The truth about carbohydrates – should you be afraid of them?

It’s been several months since I last posted on this blog. Like most people, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on with COVID-19 and have spent much of my spare time researching this.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to give you my opinion on COVID-19, nor promote any conspiracy theories. I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough opinions and have come to your own conclusions. I’m not an expert in virology. I do have some personal opinions about what is going on, but they are based mainly on intuition. So, time will tell.

The subject of this email is about carbohydrates in your diet. There’s a lot of confusion around carbs, and I want to try to help to clear it up.

We live in a world of extremes today. On one hand, there are people who say you should eat a high carb, low fat vegan diet with no animal products. On the other extreme, there are the keto and carnivore diets, which are high in animal products and fat, with little or no carbohydrates.

How did we possibly get into a situation like this, where you have “experts” on both sides promoting diets that are completely opposed to one another?

I have a theory on this. It’s based on countless personal stories I have read, of people who claim to have transformed their health by changing their diet. The story usually goes, they were following an extreme vegan (or vegetarian or some other extreme diet) for several years, and their health fell apart. So, they switched to keto (or carnivore) and within a few short months they were feeling like a new person. All their health issues gone.

You get the same story in reverse i.e. people going from keto or carnivore, whose health suffered, and found the answer by switching to a vegan, or whole food plant-based diet.

So, the underlying principle is, people are following extreme diets, seeing their health suffer, then switching to the polar opposite – whereupon their health is restored.

At the heart of it, is the question of carbohydrates versus fats. HOw much carbohydrate is healthy to eat, and how much fat?

Back in the 1980s, I read a book which is now long out of print. It looked at the diets of people in several parts of the world that were renowned for having a high percentage of people living to over 100 years old. They included Hunza in northern Pakistan, Vilcabamba in Peru, and the Caucasus area of Georgia.

They carefully analyzed the diets of these people to find out the secret of their long, healthy lives. They looked at the proportion of carbohydrates, fat and protein in their diets. Here’s what they found.

In each of these different parts of the world, the one common factor was their diets were based around some type of starchy carbohydrate – bread (made from wheat), potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, corn etc. In every case. Without exception.

They also found, on average, these diets contained 57% carbohydrate, 18% protein and 25% fat. There were slight variations either way. But that was the average composition of all those healthy diets.

This ties in with traditional diets all over the world, going back to the beginning of recorded human history. (Don’t get me started on the Paleolithic era!) For the last 6000 years, at least, almost every traditional diet around the world has been based around some type of starchy carbohydrate.

People will cite the Eskimos and the Masai in Africa, who eat hardly any carbs and are healthy. But they are rare exceptions, forced to eat mainly animal foods because they live in harsh environments where plants don’t grow.

Ancient traditions such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine also base their diets around starchy carbohydrates.

As a general rule, every traditional diet is somewhere between 50 – 60% carbohydrate and around 25% fat. And they also contain some animal foods. There’s not a single culture around the world that is vegan by choice. They will eat meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy products etc where ever possible. But only in small amounts.

So, neither the vegan, plant-based diets nor the keto/carnivore diets are consistent with what has been proven by countless cultures for thousands of years to be a healthy diet.

I came to the conclusion about 35 years ago, and I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind, that the best diet is based around some form of starchy carbohydrate, with 50 – 60% of your calories coming from carbs. And about 25% (30% maximum) coming from fat.

Now, I must stress, this means COMPLEX carbohydrates. I’m not talking about refined sugar or any kind of processed starches that are found in most packaged foods. I’m talking about a whole foods diet (but not 100% plant based, as some people insist).

You could say a whole foods, mainly plant-based diet but with some animal foods.

Some people think, because too much meat and animal fat is harmful for health (and I certainly believe it is) that we should avoid ALL animal foods. This is not correct. There are many foods which we need in small amounts, but are harmful in excessive amounts.

This applies not just to animal foods. There’s good evidence that a glass of wine per day is beneficial. But a bottle of wine per day is harmful to your health. Certain foods are like medicines. We need them in the right does, but too much is harmful.

I hope this helps to settle any confusion you might have about carbohydrates. We are bombarded today by low carb messages, and many people fear carbohydrates. You don’t need to.

Remember the ratio: 57% carbs, 18% protein and 25% fat from that book I read 35+ years ago. Aim for that ratio and you won’t go too far wrong.

5 thoughts on “The truth about carbohydrates – should you be afraid of them?”

  1. Hey Chris!
    I have a question about the glycemic index… if we look at white sugar or honey for example they are very low on the GI, even lower als whole grains, because they exist around 50% of fructose and the other part glucose, fructose has to go to the liver first so it does not influence the GI so much as starch, but why do you then advise starch instead of sugar as the main carb source in our diet?


    • HI,

      It’s not quite a simple as just looking at the GI in isolation. In reality, we don’t normally eat foods in isolation but as part of a meal, so we need to look at how the whole meal affects blood sugar.

      The other thing to note is that fructose doesn’t affect GI but it DOES have other effects on the body, which are not measured by a blood glucose meter. So just testing blood sugar does not give the whole picture either.

      In my opinion, based on research, carbohydrates in the form of starch are less harmful overall than carbs from sugar. And intersting book, which covers this subject (and much more) is ‘Glucose Revolution’ by Jessie Inchauspe

  2. Hi Chris,
    I have another question: are you familiar with insomnia? If I don’t eat enough I always have trouble sleeping and sometimes at night I get hypoglycemia and am unable to sleep anymore even if I eat something. In the past I tried to follow your 3 meals a day but before bedtime I already get a grumbling stomach… maybe you know what I’m doing wrong?


    • If you are getting hungry during the night, it is probably because you are not eating enough protein and fat with your evening meal. Eat a larger serving of protein and add a bit more fat… as well as some complex carbohydrates. Basically, it sounds like you need to eat a bit more and heavier food at night. Experiment until you find a meal that will sustain you through the night.


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