What does low carb really mean?

There’s a lot of talk in the media and around diet, nutrition and health circles these days about low carb. I have clients and friends asking me about what it means and if a low carb way of eating is really beneficial.

Today, I hope to shed some light on this complicated and confusing topic by sharing with you my take on the latest views on low carb eating and the benefits.

While most people think carbohydrates are necessary to the body for fuel, and that they are essential for survival, you don’t actually need carbs as long as you have enough high quality protein, fat, water and minerals. However, I’m definitely not recommending a no carb diet. I just personally believe we need to eat a lot less of the refined processed carbs than most people are eating these days.

What are carbs?

All carbs break down into sugar in the body and you use it for fuel. There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple carbs are the various forms of sugars, like candy, fruit, and sweets. Complex carbs are the starches found in beans, nuts, vegetables and whole grains. If you consume more carbs than you can immediately use, the body stores some as glycogen to use later, and converts the rest to fat.

What makes this all so confusing is that not all carbs are created equal so we can’t simply lump them all together as either good or bad. However, I think most health professionals would agree that highly processed, refined carbohydrates that are devoid of minerals, fibre and nutrients, are not only of no nutritional benefit, but they’re actually harming us. Our high carb, low fat diet isn’t working!

Let’s take a look at a few of the key perspectives in favour of low carbs:

The blood sugar perspective: When you eat carbs, they break down to simple sugars and your blood glucose rises. Your pancreas produces insulin to enable the sugar to go into the cells. When the cells are filled up the excess sugar is stored as fat. Eating too many carbs can overflow your body with too much sugar and therefore too much insulin. Elevated insulin levels are associated with, and even known to cause, many health issues including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer and obesity. For all of these reasons, I think it’s important to eat a low carbohydrate diet to keep the blood sugar balanced.

The evolutionary perspective: For millions of years our ancestors ate mainly animals, fish and wild vegetation. We only started eating sugars and starches, in the form of grains and root veggies, about 10,000 years ago when the agricultural era began. Researchers are finding that, from a biological perspective, our bodies have not changed much and in fact don’t really know how to digest these newer foods like cereal grains, beans, dairy and baked goods. Our modern lifestyle sees us eating less wild, raw foods in their natural state and more processed, refined foods. Sadly, our disease rates are skyrocketing. It would seem like an ancestral way of eating with more whole foods and less carbohydrates is the way to go.

The gut health perspective: In his important paper, Canadian researcher Ian Spreadbury suggests that the carbohydrate density of modern foods may be the cause of obesity and disease. Things like refined sugars and grains with high carbohydrate density are particularly bad because they may alter our gut microorganisms, leading to systemic inflammation and insulin resistance. These inflammation promoting microbes also produce leptin resistance which disables the hormones that signal you’ve eaten enough. If you never feel full chances are weight loss will be a challenge.

Today we overly process and refine foods making them particularly carb dense. Spreadbury suggests that an ancestral way of eating is preferable because hunter gatherers had no processed foods. Given that 80% of our immune system is in our gut, we know that systemic inflammation is at the root of many modern illnesses, hearing this new research is all further proof to me that low carb is the way to go.

In next week’s column, I’ll offer my tips for how to eat healthy carbohydrates to minimize their downsides.

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