My thoughts on low carb diets

I get a lot of emails from people asking for advice about what to eat to overcome hypoglycemia. Many of these people are eating low-carb diets. When I recommend they add in a couple of slices of whole grain bread, or similar amount of starchy carbohydrate at each meal, they seem skeptical.

They’ve read so many books telling them carbohydrates are “bad” they are terrified even to eat a slice of bread and butter. Not to mention, many are also also afraid of gluten.
So, here are my thoughts on the current low-carb diet fad. I call it a fad because it is not a normal diet that people have traditionally eaten. It’s an unnatural diet. Most traditional diets round the world get at least 50% of their calories from starchy carbohydrates.

Now, I do acknowledge many people have experienced an improvement in their health by following a low carb diet. Particularly those suffering from diabetes, pre-diabetes and various other metabolic conditions. If you have been eating a large amount of sugar for many years (as most Americans and other westerners have), then cutting out all that sugary food and drinks will have a dramatic benefit on your health. No question about it.

But over time, if you cut back on carbohydrates too drastically, you will start to suffer from negative effects. Low-carb diets are notorious for damaging the thyroid. Many people on low-carb diets make up for the lack of thyroid-stimulating carbohydrates by turning to caffeine for energy. This will work, for a while. But it’s not good for your health in the long term to be addicted to caffeine.

Most of the people who email me, who are eating low-carb diets, are complaining about lack of energy and hypoglycemic episodes, particularly waking in the middle of the night with low blood sugar. It’s hardly surprising, when you eat little or no carbohydrate with your evening meal!

I have personally tested low-carb diets myself. They certainly don’t work for me. And eating all that protein and fat (which you need to do, to get enough calories) just makes me feel nauseous. I feel best when I eat around 50% of my calories from starchy carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice etc.

We are all different, so you might do better with slightly more or less than 50% of your calories from carbohydrate. But I believe for most people, your carb intake should be somewhere in that ballpark.

I certainly don’t recommend going to the other extreme, eating up to 80% of your calories from carbohydrates, as Dr McDougall and others recommend. That’s also a fad diet.

In America, and other Western countries to a lesser extent, the idea of moderation and balance seems to have got lost. America is a culture of extremes. Things are good or bad, black or white. So carbs are either good or bad (depending on which diet books you read) and likewise fat is either good or bad.

The truth is, carbohydrates and fat are neither “good” nor “bad” in themselves. It’s a matter of eating them in the right amounts at the right time.

In my own search for the truth about diet, going back to the late 1970’s, I keep coming back to the diets eaten by traditional societies where people live long, healthy lives. All these people eat what you might call a “balanced” diet. They eat carbs, they eat fats and they eat protein.

For example, the people of Ikaria in Greece, renowned for the high percentage who live to 100 years old, eat sourdough bread with almost every meal. That is a staple part of their diet. They also drink goat’s milk with most meals and eat cheese and yoghurt. And of course they use a lot of olive oil. Their diet is 50 – 60% starchy carbohydrates, 15 – 20% protein and 25 – 30% fat.
The Ikarians eat very little sugar or refined carbohydrate. This is important. There is a huge difference between starchy (complex) carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates such as sugar. The low-carb diet gurus don’t usually recognize this. They tell you a slice of whole grain bread has the same amount of carbohydrate as 3 or 4 teaspoons of sugar. So, they imply, eating a slice of bread is just as bad as eating sugar!

What a load of rubbish. We need starchy carbohydrates for health. But we don’t need refined sugar.

So, if you are confused about all the low-carb diet dogma, I hope this helps you. Don’t be afraid to eat some starchy carbohydrates, in moderation. Experiment to find out the right amount for you.

4 thoughts on “My thoughts on low carb diets”

  1. Excellent post Chris! I can relate to low energy and hypoglycemic episodes when avoiding complex carbohydrates. I knodded when you mentioned poor sleep. I feel better when I include some bread, rice, potatoes and pasta with my meals.
    A question for you. You mentioned Ikaria. From what I’ve read the sourdough bread is made with refined flour. I really enjoy toasted white sourdough bread with butter & marmite, cheese or natural peanut butter. I also like to make pita pizzas from white pita breads. I bake my own focaccia style bread with white flour. What is your opinion on refined wheat flour when eaten with fat/or some protein/fat combo. Also, I prefer white rice over brown.

    • Gayanne, the flour used in Ikaria and throughout most of Greece, is white flour but quite different from the type of white flour sold in America and other countries. I have eaten Greek bread and it is heavy and chewy, digests slowly and provides good energy for several hours. Not like the fluffy white bread sold in supermarkets. I believe the white flour is less refined, so it is probably half way between whole grain and white flour.

      It’s also worth noting that the French traditionally prefer white bread but again it seems to be less refined white flour.

      Throughout Asia, people have traditionally preferred white rice to brown. Take Japan, for example, where people are very healthy eating the traditional diet. They eat white rice with every meal!

      From a purely scientific viewpoint, whole grain bread and brown rice contains more nutrients than white bread and white rice. But maybe it’s not so important as we are led to believe.

      I personally eat whole grain sourdough bread and enjoy it, particularly rye sourdough bread. But if you enjoy white sourdough bread, I don’t think it will do you any harm.

  2. Chris,
    Thank you so much for your excellent reply.
    I agree with you in regards to flour used here in America. I grew up in Russia eating rye sourdough bread. It is delicious! It’s a challenge to find good bread where I live now.
    I mostly use parboiled rice in my cooking (my husband grew up eating it). I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it is pretty nutritious and low glycemic. It makes an excellent pilaf! I do occasionally use Japanese rice as well.
    Thank you so much for your work!

  3. Also, I share you affinity for potatoes. I would have to say that potatoes and whole wheat bread seem to be the most satiating and “feel good afterwards” carbohydrate sources for me.

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