I read a lot of nutritional blogs and it seems a growing topic is the disagreement on the role of carbohydrates in the diet. Some are adamant about low-carb and others are equally adamant against low-carb diets. It is the calories vs insulin argument. Both sides of the debate are represented by some smart people who know their science, yet each side accuses the other of cherry-picking data to support their arguments.
Nutrition in many ways is no different than finance. You turn on CNBC and you see 2 (or 10) experts armed with data vehemently disagreeing with each other. I see the same thing happening across the Paleo blogosphere. Both sides of the carb wars are trying to recruit Paleo bloggers to their side. At first the Paleo bloggers were lining up strongly in the low-carb camp, but now it appears to be evening out.
This CNBC Blah-Blah-Blah session reminds me of the Carb Wars.
I’m just a regular guy without a science background that happens to find nutrition interesting. I am not a PubMed Warrior, but I have had success leaning out. Since I have zero interest in these silly controversies, I’m not picking a side. Instead, I am going to take the middle ground. All these battles do is discourage those that need the help the most. They walk away feeling overwhelmed and not knowing what to believe.
Each side has a few cocky know-it-alls and they each accuse the other of being wrong. I’m going to take the assumption that there is some truth in the arguments of both sides, but that neither side is 100% right all the time. In finance, this is called a hedging strategy.
I’ve observed 4 areas where they are talking past each other.
One of the assumptions I see the carb wars is that they are speaking to the same target audience. At one end of the spectrum, you have a morbidly obese person and at the other end you have someone trying to strip off the last few ounces of body-fat.
Doctors tend to focus on the obese trying to be healthy. Trainers tend to focus on the healthy trying to become optimal. Since no nutritional strategy has a 100% success rate, each group uses what works best for their audience. Each are trying to minimize their failure rate, but both have a selection bias.
It is not a leap to suggest that those in worse shape have already had a strong bias towards excessive carbs and that going through a period of restriction would benefit them. It is also not a leap to say that those with healthy metabolisms that are at or near ideal weight can do better with higher levels of carbs. From personal observation, I fell that I can handle more carbs today than I could three years ago.
What Is Low Carb?
Low carb can mean different things to different people. Is it 50 grams or 100 grams a day? I’d argue that for the average overweight person following a Standard American Diet that the goal should be lower carbs. Strip out the sugar, bread and booze and you’ll be consuming fewer carbs and most likely losing weight. How many grams is optimal? Why complicate things with measuring? Counting carbs and calories is so un-Paleo. Eat real food, eliminate the worst carbs (wheat, sugar, booze), relax and be patient.
Side note: Before you rush to the defense of alcohol, let me just say that people make poor eating decisions when they drink and they tend to have worse sleep. Get lean first, then add back the red wine or not.
What about starchy veggies and fruit? You can either spend hours combing through articles, books and podcasts seeking a unified answer (which doesn’t exist) or you can just conduct a self experiment. I did. Strip out fruit or potatoes or whatever for 30 days, then add it back and see how your body responds. How your body responds is all that matter. Stay away from the PubMed fights and take control of your own health.
This is another area of confusion. Many in the very low carb camp assume their audience is a chained to a desk with very little opportunity for exercise. On the flip side, the higher carb group often assumes every Paleo person is doing MMA, CrossFit or some other exercise with high energy demands. The simple answer is to understand it is OK to dial up or down your carb intake based upon your activity level.
Whenever you read about carb recommendations, it is always phrased in terms of “per day”. Daily requirements are how we’ve been trained to think about nutrition. However, one of the things I’ve learned from studying Paleolithic diets is to embrace randomness. Nature is random. We have seasons. Trying to regiment a specific range of carbs on a daily basis doesn’t seem Paleo to me. Paleo man experienced feast to famine and all points in between.
I’ll go into greater detail on this in a future post, but I alter my carb levels on a daily basis. Some days I spike my carb levels with starchy carbs. Some days I’ll do Intermittent Fasting, low-carb and go into ketosis. If I were a hunter gather, I could see moving away from an area with low carbohydrates toward an area richer in carbs.
I have no seminar, e-book or supplements to sell to you. I don’t need to invent some controversy to get you on my side. My side assumes incomplete knowledge and flexibility. The human body is a complex system and it is arrogant whenever one of these nutritional gurus starts beating their chest on how they are right and everyone else is wrong.
My observational thoughts on carbs are:
- If you wish to lean out, cut down or eliminate sugar, booze and bread.
- Some carb sensitive people may need to reduce or eliminate starchy veggies and fruit. Do you own experiments.
- Higher carb levels are OK when your activity level increases.
- Embrace randomness. Do some days at lower carb, some at moderate. Dial in a pattern that works for you. Adjust as your body changes.
- Don’t waste your time following the carb wars.
UPDATE November 2013: There are lots of reports of those with slow metabolism, cold body temps and thyroid issues respond better to higher carb levels.
Jul 15, 2011 — 1:16 pm
This post shows you are an astute man. Working effectively within the limitations of one’s knowledge while properly acknowledging and integrating one’s necessarily vast ignorance demonstrates uncommon intellectual dexterity. Please allow me to commend you on your choice of compromises. As always, thank you.
Jul 15, 2011 — 3:30 pm
Awesome post. Practical, down to earth, common sense. Most constructive piece on this issue I have seen. Great work!
Jul 15, 2011 — 5:41 pm
@Txomin & @Geoff: Thanks for the nice comments!
Jul 18, 2011 — 6:50 am
“My side assumes incomplete knowledge and flexibility.”
I like this quote. Honestly over the last 5 years or so I have changed my opinion on some things based on new information I’ve learned. All one can do is stay informed and do what they believe is best for themselves.
Jul 19, 2011 — 10:20 am
Great post – completely sensible and well argued.
Aug 12, 2011 — 8:56 am
the carb wars are getting worse…..
Aug 12, 2011 — 9:02 am
@Chuck – Yep. Funny thing is I was there when Taubes meet Stephan back in April 2010. There were about 5 or 6 of us that stood and chatted before the lecture. They both were very friendly to each other then. Taubes mentioned how in awe in was of SG’s research into copper.
I don’t know what is sadder. The Carb Wars or when other well-respected researchers start behaving like high school kids egging on the fight in the blogosphere. I lost some respect for some people this week.
Sep 20, 2011 — 6:29 am
Perfect Health Diet really changed how I thought about carbs, but my actual intake of carbs wasn’t affected. Explanation: when I first started eating Paleo I was eating a bunch of fruit and vegetables (with the occasional squash), and my intake would usually be around 50-100g/day. I was under the impression that carbs weren’t necessary in any way, so even 50g was more than I wanted to be consuming.
What PHD postulated really made sense to me – the body does need glucose, so why synthesize it from protein when you can get it (more directly) from starch? I started eating potatoes (a half-pound is only 50g carbs) and cutting out all fruit besides berries – end result, same carb intake (50g-100g/day), but it was coming from starch/glucose instead of fructose. Compared to grain diets it’s low-carb, and the idea is to limit your carb calories to 600/day, but I like knowing that my body’s not using any of my (hard-earned) muscle to fuel the brain.
(Plus potatoes are cheaper than beef)
Sep 20, 2011 — 7:05 am
@Dan – I would have to say that Perfect Health Diet is probably my favorite site now when it comes to nutrition. The twist I add to my diet is I don’t follow the day-to-day analysis of macro-nutrients. Instead I fluctuate under and over on a continual basis. Sort of a wave pattern.
This summer I have increased my carbs. I did this, because I’m already at my target weight and to test what level my body can handle. I never gained an ounce of fat at the higher levels. Of course, I didn’t eat bread and had minimal sugar. Mostly yams, sweet potatoes and sushi rice.
In the winter, I’ll move my carb levels down again.
Oct 22, 2011 — 8:26 am
I have similar observations. Once I go low-to-no-carb I feel great for couple of days. Then everything screws up. Moodswings, low-energy and stuff. Then I go moderate on carbs and the next day I look and feel totally amazing. Sort of natural intuitive carb refeed.
– Alex Zinchenko
Jan 25, 2012 — 10:37 am
Having lead a mainly sedentary life, and being an endomorph, I’ve been doing crossfitting for around 18 months now. That has awakened in me an interest in nutrition and health in general. I stumbled across this blog 2 weeks ago and am slowly working my way through your past posts, having read this I was compelled to comment – brilliant!! Your approach is unbiased, down to earth, and smacks of common SENSE. I’ll be forwarding links to your blog to many people. Thanks for your work!