I don’t think there’s a more heated debate right now than the debate over carbohydrate intake. Some people say that carbs are evil, others say that carbs don’t matter, and then there’s the group that says carbs are completely necessary and beneficial.

What does all this debate mean for you? All you care about is reaching your goals, but at every turn you’re faced with the health and fitness version of the game Clue.

“Hmm…I think it was Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a stick of butter!”

“Nope!”

“Son of a ****!”

So let’s sort out the facts about carbohydrates.  Let’s take an objective look at the issue. Let’s break this carb-talk down into practical, bite-sized pieces, shall we?

You don’t eat carbohydrates, you eat food.

The health and fitness industry loves to pretend that everyone eats macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs).

“Eat protein — it’ll satisfy you longer.” Then you’re stuck wandering the store looking for something that says protein, completely lost because nothing does.

That’s because you eat food and food tends to be comprised of more than one macronutrient. For example, a donut — often seen as “carbs” — is actually fat and carbs. There’s a little protein in a donut too. Who knew?

There’s also the important point that foods have different micronutrient profiles. A carbohydrate-heavy food can have a very solid micronutrient profile (like Tigernuts) just as a protein or fat-heavy food can.  Or, the opposite can happen.

One carb-heavy food such as a wheat-based product might be destructive to the gut where a carb-heavy innocuous food like sweet potato is not.

Since you don’t eat isolated carbohydrates, blanket statements about the benefits or dangers of “carbohydrates” are irrelevant.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal.

Not all calories are created equal and the same is true for carbohydrates. Sugar, starch, resistant starch, and fiber are all carbohydrates, yet they all behave differently in the body.

Where sugar is typically seen as problematic—especially to gut health—resistant starch can be quite beneficial to gut health.

Furthermore, you can break down “sugar” into different types and see more differences. Glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combo of glucose and fructose), galactose, and lactose have unique effects on the body. So a carb isn’t a carb and a sugar isn’t a sugar.

When someone says, “carbs are beneficial” or “carbs are harmful” or “carbs are necessary,” you can be sure that you’re hearing a statement that lacks important context. Without the context, reaching your goals becomes quite difficult.

The terms “low carbohydrate” and “high carbohydrate” are difficult to define.

That’s the famous debate, right? “Low carb is best! No, high carb is best!” Or, “Low carb is dangerous! No, high carb diets make you fat!”

I don’t know what any of that means. Is a low carb diet that’s comprised of processed vegetable and seed oils, CAFO meat, and margarine best? I don’t think anyone would make that argument. So, let’s stop saying “low carb” or “high carb” as if they have anything remotely to do with health.

Of course, I also want to know how “low” is defined? Is it relative or is there some arbitrary number of grams we’re counting? Relatively speaking, a real food-based diet is almost certainly going to be “low carb” when compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD).

If you’re setting an arbitrary number, well, that’s broken too. You can’t say, “low carb is 100 grams or less.” Do you think a keyboard warrior and an CrossFitter can both fall in love with the same number?

200g of carbs might be really high for someone who spends 80 hours a week in an office and gets little activity outside of work. 200g of carbs might be really low for a triathlete. Context, context, context.

For all the die-hard low-carbers, just because the SAD is relatively “high carb” and tends to make people fat doesn’t mean that “high carb diets” make people fat. There’s a food quality issue. There’s a lifestyle context issue. There’s a lot of issues with that belief.

Fruit and starches don’t make you fat.

Some of the worst dogma floating around insists that all sugars and all starches are destructive. People will lead you to believe that fruit or potato consumption is going to blow up your waistline.

This is simply not true. What blows up your waistline is a combination of chronic over-eating (multi-factorial), pathological sedentism, destructive fat consumption, poor gut health, low quality or low quantity sleep, and high levels of processed food/sugar consumption.

While it’s advisable for some people to avoid fruit and starches in the short-term to overcome specific obstacles, I don’t recommend adopting that approach as a lifestyle strategy.

It’s not just the carbohydrates in processed foods that make them problematic.

Many people consider processed foods to be “carbs.” As I demonstrated with the donut example, this is an oversimplification. But beyond that, it’s important to understand that processed foods are uniquely problematic.

For one, processed foods are made to be hyperpalatable. As I explain to my Decode Your Cravings clients, the combination of sugar, salt, and fat creates a flavor profile that doesn’t exist anywhere else in nature. It’s a flavor profile that lights up the reward centers of your brain in a way that real food does not. This encourages over-eating.

Processed foods also contribute to poor gut health, which has a range of implications on your health and eating habits.

Processed foods are almost always low in micronutrients as well. This means you’re taking in calories while failing to take in adequate nutrition. Your body realizes this and triggers more hunger rather than more satiety.

Lastly, hyperpalatable, processed foods desensitize your taste buds and make real food less flavorful. After a while, real foods become less enjoyable and you start to prefer and seek out processed foods for their advanced flavor profile and the dopamine hit.

These are just a handful of the problems presented by processed foods. The point is that “carbs” can’t be singled out as the culprit here.

Limiting carbohydrate intake can be beneficial.

For someone coming from sugar addiction, disordered eating habits, and chronic dieting, focusing on healthy fat and healthy protein can be a refreshing concept.

With fat and protein making up nearly the entire macronutrient pie, so to speak, energy levels can be evened out, hunger and cravings can be minimized, and calories can be reduced with little effort.*

If you’re metabolically compromised, perhaps having Diabetes or a degree of insulin resistance, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that limiting processed carbohydrate intake can aid glucose control**.

*This is the real reason why low carb diets work for fat loss. It has little to do with “insulin makes you fat” and a lot more to do with “a higher fat, higher protein intake is a great way to reduce caloric intake without thought.”

**However, diets that are ketogenic or near-ketogenic can cause physiological insulin resistance and raise fasting blood glucose levels.

Increasing carbohydrate intake can be beneficial.

Athletes and highly active people should seek to get a much larger portion of their calories from real-food carbohydrates than those who are more sedentary.

One of the biggest mistakes I see highly active people or those with high metabolisms make is thinking that they have to try and limit carbohydrates.

The second mistake I see some in this group make is using processed food as the vehicle for their carbs because they think their activity level allows them to eat anything. This can lead to disordered eating and poor health.

While there are a lot of examples of athletes—particularly endurance athletes—powering their lifestyles on low carbohydrate diets, I just don’t see a reason for it. There’s a lot of benefits to real-food carbs in this context.

Lastly, men and women suffering from metabolic decline due to chronic calorie restriction are encouraged to increase their real-food carbohydrate consumption. This adjustment increases overall calories and stimulates appetite so you can consistently eat more food and restore a higher metabolic rate.

Make sure you check out my related video and article, “How Many Carbs Per Day Should I Be Eating?”

What the carbohydrate discussion needs is more precision and flexibility.

There are very few things in health and fitness that are black and white. Unfortunately, the dogma floating around would have you believe otherwise. It’s easier to sell one-size-fits-all solutions than it is to actually educate people and to spend time helping them arrive at personalized solutions.

I hope that I’ve provided a lot of the important context in this article and given you some powerful ammunition for shutting down the dangerous dogma about carbohydrates. The comments are open for you to share your thoughts.

Comments

  • Arden Ballard says:

    Good work, Kevin!

  • Lisa Mann Perkins says:

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your thoughtful, nuanced approach to life, but carb intake in particular. As a dedicated biohacker, I’ve enjoyed experimenting with macronutrient ratios, carb cycling, etc. all within the context of a whole foods diet. However, my deep dive into ketosis while training hard (without benefit of resistant starch which I now incorporate, both through whole foods and raw potato starch) was an unmitigated disaster on my thyroid, sex hormones, cortisol levels, and gut micro biome. It’s been a solid year of digging out and I’m still working at it. Low carb, as you stated, can be miraculous especially when compared with SAD but like you said, you have got to consider your activity levels and, for heaven’s sake, LISTEN to your body when it tells you something is going awry! I didn’t do this and had to learn the hard way. Keep the rational information coming, it’s invaluable.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      I hear so many stories of ketogenic diets causing issues, especially in women. It’s so unfortunate that it’s such a big fad right now. I recognize the acute medical situations where a ketogenic intervention can be helpful, but soooo many people are using it as an everyday strategy it’s wrecking them 🙁

      • Edith D Thurman says:

        Actually my daughter has been doing this for months and loves it. She’s also very active, an MA in the Navy and a power lifter. It has helped her even out her hormones, less headaches, menstrual problems, an others. She’s the reason I’m looking into it. I have inflammation issues, also severe brain fog, always tired, can’t remember anything anymore. Not to mention I’m a sugar addict! Which I was doing very good for awhile, but I was still tired and had all the mental issues. So like the article said stories are not always completely true!

  • Daria says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you very much for your article.

    I cannot agree more with its underlying message, currently society comes up with health & fitness “hypes” which are essentially frameworks – i.e. tools made for simplifying concepts and in the health & fitness context this means finding one size fits all approach that of course does not take into account any individual side effects such approach (in this case lowering carbohydrates) may have.

    What you article does very effectively is urging individuals to finally look inside themselves and stop treating their bodies as something external bestowed upon them by chance and embrace these bodies with care instead of torturing them with fads that may not even apply.

    Kind regards,

    Daria

  • Walter Sobchak says:

    Kevin,

    Man! The quality of the content (and its delivery!) on this site is amazing!

    Thank you for your obvious hard work!

    Sincerely,
    Walt

  • RubyC says:

    I read your articles and hear a lot of things that are wrong and should not be done, but I get very little idea of what you are recommending that *should* be done…

  • Brady Hubbard says:

    I must say that I have learned a couple more things about it that did not already know. I didn’t fully understand the concept of why I am never hungry anymore after being 1.5 months into my ketosis journey. But this shed some light on that and I really appreciate it

  • Dana says:

    Yeah, about your calories argument…

    Every now and again I’d track my food intake. In the process of this, and while low-carbing, I found that low-carb/moderate protein/high fat meant that I could eat almost 3000 calories a day and LOSE weight.

    That’s almost 3000. Way more than 2000. A little over 2900. And I was not exercising. And I’m female and 5’6″.

    Everyone argues that low carb works because people cut calories. That is not even close to true. Some people who cut calories and eat low carb lose weight, yes. But you don’t have to eat low calorie to lose weight.

    As for the idea that LC slows thyroid, that is not everyone’s experience. I’ve heard from people for whom the reverse is true.

    And I do gain weight on “natural” starch.

    And I don’t buy the concept of hyperpalatability either. That basically means “tasting WAY good.” Steak tastes way good. You are not going to turn into a 500-pound chunker eating nothing but ribeyes all day long. You. Just. Are. Not. Period. Rather, the problem is CROSS-palatability, where a food that should taste like bitter grains or bland potatoes instead tastes like yummy cheese or yummy meat or yummy meat-fat. It crosses your body’s signals.

    Just saying.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Every now and again I’d track my food intake. In the process of this, and while low-carbing, I found that low-carb/moderate protein/high fat meant that I could eat almost 3000 calories a day and LOSE weight…Everyone argues that low carb works because people cut calories. That is not even close to true. Some people who cut calories and eat low carb lose weight, yes. But you don’t have to eat low calorie to lose weight.

      The only way to lose actual weight (fat/muscle) is to burn more calories than you consume. That doesn’t mean you have to count calories, as I’ve explained multiple times. But if you’re asserting that the law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply, then we can simply write you off as disagreeing with basic science.

      Now, there is one way you can lose weight without cutting calories and that’s to excrete water. Low carb diets are very good at pulling water out of the body, which is why they often result in very high amounts of weight loss in the very beginning. But this is meaningless weight loss.

      As for the idea that LC slows thyroid, that is not everyone’s experience. I’ve heard from people for whom the reverse is true.

      Nothing is true for *everyone* and I never claimed that it’s true for everyone. Nor did anyone else on this thread. So, you’re mis-stating a position and arguing against the mis-stated position. That’s not a legitimate argument.

      And I don’t buy the concept of hyperpalatability either. That basically means “tasting WAY good.” Steak tastes way good. You are not going to turn into a 500-pound chunker eating nothing but ribeyes all day long. You. Just. Are. Not. Period. Rather, the problem is CROSS-palatability, where a food that should taste like bitter grains or bland potatoes instead tastes like yummy cheese or yummy meat or yummy meat-fat. It crosses your body’s signals.

      You’re mis-stating my use of the concept of hyperpalatability. You’re welcome to make arguments—I encourage people to—but you have to do so without misrepresenting my arguments in order to create yours.

  • cathy says:

    hey – been needing some clarity on carbs so thanks for this detailed article.

    one thing that confuses me and I would love more clarity on is where good ol’ bread and pasta … and grains in general fit in to this. In what contexts would they be considered good, bad, somewhere in between? If I remember correctly the only grain on the reboot whole foods to eat list is rice. Is there any form in which a grain is considered a whole food to be happily ingested? Like the bag of quinoa we steam instead of cooking pasta? You mentioned in a recent newsletter the concept of “eating what was once alive” — so wouldn’t that include grains? is it just highly processed, big agro grown grains that are the problem? Like if I grow corn organically myself ( hypothetically!) and harvest and grind it into meal and cook cornbread is that ok for my gut, brain etc?

    That’s a lot of questions – hopefully useful ones to other readers!

    thx!

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