Low carb dieting has become so ingrained into our culture that we rarely even question whether it is actually necessary or not. It has literally become normal and most diet trends are low carb focused (think Paleo, Keto, and Carnivore). Hearing a friend refuse food or adjust restaurant menu offerings to ‘lower the carbs’ doesn’t even make most of us bat an eye any longer even though a few years ago we would have rolled our eyes at this same comment the way we do today when our friends request the latest gluten free item. (Gluten free….pretty much just low carb in another guise).
The truth is that the human body is a carbohydrate loving machine and is literally built to use carbohydrates. This is isn’t what causes the problems with bodyfat and diabetes. Those issues stem from the type and quantity of carbohydrates consumed.
People have a lot of opinions about carbs yet don’t have a basic understanding of what they are and I have permanent scars on my tongue from biting it constantly listening to poorly informed idiots (sorry, I mean people) espouse whatever theory they have recently glommed on to from daytime talk TV shows or newsstand magazines and their favourite celebrity.
Facts: carbohydrates are good for you and your body functions best when it consumes them.
Your brain is a beautiful machine and prefers to eat glucose. In fact it eats somewhere between 25 and 30% of all the calories you eat in a day. A true monster! Glucose is its primary food source and when there isn’t enough glucose it will get slow and sluggish after starving the rest of the body of every ounce of glucose available. Your liver and all of your muscles act as a glucose repository to make sure there is always a plentiful supply on hand.
Should your body not get enough carbohydrate to fuel all of the glucose needs in your body it will eventually make ketones, which are essentially the safety net of your brain. That amazing organ has to stay alive so we have this emergency backup system. Ketones let you turn bodyfat into energy for your brain and while it isn’t what your brain prefers it can live off of them.
This is where the low carb diets come from. The idea that you can convert your body over to a fat burning machine causes most people to salivate more that that box of cookies over there does. Drop your carbs low enough and start getting all your energy from body fat. What could be better?
And it works! People drop fat when they witch to this approach. For a while. The credit goes to the low carb diet but for the vast majority of people the ketogenisis (switching over to burning ketones) never actually happens….
Carbohydrate amounts have to decrease to extremely low levels in order to have this process occur, like, really low amounts. Usually under 20 grams per day for men and under 10 grams per day for women! A single apple can have over 30 grams in it, one cup of broccoli has 7 grams of carbohydrate. Most people who ‘go low carb’ never get them low enough to switch to ketosis.
But they all lose weight!
Yes. Because they have gone on a diet and changed what they are eating. Instead of bags of chips, fast food, too many servings of bread, cookies, crackers, cereal, granola bars, juice, shakes, and a host of other carbohydrate rich foods, they eat more healthy food, which is lower in calories. It isn’t the lack of carbohydrate that is making the changes, rather it is the fact that they are eating less calories. The credit is always given to the removal of carbohydrate.
There is so much more to carbohydrates than people realize and this is where the issues come from. Maybe not right now or even a few months from now but over a longer time scale issues will arise.
Plants are mostly all carbohydrates. There are some that are higher in fats (like avocados and coconut) and some that are higher in protein (legumes and soy beans) but in general plants are mostly carbs. Grains, vegetables, fruits, grasses, nuts, seeds, and all plant sources are carbohydrate rich. That is their superpower!!! They turn sunlight, water, and soil into the very food that our brain, muscles, and organs want to eat! Fuck Ironman and Batman, plants are the true superheros.
It is not just the carbs that plants come with that we have to think about. It is the vitamins, minerals, and fibre they are packaged together with that are so very vital to our bodies. All of which cannot be garnered from animal sources. (NO I am not a vegan or vegetarian and I am not saying do not eat meat or animal products!).
The body of literature concerning the importance of the bacteria living in us and on use grows on a daily basis. As a culture we have finally realized that we NEED this community of bacteria, commonly referred to as our microbiome, to be healthy and to function optimally. These little organisms need fibre for food. It is all that they eat and when we curtail eating carbohydrates we deprive them of their only food source severely weakening this all important symbiotic relationship.
We need to eat fibre.
But ALL THAT SUGAR!!!
The other side of the lack of basic education people display when they discuss eating carbs is the concept of sugar. People are constantly talking about not eating sugar to better their health, usually as they down some packaged concoction that has removed added refined sugar and replaced it with whatever current chemical concoction tricks your body into tasting sweetness. I am not even going to get into that topic right now.
The facts are this: ALL carbohydrates are sugar. Sugar is just the scientific term for carbohydrate. Glucose, fructose, galactose, lactose, and a ton of other ‘oses’ are the names of various saccharides. Which is…the scientific term for carbohydrate!
ALL carbohydrates are sugars. There are more complex ones and there are less complex ones. It doesn’t matter what carbohydrate you eat it will eventually be broken down in the body into the simplest form of sugar. And what is that?
Remember that from before? It is your bodies preferred source of energy!
The above mentioned broccoli, bread, peppers, tofu, cereal, apples, pineapple, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, rice, corn, kale, spinach, potatoes, pasta, and every other plant based food you eat will be broken down into glucose.
Carbphobia tells us that we need to avoid the sugary carbs in favour of the less sugary ones and this is where the misunderstanding comes from. THEY ARE ALL SUGAR.
The difference comes down to packaging. Added sugars like high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, cereals, and other highly processed foods are mostly broken down to their simpler constituent forms before you ever eat them. So your body doesn’t have to do much work to get that glucose where you need it to go. These simpler forms are also far easier to consume in mass quantities, as they don’t trigger satiation the same way more complex food does.
What does more complex food mean? When you eat white table sugar it is almost pure glucose. Simple. You eat it and your body very quickly gets it into the blood ready to put it to work.
When you eat a plate of broccoli everything is in its natural state. In one package there is glucose, fructose, maltose, lactose, and sucrose, in addition to fibre. When you eat it your body has some work to do. It has to unpackage all the constituent parts first. Then it has to break all of those different sugars down into the simplest form, glucose. The fibre it cannot break down so it lets it keep going through the digestive tract, where it is consumed by all the little microbes and bacteria living in your gut that are vital to health and only eat fibre.
This whole process is called….digestion!!!!
And this is the crux of the entire understanding of carbohydrate.
Carbs are not bad. We need them and we use them. Where the issue arises is when we eat too many carbohydrates that have been processed or broken down into the simple version of saccharides BEFORE we eat them.
Added glucose and other simple sugars into the foods that you eat is the problem. Your body doesn’t have to do anything to unpakage it or break it down so it gets over consumed and very quickly sent into the blood stream wreaking havoc on our hormone levels and providing far too many calories at a time. This is also why liquid sugars are even more problematic as there is even less digestive work for your body to do.
Simple refined sugars and highly processed foods are all absorbed to quickly, require minimal digestion, and are far more easily over-consumed.
The issue is not eating carbs it is WHAT carbs we are eating.
And the answer is actually quit simple.
Eat food in its most natural state. Whole vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grain rice, and fermented foods are what your body was designed to eat. You have to bite them and chew them to kickstart the incredible process known as digestion where your body will break everything down, convert it to fuel, and feed your microbiome.
Depriving your body of these foods and this nutrition is a really terrible idea.
But our bodies are absolutely incredible machines that can take a lot of hardship. People treat their bodies poorly but we have so many safety mechanisms in place it is hardly noticed in the short term letting people satisfy their immediate desires (lose weight) without suffering dire health consequences.
If we could only begin to think on a longer time scale, say in decades rather than weeks or months, we could begin to understand an appreciate the true ramifications to our health. And the truth is that your body was designed to eat carbohydrate rich foods, in fact, it needs them.
Carbs are not the enemy, highly processed foods ARE.