1970's bodybuilder with Celiacs. Go figure.

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