Low Carb Diets – Friend or Foe?

When we use the example of hunter gatherers many of us often use it to back up our argument that we are designed for meat and low carb diets. I do believe we are designed to eat meat, and I have met many people who fell ill when going on a vegetarian/vegan diet. I have also met people (although it much be said fewer) who found they benefited from a vegetarian/vegan diet. This sums up what I want to get across in this post – we are all biochemically unique and what works for one person really may not for another. I really believe the best thing we can do for our health is engage in the process – take responsibility and start to explore what foods work best for you. What foods make you feel great and what foods leave you feeling tired and moody.

So back to the topic of the day – why low carb diets may actually be detrimental to health. As context is always needed, what I mean by a low carb diets I am talking about those which may be only allowing approximately 60g of carbohydrates per dy. Have a look at your cereal box to get an understanding of how much this is!

There is an argument I became aware of recently that actually suggets that “it may be our ancestors’ ability to gather, eat and digest roots, bulbs and tubers — the wild versions of what became carrots, onions and potatoes — that increased the size of our brains and made the hunt and the territorial expansion that came with it possible.”

In a paper published in September in Nature Genetics, the authors demonstrated that unlike our fellow primates, modern humans have many copies of a gene that makes a protein in our saliva that is crucial for breaking down starch into glucose. Our brains run on glucose. DNA and saliva samples taken from populations all over the world — from locals in Arizona and Japan to the Hadza, hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, and the Yakut, Siberian animal herders and fishermen — showed that if you have more copies of the gene amylase 1, you have more of the protein. Groups like the Japanese, who eat diets high in starches, have on average a higher number of copies of the gene. “In human evolution, starch may have played a particularly important role,” one author says. After all, if you possessed the ability to efficiently convert starch into the glucose that fuels your brain, “you’d have a big advantage nutritionally”.

Chris Kresser who I often go to for unbiased information also argues:

“It’s important to realize that just because a low-carb diet can help treat neurological disorders, doesn’t mean the carbs caused the disorder in the first place. While I don’t argue with the idea that refined and processed carbs like flour and sugar contribute to modern disease, there’s no evidence to suggest that unrefined, whole-food carbohydrates do.

In his article, he goes on to give three compelling reasons why this is not the case:

#1 – We evolved eating whole-food carbohydrates
The first reason it doesn’t make sense that carbohydrates cause neurological disorders is that we’ve been eating carbs for a very long time, and we’re well adapted to digesting and metabolizing them. For instance, fruit has been part of the human diet for longer than we’ve been recognizably human, and while starch hasn’t been part of the human diet for quite as long, it’s clear that we’ve evolved mechanisms to digest and utilize it efficiently.

This is based on the fact that, compared with most primates, humans have many more copies of the gene AMY1, which is essential for breaking down starches. This gene is unusual in that the number of copies varies greatly between populations, with more copies present in populations that consume more starch. This indicates that starch played a significant role in our evolution.

“The fact that humans can produce glucose from protein is often used as an argument that we don’t need to eat glucose, but rather than viewing this as evidence that that glucose isn’t important, we might view it as evidence that glucose is so metabolically essential that we evolved a mechanism to produce it even when it’s absent from the diet.”

#2 – There are many traditional cultures with high carb intake and low or nonexistent rates of neurological disease

If carbohydrates cause neurological disorders, one would expect to see high rates of dementia and similar diseases in populations where carbs constitute a significant portion of the diet. But as it turns out, many of the cultures that maintain the lowest rates of neurological and other inflammatory disease rely heavily on carbohydrate-dense dietary staples.

In his article, Chris Kresser mentions many populations whose diet is based on high carbohydrate consumption including the Tukisenta diet which is astonishingly high in carbohydrate at over 90%. All of these cultures are fit and lean with practically non-existent rates of neurological disorders and other modern chronic disease.

#3 – Modern research does not support the notion that ‘safe’ carbs are harmful

The claim that carbohydrates from whole-food sources cause neurological disorders is not supported by anthropological evidence. In addition, modern studies on the health effects of carb-dense foods such as fruit also fail to support Perlmutter’s hypothesis. In fact, studies overall suggest that eating whole, fresh fruit may actually decrease the risk of health issues such as obesity and diabetes, and that limiting fruit intake has no effect on blood sugar, weight loss or waist circumference.

It’s also worth highlighting that very low carb diets essentially mean high fat and high protein diets. Not only can low carb diets make some people feel worse (especially those with low thyroid function or adrenal fatigue) but high fat diets can lead to imbalances in gut bacteria due to a lack of prebiotic fiber, which can result in digestive issues. So those with a history of irritable bowel type symptoms may benefit from avoiding this.

Like I said at the beginning – we are all unique. Start to connect the dots in regards to your nutrition and wellbeing. What foods do you feel may be contributing to your symptoms? This can be a challenge as it has been shown that symptoms can take 14 days to manifest, but my clinical experience shows this can still be a powerful tool.

Cheapest way to find if a suspected food is a problem – remove it completely from your diet for at least 30 days and see if symptoms improve.

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