Since the popularity of low-carb diets has taken the country by storm, carbohydrates have been getting an undue bad rap. From the Atkins Diet of yester-year, to the more popular Keto of today, people across the nation have been convinced that carbohydrates are the true evil of the American diet, causing them to get fat and develop diabetes. As a result, carbohydrates are being drastically reduced in these fad diets in an attempt to accelerate weight loss. In reality, our bodies need them to thrive.
The Truth About Carbs:
They are one of the most key, essential nutrients that the body needs to live and thrive. Yes, protein is also important and we cannot live without it. But there is a reason that the macronutrient we need most (50% of our diets) is carbohydrates — because carbs are the fuel for every single cell in our body. From our brain function, to our muscle mobility, to the pumping of our heart and rhythm of our lungs, carbohydrates fuel it all .
People on low carb diets very likely find themselves feeling sluggish, slow-moving, and in a brain fog a good deal of the time. The reason is that their diet is deeply restrictive of carbohydrates — reducing them from 50% of the diet down to only 20%, or sometimes an even more dangerously low 10%. This is the equivalent of ignoring your car’s low fuel light and trying to drive 60 miles up the interstate.
The Truth About Fat:
Perhaps even more concerning is that these diets promote a high level of fat intake. I find it quite interesting that these diets are suggested as a healthy way to treat Type 2 Diabetes in particular. While it is true that lowering the intake of carbohydrates will lower the amount of glucose in the blood (more on that later), that only treats a symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. What is the root cause? A high-fat diet .
Type 2 diabetes is known as inuslin-resistant diabetes, meaning that the pancreas is sufficient at producing insulin (unlike its Type 1 Diabetes counterpart), but it isn’t able to attach to the body’s cells to allow glucose in. Why? A diet high in saturated fats — the kind found in meat, dairy, eggs, oils, and fried and processed foods — clogs our cells with fat, and that fat blocks the insulin from pulling glucose out of the blood and into the cell . The problem with Type 2 Diabetes is not carbohydrates, but too much saturated fat.
These same fats are the direct link between diet and coronary artery disease (also known as heart disease). The saturated fat sources named above are also high in cholesterol — the root cause of plaques in the arteries that lead to atherosclerosis, angina, and coronary artery disease. The effect of coronary artery disease? A plaque in one of the arteries ruptures and gets into the blood stream, where the immune system attacks it and a clot is formed. That clot blocks the blood flow to the heart, where the tissue begins to die — this is the long way of describing a heart attack, which in 75% of cases is the first and only symptom of heart disease .
So those low-carb, high-fat diets may initially kick your weight loss into high gear, but they also put you at risk for Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease. Sound like a good trade-off for some temporary weight loss? Because the reality of it is, it will be temporary. The moment the diet is stopped and maintenance becomes the goal, the weight comes right back, the end result usually being an even heavier weight than pre-diet.
Carbohydrate Reality Check – What You Need to Know
A high-fat diet is not good for either Type 2 Diabetes — at least not if you want to cure the disease rather than just manage its symptoms — or heart health. But what about those carbs we’ve been told again and again by way of these mainstream fad diets are bad for us? That can be true…but is also very false. Allow me to explain.
There are carbohydrates that aren’t good for us. Those carbohydrates are the ones found in sugar, corn syrup, and refined grains. The glycemic index is a way of measuring the glycemic impact of carbohydrate-rich foods, by ranking them on a scale of 1-100. So where do different carbs fall on this scale?
Corn syrup gets a top ranking, dialing in at = 100
What about sucrose, or refined white sugar? = 62
White, refined breads? The same as corn syrup = 100
White rice, not a lot better = 72
To be considered low on the glycemic index, a carb has to come in below 55. So what are some carbs that come in under that magic number?
Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread = 36
Brown Rice = 50
Oats = 55
*watch the instant variety, though. They come in at 72 because of added sugar
Can you see the difference? Eating white bread is essentially the same thing as swallowing a tablespoon of corn syrup. Eating a high quality whole grain bread, however, bears a small glycemic load. The difference is in the fiber and nutrients. White bread is made of refined wheat, which has had all of the nutrients, the ever-important fiber included, stripped away (and the color bleached out), thereby concentrating the now-refined carbohydrates. It then has artificial nutrients added back in, along with extra sugars because Americans like things sweet, dough conditioners to make it soft, and preservatives to make it shelf-stable.
What the two different breads do to your blood glucose level is where the difference in the glycemic index comes in. Foods high on the glycemic index are so because they cause an immediate spike in blood sugar. It does this because those carbs are already broken down (refined) into the form of simple sugars. The body has to do little work to convert them to usable glucose, therefore they are processed immediately into glucose and pumped at high volumes right into your blood stream. This creates a sudden need for the pancreas to work overtime creating insulin to pull the glucose from the blood and into the cells. Your body is working in over drive (which is also what causes that dreaded carb crash) .
The high quality whole grain bread, on the other hand… it is a true, whole carbohydrate. That means it has to be broken down into a simple sugar first, and then into glucose. This process is slow, and therefore the glucose enters the blood stream at a steady, manageable pace. Blood glucose levels are not spiked, and therefore insulin is not flooded into the bloodstream at an accelerated pace. You also do not get the dreaded carb crash from eating whole grains, for this exact reason — it is a slow and steady process .
So you see, it is not the carbohydrate itself that is problematic, but the form in which it is consumed. If you are eating sugars and refined grains, then carbs are bad for you. If you are eating whole grains, fruits and naturally occurring sugars, then the carbs are not at all your enemy — they are your body’s best friend. The number one compound that your body uses to fuel every function and process throughout the entire body, is glucose. You need glucose direly. Cutting it out of your diet because of a current weight loss trend is detrimental to your body’s ability to function, and therefore to your overall health.
So How do You Lose Weight Healthily?
What I like to tell people to keep it short, sweet, and simple is this:
- Take the amount of meat and dairy that you are eating and cut it in half. Maybe even cut it down by 75% if you’re really eating a lot.
- Then take the amount of fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains you are eating and triple it (to accelerate weight loss, do less nuts and seeds, and more beans).
- Consume zero added sugars, artificial sweeteners, oils, processed or fried foods, or refined carbohydrates.
It really is as simple as that. The weight loss will not be extreme — in other words you are not going to lose 10 pounds in one week like on those fad diets. But it will be steady, and it will be consistent. You will continue losing each week, and it won’t come back once it’s gone. Why? Because this isn’t a fad diet, this is a lifestyle change. You are going to do this indefinitely, not just until the weight is gone. You can do that because this way of eating is healthy. It has no adverse effects like the fad diets do. This diet is the real maintenance that fad diets don’t teach you, and the only way to stay at a healthy weight.
A person who is not ready or willing to give up the refined, processed, fried, oil-laden foods and the overconsumption of meat and dairy are not ever going to lose weight and keep it off. That is just the harsh reality of it. To be a healthy weight, you have to have a healthy body, and that comes 80% from what you eat, and don’t eat (the other 20% from exercise). Of course other lifestyle factors play into that as well — like not smoking or drinking excessively (my idea of moderate drinking differs from that of the mainstream — not 1-2 drinks per day, but 2-3 drinks per week, like in a social setting or a celebration).
The Proof is in the Pudding
I grew up on a diet of meat and potatoes and processed food. I was heavier than I should’ve been during my childhood, slimming down during adolescence and gaining it back during my child bearing years (for me that was 19 and 21). When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago, my obsessive learning about diet and nutrition began and led me to where I am today. What does my own diet look like?
I consume meat (although never red meat) and dairy just three times per week. That’s three servings in total, per week. The rest of the time I get my protein from nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. I load myself down on veggies. I have sweets of some kind occasionally as a treat — occasionally being a couple of times per month. What I eat the most of is whole grains, or carbs. I eat them at every meal, plus for all of my snacks in between. I absolutely pig out on them, because they keep me full and satisfied. I never struggle with carb crashes, and my weight has held steady for a very long time (which is even lower than when I was in high school, and I am now 34 years old). I eat all the carbs I want and never gain a pound. My BMI is 20.1, right in the “normal” range.
If the idea that carbs make us fat were true, I would be overweight. Low-carb diets promote carb intakes of around 20%. The suggested macronutrient range for carbs is 50% of your diet. My carbohydrate intake is 55% and my weight is just right. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.
Carbs are not the enemy — not if we are consuming the right ones. Carbs fuel our muscles, sharpen our minds, help keep our digestive system moving, and assist cell production and function. Carbohydrates are the body’s best friend, so find the good ones, and don’t be afraid to eat up!
1 – Deeply Holistic: A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care, by Pip Waller
2 – How Not to Die, Chapter 6
3 – Dr. Neal Barnard, video on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S51D07bvlPY
4 – How Not to Die, Chapter 1
5 – Deeply Holistic: A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care, by Pip Waller