The cut on carbs - devil’s food or a true essential?
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

“The devil’s food” - this is how carbohydrates were described in a best seller low-carb high-fat book that was part of the recent apparent paradigm shift from a low-fat ideal to one of excessive quantities of fats. I devoted a whole chapter to destroying the myths that carbs are necessarily bad for us in our book Wholesome Nutrition, so I’m not going to repeat these messages here - rather, go and buy our book!

What I will do, however, is to educate you on this apparently misunderstood nutrient so that you can make your own decisions.

Firstly, may I ask you this question: “what the c**p are carbs?” I have some people coming to see me as clients, swearing blind that they don’t eat carbs, but yet fruit, starchy vegetables and the occasional cracker bread appears in their food diary. What they actually mean is that they’ve cut out refined sugars and breads, and maybe even pasta and rice as a bonus measure. Then you get those people who are following this low-carb Atkins-esque ketogenic diet, which certainly is as they say - their consumption of a slab of cheese for breakfast and a pack of luncheon meat for lunch is not going to win them stakes on the longevity lotto, but you can certainly call their diet ‘low-carb’!

Why do I ask this question? Because carbs are in everything - to truly be carb-free (as some people proclaim), they would literally have to chase the animals that they plan to eat around a field until they have completely exhausted their muscle glycogen stores - and we know, ironically from Prof Noakes’s earlier Central Governor Theory research, that this is not possible…. We will always keep just a little in reserve.

Back to the question of carbs being the devil’s food… Is it so? I believe very strongly in the beautiful complexity of our human body - the most sophisticated computer system ever invented doesn’t come close to our physiology. Despite this observation, however, some scientists like to simplify our own complex computers down to simple phrases such as “carbs are bad for us” or “fat is bad for us”.

Something akin to “carbohydrates, when they have been extracted from an over-commercialised, genetically modified plant and broken down into simple sugars, and packaged together with food preservatives, colours and flavourings, is bad for us when taken in a larger quantity than our body can effectively stabilise through insulin management and detoxification processes, is extremely bad for us… in the long term….” Not so punchy an argument for the average consumer, is it? But, it’s certainly a lot closer to the truth.

I was saying that I admire nature’s complexity. I have one all-so-simple observation to make: each and every one of us possesses the biochemical apparatus to process carbohydrates. In fact, every physiology, medicine and nutrition student has to learn it pretty much off by heart to pass their exams. The three phases of breaking down carbs into energy are called: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. And this happens in each and every cell in our body - all 37 trillion of them. Considering our body’s complexity, but also efficiency, why on earth would we have all this redundant biochemical processing capacity if we weren’t designed to eat carbs?

That’s therefore my philosophical question to you, the reader; do you really believe that we weren’t designed to eat carbs. Or, perhaps, and this is the argument that I believe in; we weren’t designed to eat food that were processed away from their original form. This, therefore, brings in all forms of processed sugars, breads, pastries, cakes and confectionary, plus all the various forms of food made from grains.

But even then, there is a question of quantity and this I feel is where we are going wrong. When I was a child, growing up in an era when our grandparents had lived through the 2nd World War, my brother and I received one chocolate bar per week as a ‘treat’ - it came from my grandmother who would visit us on a Friday. As a family, we bought one 1.5 litre bottle of fizzy drink per week. Contrast that scenario with the vast numbers of sweets and refined bakery products that kids receive on a daily basis today - that really is the crisis - not the occasional treat now and then.

And it is not just the refined carbs that are the problem - inhumanely reared animals (see Chapter 7 of Wholesome Nutrition) that provide their meat and dairy to us in a processed form, plus heat processed oils that find their way into almost every packaged food, and all the preservatives that, in a way hold them together, are extremely bad for us. Read more here.

When it comes down to it, nature actually supplies the nutritional complexity that our physiological complexity requires (and deserves). If we follow the code of eating plants that were growth in healthy soils without chemicals and the meat and dairy from animals that were free to move and eat the foods that they want to eat (i.e. grass and small plants), we don’t need to worry so much about labelling foods as carbs, fats or proteins. Finding a healthy balance of nature-made food, and you will consume all of these anyway.

This blog was an extract of the kinds of discussions that we were having on Step 4 of 12 Steps to Wholesome Nutrition.