According to Neal D. Barnard, MD, the writer for the “Ask the Doc” column in Vegetarian Times magazine, too many carbs are not bad at all! In fact, “What are fattening are the greasy toppings, not the carbohydrate-rich foods themselves, which are actually innocent bystanders.”
In the latest VT’s issue, the “Ask the Doc” section featured a question from someone worried they’re eating too many carbs. “I went vegetarian recently, and although I feel good and am losing weight, I’m worried because I seem to be eating so many carbs. Is that bad?”
“Not at all,” says Barnard.
Usually when I come across nutritional information or overhear discussions that I disagree with, I try to ignore them and turn the other way. I’m not one to be confrontational, and I strongly believe that the best way to educate someone is by talking when you want to be heard and by setting a good example. But, as with most things in life, sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. Those who know me personally know that I’m a huge dog lover and strongly believe in positive reinforcement training. I don’t like forceful or coercive dog training- I think it can be damaging and cruel and usually just plain doesn’t work out long term. But as hard as it is, I don’t share my opinions with every person at the dog park who is screaming at their dog to sit, give up the ball, or do whatever arbitrary and human benefitting task that’s at hand. I have a hard time turning the other way, but remind myself that my comments would probably not be welcomed. However, there have been a couple rare times that I’ve decided to approach someone about the decisions they were making regarding treating their dogs. Once, I overheard a conversation in Petco where the employee was telling a young man that the only way possible to control his excitable pit puppy is to get him started on a prong or shock collar as soon as possible. I waited until the employee finished his lesson and decided to offer my two cents- that there are other options to help with his situation if the owner wanted to know about them. And guess what? He did.
After reading this month’s “Ask the Doc” article, I decided that this must be one of those times. So if you want to hear about “another way”, even though a prescribed leader in the field is saying something different, read on!
I used to anxiously await the arrival of my Vegetarian Times magazine every month, cut out articles and recipes, and take everything that was said as little golden nuggets of truth. I felt like I was doing the right thing for my health and for ethical reasons around animal cruelty and the environment. In a lot of ways, I did feel physically good in the beginning of my transition to becoming a vegetarian, and I mostly attribute this to my maintained practice of primarily eating real food- it just didn’t happen to be meat. I didn’t eat very many fake meats or processed foods and I increased my consumption of vegetables. But overtime I added in large amounts of grains, breads, and legumes to suppress my constant appetite and I began to feel more and more tired and had new symptoms pop up- and I got really good at pushing them aside and ignoring them. I began to depend on consistent sugar rich smoothies, juices, and grain heavy meals that would leave me feeling as bloated as a floating balloon to carry me through the day.
But this month’s advice in VT really did it for me. The first time I read it through, I couldn’t even believe what I was reading. I feel passionately about the critical health benefits of healthy fats, and would love to help others embrace these fats as well. The standard fear of fats has gone on for far too long! I also think that the conventional wisdom of inviting an unlimited amount of the “healthy” carbs into your diet can (and usually is) detrimental, even though they’re the “good” carbs. Oh, and the idea of basing the health or priority of a macronutrient off it’s comparative amount of energy per gram? This leads to dangerous calorie counting and potentially even a starvation diet, which is a terrible and unhealthy way to monitor one’s diet, and on top of that, usually doesn’t work! So let’s talk about it in a little detail.
First of all, the person writing in was asking if she could be eating too many carbs- that’s it. She didn’t ask if it was going to make her fat or help her loose weight- she was just wondering if it could be a bad thing in any way. Although she mentioned that she has been losing weight, she never specifically asked if her increase in carbs were causing this. Her question was quite simply, “Are so many carbs bad?” Dr. Barnard decided to answer her question explaining (perhaps mistakenly) why eating so many carbs is contributing to her weight loss, and therefor why that’s (apparently) a good thing, without knowing whether or not losing weight is even healthy for her! He followed the route of our weight centered world and talked about how carbs relate to losing weight (also information I largely disagree with), rather than thinking about the many other important reasons for why too many carbs could be detrimental for someone’s health.
So why might too many carbs be hurting someone’s health? First of all, the carbs that most people are living on (if they’re following the Standard American Diet, which most Americans are) are in the refined form (made from a factory, not from nature) and are therefor void of nutrients and often cause digestive issues. So we have to assume that most carbs being eaten are not the good, nutrient rich, digestible types. While I’m certainly not against all carbs in general, I think that it’s just the reality that more commonly than not too many carbs are being consumed rather than not enough. So what if they are the “good” kinds? If they are the “good” carbs, that is great! Something to consider still is that when you eat more carbs you need (to me the amount you need is determined by how much your body can store in your liver and muscles, which is determined by how physically active you are among other things), they are stored as fat. This storage is unlimited. So yes- when you eat too many carbs for your needs (easy to do in today’s typically inactive lifestyle), it creates more fat. It does not matter if they’re the “good” or “bad” fats. This is an ironic truth when juxtaposed next to Barnard’s conventional opinion of calling carbohydrate foods “innocent bystanders”.
Barnard brought up this relationship between carbohydrate load creating weight gain in his article, writing that “The theory is that this insulin release promotes weight gain. What the theory’s proponents are forgetting is that insulin release is triggered by proteins too. Just as insulin helps glucose enter cells, it does the same for the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein. So it turns out that fish, beef, eggs, and cheese trigger as much or more insulin secretion as many high-carb foods.” Woah, woah, woah. I think it’s quite bold to be blaming protein for any significant insulin secretion and fat storage. While protein does elicit some insulin response, the glucagon response is much stronger, and therefor the body uses fat as fuel in that moment, instead of storage. Glucagon is a hormone that basically allows you to burn stored nutrients for fuel instead of storing them as fat- that’s what we want! So since these dense sources of protein from fish, beef, eggs and cheese contain very little carbs, glucagon is the dominant hormone over insulin and is therefor released, signaling glucose and fat to be used as fuel instead of being stored as fat. Yay! So while fat does have more than double the energy per gram, it doesn’t actually make you fat.
What about the caloric difference between fat and carbs that Barnard discussed? He explained how carbohydrates only have 4 calories per gram whereas fats have 9, and blamed weight gain on simply consuming too many of the higher amount of energy per gram (which is fats!). This supports the old school way of strategizing weight loss as energy in verses energy out. Counting calories is dumb (there, I said it!) and is never an effective or healthy long term way to maintain a healthy weight. I wonder what the long term success rate of Weight Watchers followers is, since this is effectively their strategy. I could write a whole new article on why this method doesn’t work, but many other people have done this so well. In short: counting calories leads to too many carbs, blood sugar disregulation, and all in all an unhealthy view on which foods and nutrients to be embracing, such as fats. Jonathan Bailor (author of ‘The Calorie Myth’) explains that the failure rate of calorie counting 95.4%. So not only is it an inaccurate and stressful method of weight loss, but it also just plain doesn’t work out long term. Why spend so much time essentially depriving yourself of what your body needs in the unlikely attempt to loose a few pounds? Bailor draws parallels to cigarettes and pharmaceutical drugs- they have no calories yet we certainly understand that they can still have negative effects on the body. So “couldn’t it be true that anything we put in our bodies has a dramatic impact on your body independent of the caloric content?” A perfect example of this is sugar- it has very few calories but still has a devastating effect on the body. Sugar is not just “empty calories” but rather is dangerous calories once you really look at it’s role in the body.
What Barnard didn’t bring up in his response was carbohydrate’s contribution to elevated blood sugar and the many undesirable affects of that. When your body has carbohydrate overload, your cortisol (the fight-or-flight hormone) is elevated, which puts you in a state of chronic inflammation and disease. Having imbalanced blood sugar is a huge contribution to the myriad of problems stemming from chronic inflammation. In order to keep your blood sugar levels where you want them, eating plenty of fats and proteins and fewer carbs are necessary. Too many carbs will send blood sugar levels through the roof and subsequently plummeting, leaving you feeling irritable and lethargic. When you consume too my carbs in one sitting, insulin is released to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal. The problem is, when this happens too often, your body stops being able to do such a great job at letting the insulin release do it’s thing. Basically, your pancreas gets tired of this repetitive demand to release insulin, and starts ignoring those signals. This “insulin resistance” is the dangerous step before diabetes occurs.
Lastly, the importance of healthy fats for our overall health is reason enough to have qualms with Barnard’s fat blaming. The human body quite simply needs fats. It is the slow burning, long acting fuel we are designed to run on. Fats are critical for cell wall integrity, healthy hormonal balance, healthy liver and gallbladder function, healthy anti-inflammatory markers, and even healthy cholesterol levels! And last but not least, it is the main fuel for the muscles, including the heart!
This can be a confusing and controversial topic in today’s world. Please post any questions you might have after reading this post in the comments section and let me know whether it cleared up any misconceptions for you. Most importantly, go find your happy food!