The low carb diet appears to be pretty useful for a lot of people recovering from chronic illness. It certainly was for me. Nevertheless, there is a lot of controversy in the Primal community these days about limiting carbohydrates. I’ve been pretty interested in these discussions because, as my regular readers know, I’ve been a long time low-carber. I’ve been reading a lot and asking myself whether it was really the elimination of carbs that eased my symptoms and whether another approach might be equally (or more) effective.
Low carb advocates believe that limiting carbohydrates controls insulin resistance, which is at the base of countless chronic illnesses. They say that insulin resistance is caused by carbohydrate gluttony and that it is cured by eliminating carbs. I agree with them to a point but my own experience (and that of many others) suggests that the equation is not quite so simple.
I wasn’t big on sugar most of my life – I did eat a decent amount of grains, but a lot of people eat grains and 100 pounds of sugar per year and don’t end up with the degree of insulin resistance that I ended up with. What’s up with that?
I went low carb some years ago due to symptoms of insulin resistance which took the shape of PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). Eliminating carbs, and keeping my body in ketosis among a few other diet and lifestyle rules kept my symptoms totally in check and helped me to feel great. But I remember a time a few years ago when I was eating a raw Primal diet with white rice and I was also symptom free. Hmm.
I’m allergic to rice now (I think a couple of immensely stressful events triggered the allergy) and I can’t do that diet anymore so I tried duplicating the diet with other grains but that never worked.
So earlier this summer when I randomly ate some sugar (which I explained in this post) I was surprised and excited that I didn’t break out, get sad, gain weight, or anything else that I expected. It was an eye opening moment. I had thought that because I was insulin resistant I couldn’t touch sugar with a ten foot poll. Apparently it is not so clear cut as that – carbs raise insulin, so you must avoid carbs.
So for the last four months I’ve been reading more on the subject and experimenting (very methodically) with with my diet again.
It was pretty obvious that I was doing well with plain table sugar, but I decided to reach out to Paul Jaminet anyway since he’s Primal and a scientist (scientists who’ve seen the Paleo light get respect!) and he wrote a great book called the Perfect Health Diet about ideal Primal nutrition. His opinion was that it was good I had added some carbs back into my diet even if they were coming from sugar. He contends that it would be better if those carbs came from whole foods but in his opinion a body is better off not having to rely on gluconeogenesis.
I am beginning to understand that it is not high carb diets per se which cause chronic illness. There are plenty of indigenous people around the world whose diets are highly centered on natural carbohydrates – as Melissa McEwen talked about in a recent post – who have never experienced any of our encyclopedia full of modern illnesses. Why is this?
Industrialization, gluttony, and nutrient deficiencies I suppose…
Factors That Might Lead to Metabolic Illnesses
- Food Processing and Food Chemicals
Food processing methods which indigenous cultures did not employ such as the use of flavorings, homogenization, corn syrup, etc. can tax the liver.
- Prescription Drugs
Americans are too quick to pop a pill to quell everything from a headache, to high cholesterol, to anxiety. But drugs can sap our bodies of nutrients like vitamin C, magnesium, the B vitamins, zinc, and others.
- Recreational Drugs and Alcohol
Alcohol and street drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine also deplete the body of certain nutrients. We all know that drugs are bad but we don’t always realize how dramatic their effect on the body can be. A body must use its nutrient stores to process and eliminate these substances. Additionally, many of them affect the digestion, which compounds the problem. “Alcohol interferes with the nutritional process by affecting digestion, storage, utilization, and excretion of nutrients.”
- Low Fat and Vegetarian Diets
The most trendy and harmful diet of all have been those which limit or eliminate fats. In order to absorb fat soluble vitamins A, E, K, and D we need fat. Additionally, saturated animal fats are so critical for many biological functions it is absolutely detrimental to eliminate them.
- Wheat, Antibiotics, and Other Digestive Disruptions
The over-consumption of unfermented wheat products is destroying many a digestive system as is the ubiquitous anti-bitotic. And high fiber, low fat, and cardboard gluten free processed crap isn’t helping our digestive tracts at all. Once our digestion becomes compromised, our immune systems suffer and once that happens, allergies and infections surface.
It Boils Down to Nutrient Deficiencies
Eventually, these and other factors lead to nutrient deficiencies. When nutrient deficient foods displace nutrient dense foods, people become ill. Linus Pauling wisely observed that
“you can trace every sickness, every disease and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.” (or vitamin, or fat, or water deficiency just to be thorough here )
So, a body makes sacrifices to keep us alive. It will leach calcium and magnesium from our bones when it is not available in the foods we eat. It strives to find a way to manufacture homeostasis at the expense of other necessary functions.
It is thought by some that the same thing is happening when we engage in low carb eating. Now listen, I’m not saying that I know this to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt, but if you are a low-carber yourself you should consider this interesting point.
Since the body is able to make its own glucose (from gluconeogenesis) in the absence of dietary glucose, we assume that glucose is not necessary. We don’t need to eat it if the body can just make it for us, right? But as Kurt Harris, MD says,
“Rather than viewing this as evidence that glucose is not important, we should view this as evidence that glucose is so metabolically important that we have evolved way to make sure we always have it.”
The body is a master at finding a way to keep us alive temporarily until it can get what it needs from diet. Look how long you can keep going and even feeling great on a raw fruitarian diet. Eventually though, the lack of necessary nutrients and macro nutrients and the stress put on the liver from excess fructose will take its toll. Just because you seem to thrive for a while doesn’t mean you will forever.
Maybe it is the same with low carb diets. Our livers will save us from a quick glucose deficient death by producing glucose, but should we really be asking it to do that indefinitely?
Low Carb Diets May Cause Thyroid Problems
Paul Jaminet recently responded to some research showing that VLC diets may be responsible for thyroid problems and muscle atrophy. After reviewing the literature himself, he does not contend that a person must eat a diet high in carbohydrates but that zero carb diets are likely to cause problems and very low carb diets should be executed with caution.
The thyroid problems arise from glucose deficiency, which I had not heard of hitherto reading his articles. As I mentioned in Curbing Food Cravings, a body needs a specific amount of glucose to function. If you don’t eat it, or if your liver doesn’t make enough of it, you’re probably (hopefully) going to crave it. If you ignore those cravings or simply don’t have them, in time, hypothyroidism will develop (maybe, not sure how sound the science was in that study, the subject were eating PUFAs of course!) and the muscles may start to atrophy (if enough protein is not consumed to both convert glucose and build muscle).
If you are low carb, particularly if you are VLC, and you are either bored as hell or you experience intense cravings for carbs, you might try experimenting with carbohydrates.
That’s where this blog post and my recent experiment on myself comes in. How are you going to manage that and stay symptom free? That was the answer I was looking for. I tried adding sweet potatoes, yucca, plantain, corn, potatoes, fruit, you name it, it caused anything from fatigue, to skin problems, to irritability and low blood sugar, to numbness in my limbs and nightmares (all old symptoms of mine). I assumed it was carbohydrates causing the problems. I assumed this because of the countless books and articles I’ve read about metabolic syndrome. Apparently, this just isn’t the case.
Adding Safe Carbs
I’ve known for a long time that I cannot digest fiber and I also know that I cannot absorb fructose, and what do all of those carbohydrate foods above have in common? Fiber and fructose. So, I said to myself, maybe carbohydrates isn’t the problem at all. For my test I needed a carbohydrate that doesn’t include either of those two elements. Enter glucose .
Sucrose is not quite ideal as it breaks down to half fructose and half glucose. I’ve noticed that too much of it affects my skin, but glucose on the other hand does not. Going on the idea that I was wrong about carbs in general I decided to try starch again (since it breaks down to glucose) but this time in the form of pure starch, namely tapioca (yucca starch) and corn starch (non GMO of course). No problems there either.
This whole sugar eating thing has always been against my religion but as Chris Kresser said in this post:
“Assuming no metabolic problems and an active lifestyle, glucose may be consumed relatively freely.”
So, that’s what I’ve been doing, consuming glucose relatively freely. I don’t eat a ton of it. I never feel the need to but I deliberately (and almost rebelliously muhaha) add glucose powder to my meals in some way or other.
Types of Starches
Now, the type of starch might matter too but I haven’t experimented much with this yet.
Starches might have more amylopectin or more amylose. Amylopectin is quicker to break down, possibly leading to spikes in blood sugar. White potatoes are high in amylopectin, Jasmin rice is not, for example. Amylose is called resistant starch, meaning that it is not broken down in the small intestine but rather in the colon. But since it is subject to fermentation like fiber is, it is probably not good for me.
I was waiting for the low blood sugar blues to set in for a while at first until I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. It doesn’t matter how much glucose I eat, I haven’t gotten hypoglycemia once. It almost seems to me that hypoglycemia is related to fruit sugar, allergies, and digestive disruption. (If anybody knows of some research on that, I’d love to see it.)
The deal is that I don’t know shit (well I know a lot of things about a lot of things but there are some things here and there which I am a little unclear on). My investigative mind is trying to sift through the bullshit literature and the indoctrination in order to make sense of what is really going on.
It is clear to me that there is more to metabolic syndrome than carbohydrates and that, while low-carb diets still may be useful, they may be totally unnecessary and they may be harmful.
Any low carbers planning to dive in here? Any that already have?
Livin’ La Vida Low Carb just posted a great article on the topic on the same day I posted this. He is curious about “safe starches” but he is still skeptical they could be anything but harmful to metabolically deranged people. So he sent out emails to many prominent figures such as Atkins, Chris Masterjon, Kurt Harris, and many many more. Their replies are posted. It will take a week to read the whole thing.