In many of the topics covered on this blog, I can come across as “extreme” or “radical” in my views. Sometimes this is a criticism well deserved; there have been times when I’ve gotten into a defensive stance and said uncharitable, overreaching things. Beyond that, though, I tend to come across that way for two reasons. One, I can be a stickler for logic and literal truth when it comes to these discussions–I’m reluctant to assent to a thing if it can be construed to mean something I don’t believe is correct. Sometimes, that means I reject such bland truisms as “everything in moderation” or “what you need is balance,” making me look like something of a nutjob! Secondly, I have a perfectionist, idealistic personality (a One on the enneagram, for those who, like me, enjoy such pop-psych toys), which pushes me to a “things could always be better”, never satisfied, style of thinking. That inability to say “good enough” can seem like extremism.
In this series of posts, I’ll talk about the ways these ideas are radical, and the ways they aren’t. I’ll start off by articulating some shocking, out-there statement I basically agree with. I’ll bring up a few common objections to the position and rebut them as best I can. Then I’ll close with an explanation of how in practice it’s not so overkill as it sounds, rein in the attitude with considerations of practicality, or the like.
First up are my gonzo moon ideas about nutrition. Here we go!
The Radical Notion
Human beings don’t need carbohydrates. At all. There are essential proteins, and essential fats, that you need to obtain from your diet. But there’s no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. (I believe I got that turn of phrase from the Fat Head blog.)
The Usual Objections
“But you need carbs for energy! If you don’t have them, your body goes into starvation mode.” Not quite. What does happen is that your metabolism switches from burning carbohydrate for energy to burning fats instead. The latter state of affairs is called ketosis, named after the molecules called ketones produced and used in the process. There’s substantial evidence that this is the mode of operation your body prefers, and its greater efficiency and fewer side effects leads to people feeling livelier and more energetic when they keep it up.
The confusion about starvation comes from the fact that people who are starving do also go into ketosis. The problem there is that in a situation of general lack of food, the body doesn’t have enough fats coming in from the diet to fuel its needs either, so it starts to cannibalize proteins and fats within the body that aren’t meant to be energy stores. But to confuse this ugly prospect with the ketosis of a healthy low-carb diet is to make a mistake of guilt-by-association.
“Ketosis makes your blood acidic! That’ll kill you!” Wrong again. The pathology referred to in this objection is a state called ketoacidosis, where an overabundance of ketones alters blood pH and wrecks the body’s homeostatic balance. But that doesn’t occur during healthy dietary ketosis–it’s a consequence of out-of-control, late-stage diabetes or alcoholism. There is a minor bump in blood acidity that can occur when the body switches modes from carb-based to fat-based energy production, yes. It’s one of a handful of side effects (others include muscle pain and bad breath) that may happen when going low-carb, but it doesn’t last long and can be controlled for with other dietary tweaks.
“The brain runs on glucose! You need carbs to get that.” It’s true that some important biological functions, including brain activity, require glucose. But it’s not necessary to ingest the glucose from food. The liver can manufacture glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis, and unless there’s some other dysfunction going on, it has no trouble whatsoever producing the necessary couple of teaspoons per day in the absence of dietary carbohydrate.
How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That
I will vigorously defend the idea that we don’t really need carbs at all, our misguided notions of “balanced diet” notwithstanding. But that’s very different from believing that anyone should, or even could, adopt a truly zero-carb-intake lifestyle. It’s not practical or advisable, for several reasons.
For one, it’s more hassle than it’s worth. You can slash your carb intake and reap huge health benefits by doing simple things like eating bacon-and-egg breakfasts instead of cereal and pastries, drinking water or unsweetened tea instead of fruit juice or soft drinks, and so forth. You can take it a step further, and do even better, by removing the bread from your sandwiches and avoiding pasta. But from there you hit a point of diminishing returns: agonizing over trace bits of carbohydrate in other foods or feeling guilty for taking in the odd gram of sugar here and there will do more harm in stress and worry than good it does in the teeny further improvement of insulin levels. That’s why these diets are called “low-carb” or “carbohydrate-restricted,” not “no-carb”!
Second, there are some very useful vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients that are extraordinarily good to have, but the best places to get them also come with carbs. Fruits, especially berries, come with loads of antioxidants that can extend life by neutralizing the action of free radicals produced in the body. And fruits come with fructose, possibly the worst kind of sugar! But these are situations where, especially if you don’t go overboard with them, the benefits of the foods outweigh their drawbacks. It should be noted that crap like “fortified” breads and cereals do not fall into this category; that’s putting lipstick on a death robot. I’m talking about natural foods that humanity ate throughout its evolution, not products we force vitamins back into because they would otherwise have no redeeming qualities.
Third and last, I certainly acknowledge the desire to experience all that life has to offer, even if some of it is bad for you. I myself eat pasta when Moth prepares it, and indulge in the occasional sugary dessert. An important part of low-carb dieting, which the (mostly) unjustly-maligned Atkins plan has down to a step-by-step procedure, is to figure out your body’s tolerance for carbs. We can all deal with some level of carb or another–like alcohol, the body processes carbs as a sort of poison, but it can safely do some amount of that each day without significant harm. How much varies from person to person. If you have metabolic syndrome (that is, you’re dealing with weight gain, high blood pressure, and/or awry levels of blood lipids), for example, you probably need to be stricter about carbs to see benefit than someone whose metabolism is more resilient. It’s a sensible choice to indulge in some amount of carb-a-licious treats up to that limit. You won’t convince me that’s better for you than going minimal-carb, in any but a fluffy philosophical sense, but I certainly don’t think it a bad way to go!