Are Carbs Really the Culprit . . . Is “Cutting Them” The Answer?
Would you like to lose weight quickly? Do you presently consume breads, pastas, and an occasional donut? OK, just stop. You will lose weight.
When the scale is used as a gauge, cutting carbs may be the most effective way to drop pounds quickly, and in that lies much of the trap.
Yes. A trap.
Before I explain why “cutting carbs out of my diet” is an all-too-common and all-too-ineffective way of ending any battle with excessive body weight, allow me to speak to the athletes who have mastered the science and benefits of intermittent fasting, of carb manipulation, and of managing, monitoring, and functioning in a ketotic state. These strategies are not the same as “just cut carbs.” My condemnation of the practice I see promoted in posts at weight loss sites, is not in any way a reflection of careful, strategic nutrition aimed at performance, physique, or athletic goals.
Let’s start by understanding that, with few exceptions (i.e. lactose), carbohydrates are foods that come from plants. No, you’ve never seen a donut tree, but a grain grows from the earth. In fact, carbohydrates are miraculous in that they originate, in nature, from photosynthesis.
We exhale carbon dioxide, and a plant uses carbon dioxide (and sunlight) to make carbohydrates (and oxygen). In terms of survival, it’s a perfect cycle. We exhale what the plant needs to manufacture a source of human fuel. The plant returns the favor.
Plant-derived fuel, in its simplest form, is glucose. The sun, carbon dioxide, and mineral-rich soil manufacture our most efficient form of fuel.
Of course, we no longer live in a world where the simplicity of nature dictates simplicity of outcome. Today we have grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, and smoothie shops, and we can eat carbohydrates for a lifetime without ever seeing an actual plant.
Often, as we navigate supermarket shelves, we’re forced to use standardized labels (far from reliable but the best we have) as guides to nutrient content. Whenever we confront a word on a label that ends in -ose, we’re looking at something we know better by its deliciously common name, sugar.
Glucose of course is a sugar, and it is the foundational building block of every carbohydrate food.
So . . . glucose = sugar = carb.
Simple science out of the way, now we get to the questions.
QUESTION: Is sugar good?
Well, it certainly tastes good . . . and . . . if it is the “sugar” in blood sugar, it’s clearly vital to our survival.
Let’s try another question.
QUESTION: Is sugar bad?
Consuming sugar may be the single greatest reason for our obesity epidemic and the culprit underlying our population’s unfathomable rise in blood sugar related diseases (diabetes).
What quickly becomes clear is this. If we’re addressing sugar, the categorization of “good or bad” simply doesn’t work. It’s a bit more complex than that, and if “good vs bad” can’t answer the question of sugar’s role, categorizing carbohydrates can’t simply be a question of good or bad.
We can begin by separating refined and processed carbs from those in their natural form.
A cookie is a sugar-laden carbohydrate made from grains, but because you can’t plant seeds and grow cookies, processing of the grain is necessary. Flour and table sugar, key ingredients in pastries, snack foods, and even breads and pastas, create wonderful interactions with our taste buds and tiny little sensory organs that create a pleasurable “mouth feel,” but comparing a cookie to a sweet potato is an absurd exercise in overstating the obvious.
For now, for the sake of this article remaining brief enough to “digest” without creating overwhelm, let’s simply establish that there’s a vast difference between a natural carbohydrate food that grows and one that comes out of an oven, a factory, or a processing plant, the former being the option that better aligns with optimal human metabolism.
The reality that needs to be stated is, even the processed foods are a source of energy. Energy, in an aerobic physiological state (which is really any time you’re not under excessive physical strain) can be fueled by sugar and/or fat. That doesn’t mean these foods are healthy, nor does it mean they won’t have a long term negative impact on biochemistry and metabolism. It simply means they can meet momentary energy demand. By that token, it’s understood that if someone gets much of their momentary and daily energy from processed foods, the removal of those foods will require another energy substrate, that being either a natural carbohydrate or a fat if they are going to “fuel” metabolism and activity.
From this point forward, we’re going to proceed with an understanding that eliminating processed foods is a massive plus from a health perspective and that an ample supply of proteins and natural energy substrates is going to be a necessity to build and repair tissue and meet metabolic energy demands (I’ll share a bit more on this shortly).
Now, back to the sweet potato.
If it’s grown organically, we can call it a natural carbohydrate. Because its glucose composition is in the form of “glucose chains” we can call it a starch, a complex carbohydrate. Unlike the cookie (which we’re no longer talking about) it has a vital and complementary mix of micronutrients including antioxidants such as Vitamin A and C and its mineral content includes the big three, calcium, potassium, and magnesium all in their natural and bioavailable form, we can call it healthful and nutritious. Because it is a starch, the slower release of sugars has the propensity of providing a slower release energy without a radical insulin spike, it becomes a highly nutritious source of fuel.
Here’s where I have to pause. Based upon your prior education in this realm, you’re either ready to jump all over me and tell me about the glycemic index of potatoes being high, or you’re already so dismayed by where you think I’m going that you just want to hit me over the head with a “carbs-make-me-fat” hammer. I want to take a brief detour to discuss three relevant and related subject matters.
- Protein-sparing energy substrates
- Glycemic index and rendering it irrelevant
- Pancreatic hormones
Before you go any further, take a breath. This is not going to be a dissertation in food and nutrient composition, but rather a concise discussion helping illustrate why “carbs-are-bad” is a flawed belief for dieters. I know I said I want to keep this brief enough to be digestible, but these are important elements of discussion, each meriting its own rabbit trail, so . . . inhale . . . slowly exhale . . . and here we go . . .
PROTEIN SPARING ENERGY SUBSTRATES
Within my programs (A.L.I.V.E. and The Metabolic Reboot) I discuss the four pillars of physical betterment, the first one involving what we eat. Aside from pleasure and social connection, we eat for two primary reasons, to ingest the material we’ll use to build and repair cells (amino acids) and to consume fuel for energy. Simplistically, protein provides us the building blocks of our cells and fat and carbohydrates serve as our bodies’ preferred source of fuel. If energy substrates are not sufficient to meet energy needs, the body metabolizes proteins (amino acids) robbing cells of their “building material.” It therefore becomes important that we consume “protein sparing nutrients” (carbs and fats) to allow our ingested amino acids to be used for cellular protein synthesis. In the absence or in the case of insufficient energy substrates, we run the risk of cannibalizing lean body mass (muscle tissue).
GLYCEMIC INDEX AND RENDERING IT IRRELEVANT
Glycemic Index was created and is referenced in order to determine or illustrate how severely or radically an ingested food will spike blood sugar. White bread, oatmeal, and potatoes all have high GI’s which would suggest they’re off limits for anyone seeking to manage blood sugar. That appears to put them in a category with candy bars. Off limits for anyone who understands the links between blood sugar spikes, energy, and body composition. Interestingly, ice cream has a lower glycemic index than those foods I mentioned. Can ice cream be “better” for fat loss or weight reduction than a potato? There must be more to the equation than a concern for Glycemic Index. There is. Ice cream brings a far less radical blood sugar spike than a potato because blood sugar doesn’t spike upon ingestion. It spikes when sugars pass through the digestive tract and enter the bloodstream. Because ice cream contains sugars in delicious harmony with protein and fat, the release of sugar is slowed. Although a potato is a starch, and contains “chains of glucose,” without any other macronutrients present, the enzymatic dissolution of the chains is rapid, and without the slow release chains intact, glucose gets absorbed rapidly creating a sudden blood sugar spike. Here’s where it all becomes unimportant. If you consume the potato with a protein, fibrous vegetables, and a bit of valuable fat, the glycosidic bonds (glucose chains) dissolve slowly, sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly, and you are not subjected to a dynamic or sudden interruption in blood glucose. If we realize that Glycemic Index only relates to a food’s impact on blood sugar when it is consumed alone, we also realize it has little or no relevance when natural slow-release carbohydrates are consumed as components of multi-nutrient meals.
Insulin is manufactured by the pancreas. The role of insulin is to deliver sugar to the cell(s). It’s fair to call insulin a storage hormone. It happens to be one of the most anabolic hormones there is, but in terms of ordinary nutrition, insulin shuttles glucose into the insulin receptor of the cell so that glucose can be held in the muscles and the liver as glycogen, a fuel reserve. The pancreas also manufactures the hormone glucagon, which has an importantly opposite function of insulin. Glucagon plays a vital role in the release of cellular material, and for our purposes, it’s important to note that it plays a vital role in the release of fatty acids trapped inside an adipose cell. In plain English, insulin stores, glucagon releases, and if we’re going to burn stored body fat, we have to release it from a fat cell. When we consume simple sugars and/or processed / refined carbohydrates (or as you now understand, when we consume high GI foods by themselves), we experience a rapid spike in blood sugar. This stimulates a metabolic process whereby the pancreas shifts into a state of insulin dominance. As the demand for glucose storage is escalated, glucagon becomes less immediately important. In essence, the body shifts into “storage mode.” The more often we spike blood sugar, the more we tend to “lock-in” stored bodyfat. Long-term or frequent insulin spikes lead to a series of maladaptations that may reduce the effectiveness of insulin and escalate propensity for fat storage. Ideally, we want to stabilize blood sugar allowing us stability of energy and ongoing and consistent ability to release and burn fat. We want to hormonally balance the ability to store and to release.
With a baseline understanding of how carbohydrate ingestion relates to the hormonal environment, we can explore the short and long term effect of deeming carbs the enemy.
FACT: For every gram of glycogen insulin stores in muscle, we hold 2.4 grams of water. Because muscle is predominantly water, shifts in glycogen storage can quickly affect muscle weight and thus, the scale.
If someone obtaining a fair amount of energy from carbohydrate based foods “cuts out carbohydrates,” intake of glucose is reduced. This creates a demand for glycogen release. The fuel reserve in muscle is utilized. We have a condition of muscles “feeding” blood sugar.
As glycogen is released from muscle, so too is water, and a significant drop in weight is a given. Because most seeking weight reduction judge their progress by their pounds, this creates short term elation, and the “diet” appears to be working.
I mentioned early on that athletes trained in nutrition will learn to find protein-sparing energy from complementary fats, and will also learn to reintroduce carbohydrates per design, and with careful and strategic “carbohydrate manipulation” the body can be coaxed to release and burn more fat during “carb-reduction periods.” When weight loss wanters, however, see a blanket plan of “cutting carbs” as the entirety of the strategy, beyond the initial water loss, they often run into a series of traps.
Cravings are the first of the traps. In a state of energy deficit, innate mechanisms for survival drive us to hunger for two substrates, the one we can live off of the longest (fat which supplies 9 calories per gram) and sugar which provides the quickest energy (but only 4 calories per gram). The cravings will typically become overbearing, and once the “no carb” strategy is broken, a blood sugar spike follows.
The cravings, submission . . . and then . . . the binge.
The Binge is not a lack of willpower. It is a biochemically driven survival mechanism. The carb-depleted individual gives in to cravings, blood sugar spikes, insulin spikes, and because more insulin is produced than is needed to restore blood sugar to normal, the struggling dieter winds up with residual low-blood sugar. The hypothalamus, the control center of the brain, then senses blood sugar must be restored, and it drives neurotransmission to create . . . you guessed it . . . sugar cravings. And so the cycle goes.
If you summon superhuman willpower, and battle the cravings head-on, you’re likely to suffer a bit of brain fog, impaired cognition, and irritability. These are not insurmountable if weight loss is the goal (although the folks around you may disagree) but you’re not, by any means, free of the traps.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Even with the strategy of “just giving up carbs,” within a week or so, cravings diminish. This is explained as “ketones” being produced to meet energy needs, which may or may not be true depending upon a number of individual variables. What this “cognitive resurgence” represents is a shift in energy production. The absence of glucose the body was accustomed to forces an adaptation. A part of that adaptation, if a systemized strategy of protein sparing is not implemented, includes the breakdown of muscle tissue.
The body has an ability to convert amino acids into glucose. The brain, unlike muscular system cells, cannot utilize dietary fat as fuel. It requires glucose. In a carb-deprived state, a process of gluconeogenesis begins, the breakdown of muscle tissue converting the branched chain amino acids into usable glucose. Brain fog clears a bit, cravings may be reduced, but this indicates breakdown of lean body mass.
Perception wise, as muscle breaks down, all appears wonderful. The scale applauds. More weight is lost. This is a case of flawed evaluation, again the mistake of using the scale as a gauge of progress. The scale can only tell you how many pounds you weigh under gravity at a given moment in time. It cannot distinguish between temporary water weight loss, detrimental and costly muscle loss, and the lasting loss of adipose tissue (fat) which is far more elusive than most strugging dieters think.
If you recognize that the genius of the human body includes anti-starvation programs, you’ll understand why, as biochemical shifts take place, the endocrine system adjusts to allow “maintenance” on fewer calories.
The body “adapts” to a reduced caloric load.
We might call this a metabolic slowdown. Naively dieters call it “the plateau.”
The further someone moves into a state of metabolic compromise (entropy), the more dramatic the weight gain will be when “carbs come back.”
Because continued bouts with carb depletion are often the path frustrated dieters embark upon, the “I-ate-carbs-and-gained-weight-overnight” syndrome is misperceived as an innate or individual sensitivity to carbohydrates. It is, in fact, a self-induced condition leading to ongoing frustration usually accompanied by periodic fluctuations in body weight.
With each “gain-and-cut-carbs-to-lose” cycle, the sensitivity to carbohydrates appear to increase. Over time, with ongoing repetition of “cut-and-binge” we are likely to see a chain of metabolic changes leading to a shift in genetic expression, an acutal change in DNA programming.
SO . . . WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
A better strategy involves the elimination of simple sugars and minimization of bleached, processed, and refined carbohydrates combined with a “training” of the metabolic machine (digestive-endocrine-nervous system) so that natural carbohydrates can be accepted, digested, and utilized as a fuel source without causing any significant shifts in endocrine function or neurotransmission.
Eat integrated meals combining quality proteins, natural slow-release protein sparing nutrients, and quality organic produce without any consumption of snack foods, refined foods, or sugar-laden meals. This, as you’d expect I’d say, only results in lasting positive shifts in body composition if you also integrate a sound program of exercise moving the body through space and challenging the muscular, circulatory, and respiratory systems.
If you believe the paragraph above makes it simple . . . I only wish it were true. To complicate things further, Genetic Modification and hybridization of grains and edible plants grown for large-scale human consumption have created franken-foods unrecognizable by the human digestive system as healthful nourishment and natural energy. Add in the chemicalization of crops and it gets even uglier, but that’s an entirely different discussion for an entirely different article.
Rarely is a sudden shift from a ritualistic or habitual way of eating instantly traded for “the solution.” The shift normally requires a bit of education and some retraining of mindset. With a desire to learn, a willingness to recognize approaches that are failing you and adjust accordingly, and an unbreakable belief that you can gain control with the proper guidance and steps, you can completely recreate your metabolism, your reflection, your health, and your well-being. And if you need a coach or mentor . . . well, I’m here to help.
While I’ve made it sound difficult, it need not be. It’s just that the want for “a tip that changes everything” is a weakness making you a target for the next “just cut something” offering. Change requires change, and my programs are designed to guide people from a place of desire to a place of true change. It’s just not an overnight and sudden transformation. It’s what I call a TransGenesis and the nutritional piece is a vitally important part.
THE RIGHT STRATEGY
Without disregarding anything I’ve shared, we are all individual, and if you’ve found a low-carb diet to be supportive of your health, energy, weight, and body composition, there’s no need to question a thing I’ve said. Just realize, you found what works for you. The larger scale challenge lies in people seeking a simplistic plan based on avoidance, as with some exceptions, avoidance of anything bio-science calls a nutrient is going to lead to compromise in most people.
Those who have not ever experienced significant weight gain, weight loss resistance, or metabolic pathology will likely find a nutritional program integrating proteins, slow-release protein-sparing natural carbohydrates, fibrous carbohydrates (yet another topic for another article), and healthful fats sufficient to meet their metabolic needs.
Those who have suffered metabolic shift or endocrine imbalance may need a plan or system designed to firstly move them back toward balance, and secondly, to provide adequate material for anabolism and fuel, without perpetuating further compromise.
My programs incorporate a system I’ve called “Circadian Nutrition” which integrates strategic periods of carbohydrate manipulation with other complementary eating strategies aimed at healing, cellular recovery, and human betterment.
To stay connected to the strategies incorporated in the A.L.I.V.E. program and The Metabolic Reboot, join the FREE Facebook group, TransGenesis: The Metabolic Reboot.