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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 21, 2008

Reader Response: Simple vs. Complex Carbs

By Worker Bee
54 Comments

Last week Bill suggested that, although “there are plenty of reasons to cut out highly-refined foods,” there wasn’t a clear case that a “diet high in complex carbs from whole grains and vegetables is unhealthy.” We thought the comment was a pertinent one. In the coming weeks, we’ll offer some definitive guide material that goes deeper into the subject. For now, let’s discuss a bit of the stock behind our carb critiques.

We’ll begin with what we all seem to agree on (even our friends at the FDA). Simple carbs, those highly refined, sugar soakers are bad news. They flood your body, wreak their biochemical chaos before you can say Kelly Clarkson, and then leave you slumped in a sad heap of a human being.

But those complex carbs, aren’t they a different story? Every doctor and government agency is singing their praises, and it seems like a moderate and rationally minded perspective. We understand that impression, especially given we’ve been solidly entrenched in the agricultural age for about 10,000 years or so. But, as we’ve said before, somebody better try telling that to our physiological selves, ‘cause they’re still playing the hunter gatherer game. Total glycemic load flat out matters, and we would argue that it matters more than the glycemic index of individual foods a person eats in the course of a day.

Humor us for a moment while we first set the stage, and then we’ll move on to the contemporary details. Traditional hunter gatherer societies, those we have records of and the few remaining groups we’ve been able to study in the here and now, existed and, in the absence of famine, thrived on very low carbohydrate diets of about 80 grams of carbs a day on average. (For perspective, the typical American diet ranges from 350-600 grams of carbs a day.) Numerous anthropological studies indicate that they were taller in stature than their post-agricultural counterparts. The suggestion here: the dietary changes brought on by the agricultural age didn’t allow humans to reach their biological potential. Unfortunately, 10,000 years isn’t enough to change the human digestive system. We are operating from the same physiological makeup as our ancestors. This is just one bit of the Primal Blueprint picture, but we’ll move on for now to current affairs.

First off, though you don’t hear people talk about getting a sugar rush off of quinoa, the fact remains all carbs eventually are converted to sugars in the body. Some, like whole grains, just take longer than others. Whatever the carbohydrate, it will eventually be broken down into glucose, either in the gut itself or after a rendezvous with the liver. Some of the glucose is stored as glycogen. What about the rest? In intensive athletic training like we talked about earlier this week, it is quickly burned as secondary fuel following the depletion of glycogen. For most of us, however, it gets stored as fat. And that’s after the body pumps out insulin in response to the excess glucose floating around.

So, if I just keep my carb intake within the range that the body can use and convert to glycogen, I’m O.K.? Basically, yes. Notice we said that the hunter gatherers didn’t eat zero carbs. Eighty grams is eighty grams. (And, by the way, it’s more than the initial target (20-50 grams) for many of the “super” low carb diets out there.) Logic should tell you that, even if you’re not ready to meet our good man, Grok, on his level, any reduction in carbs will make a difference. (And, of course, refined carbs should go first.) Another major benefit to low carb diets: the veggies, protein, and healthy fats a person eats to make up for the missing carbs.

And now for the research. Without becoming nauseatingly tedious or exhausting, we’ll offer a few points that illuminate key dimensions of carbohydrates’ impact on the body. A collaborative study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low carbohydrate diets are effective not just for weight loss but for “reducing saturated fatty acids in the blood and reducing markers of inflammation.” One of the study’s authors, Richard Feinman, professor at SUNY Downstate Medical Center explains, “The real importance of diets that lower carbohydrate content is that they are grounded in mechanism – carbohydrates stimulate insulin secretion which biases fat metabolism towards storage rather than oxidation.”

Intake of carbohydrates has long been associated with cancer, and dietary therapies for cancer have included a large reduction in carbs. A 2007 study found that a low carb diet actually shrunk prostate tumors in mice, whereas other diets had either no significant impact or, in the case of the typical Western diet, had a decidedly negative impact. Very low carb diets have been used for years to treat children with epilepsy and have been shown to reduce epileptic seizures in adults. Likewise, low carb diets have been shown to positively impact blood pressure, lower diabetes risk, and reduce both heartburn symptoms and abdominal fat.

On top of it all, there’s the issue of gluten allergy/sensitivity, which affects a significant percentage of the population. No, gluten isn’t found in every carb based food, but it’s in a hey of a lot of products in the Western diet. But we’ll get to that more in the coming weeks.

The big point here: while a diet “rich” in whole grains might not be an obviously unhealthy diet, it’s not the healthiest option either.

Questions? Comments? Ideas? We’ll look forward to talking more about this issue in the coming weeks.

chotda, Fran-cis-ca Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Sugar Cravings

Jack LaLanne on Sugarholics

The Migraineur: Shortcomings of the Glycemic Index

Modern Forager: So What’s The Real Scoop on Whole Grains?

From our friend Art De Vany: A Study of the Evolutionary Diet – It Works

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54 Comments on "Reader Response: Simple vs. Complex Carbs"

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Hannah
Hannah
8 years 7 months ago

Eh, I try to stay away from grains.

I hear they’re related to alcoholism as an allergy…since alcohol is made from grain basically, I’m pretty sure…

It’s too bad we haven’t evolved that far, because it all tastes so good ):

However I’ve found that if I take in less than, say, 10 grams of carbs a day I feel like total doo doo.

So I think SOME carbs are… pretty nice to have [:

…just not those crappy refined ones that screw up your teeth, insulin sensitivity, and pretty figure!

Jim Jones
8 years 7 months ago
I maintained a low carb diet for more than a year (< 50g carbs per day). While I lost a lot of weight on the diet, one thing that I couldn’t get over was how lethargic I felt all the time. I am a software engineer and we work on demanding problems. While I maintained the low carb intake most of the time, I did have cheat days. On those days I would generally consume pasta or some other high carb food. *There was a night and day difference with my mental alertness and capacity on the days that I… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago
Jim, Carbs are addicting on several levels. One of those is a reliance on instantaneous glucose (AKA Brain fuel) from a meal every few hours. However, that’s not necessary if you retrain your energy systems. Cutting carbs to, say, 100 grams a day is probably optimum unless you’re an athlete. And you should be getting most of that 100 from your copius intake of vegetables. Then the body makes 200 grams of stored glucose (glycogen) from the FAT in our diet every day. That’s enough to fuel your brain and then some…but it takes getting used to. Go a week… Read more »
Ryan Denner
8 years 7 months ago
Few points and questions: I am with you on a lot (but not all) of your points on physiological evolution. However, it is hard to compare the energy needs of the modern man vs. primitive. Depending on your family/work/health/daily life, you may need to alter your fat/carb/protein intake in order to achieve your bodies caloric needs (see Jim Jones post). Don’t all proteins end up becoming simple sugars as well? Obviously, one’s athletic/fitness lifestyle should dictate the amount of carbs one takes in, correct? ie. Endurance athlete versus someone who pursues more of your fitness lifestyle will alter carb count.… Read more »
Katie
Katie
8 years 7 months ago
I’ve always been curious, in regards to cutting out grains: are the pseudo-cereals, like the aforementioned quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth included in this? And I’ll just throw in my experience: as a vegetarian (I switched back after deciding fish is not for me, though maybe consuming about 14 ounces total in two months wasn’t enough to really decide) who takes that word seriously–as in, eat vegetables–I find that I work best on mostly vegetables, some fruit, about a serving each of fermented dairy and eggs each day, and some whole grains. Some days I don’t eat any grains, some I… Read more »
carice
carice
5 years 8 months ago

Quinoa and buckwheat aren’t grains; they’re seeds just like sesame seeds.

charlotte
8 years 7 months ago
I’ve never considered myself low-carb as I’m a vegetarian – even my proteins like legumes come wrapped in a carb package – but I do stay under 100g/day so I guess qualify! Huh. My question though is I seem to have a mood dependance on carbs (sort of like Jim Jones’ mental clarity, except mine is mood clarity). The few times I’ve taken out all grains my mood quite literally goes down the toilet. I’m depressed, apathetic, short-tempered. A shot of carbs and I’m feeling like myself again. My father has done low-carb for years (Atkins, sadly) and has never… Read more »
Anna
8 years 7 months ago
First, no, all proteins *don’t* end up becoming simple sugars, Ryan. Where did you dig that one up? Protein can be converted into glucose the liver, but even on a low carb diet, it’s still a relatively small amount, and certainly not all the dietary protein. Oh, yeah, The China Study. Is that where you learned about protein? TCS is just not very convincing, IMO. And most, if not all of the other major meat>cancer studies don’t factor in important aspects regarding antibiotic- and hormone -pumped factory-farmed meat vs. pastured meat (huge differences nutritionally) or carbohydrate intake (many people consume… Read more »
Ryan Denner
Ryan Denner
8 years 7 months ago

Anna-

I may have misunderstand the whole protein synthesized to sugar/glycogen when someone explained it to me (either that or he was wrong) – thanks for clarifying.

Re: TCS, I found it convincing, but we can agree to disagree. And I will say that I do agree with you on TCS not taking certain things into consideration.

But I still stand by my ‘it all comes down to balance’ as long as you keep balance in a healthy perspective.

Pelikan
Pelikan
8 years 7 months ago
Wow, under 100 g of carbohydrates a day?! I’d need to cut down on my fruit, lol. Jokes aside, this is interesting, but I wonder if it would be worth it for me. Trying, yes, but living it? I eat around 300 g of carbs a day, mostly fruit and vegetables. Everyday I have some whole grains (homebaked bread, pasta, rice…) and sometimes every week even a sweet. Since I eat five times a day, I seldom have cravings, and in general I feel great, full of positive energy. Do you have the opinon that a low carb diet is… Read more »
carla
8 years 7 months ago

as always you explain this swimmingly and I whole heartedly agree.

the rest of america?

can we (the royal) sway them? it remains to be seen huh?

Signed,

A Gluten Allergic MizFit

markus
markus
8 years 7 months ago
nobody seems to make any mention of the fact that complex carbs mainly come in the form of “whole grains” – in the which the fibre contains phytic acid, which depletes or prevents the assimilation of vital minerals in the body, and lectins, which destroy the gut mucus lining in sensitive individuals (i.e. the least adapted to the modern diet) and allow whole proteins to cross the gut wall – potentially the cause of many modern auto-immune diseases. these must not be ignored as their potential ill health effects could be very serious. leaky gut was recently noted as a… Read more »
Kery
8 years 7 months ago
I have no idea of what my carbs intake is, to be honest. I try to get the bulk of mine in vegetables and fruits, though, even if I still eat other carbs regularly enough (probably most of it on mornings, with bread, oatmeal or muesli). In fact, a few weeks ago, I noticed that I didn’t even bother with adding rice or quinoa to my meals, so there are days when I only have such carbs at lunch, or not at all. It’s weird, I don’t know what triggered that change. I suspect having a very small kitchen and… Read more »
Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago
Jim J – I’d like to expand on what some other commenters have said – perhaps you didn’t consume enough fat, and perhaps cycling between carbs and fat for energy sources caused your brain brownouts. I regularly get at least 60% of my calories from fat. As I understand it, your brain will soak up about 130 g of glucose a day if it is present in your bloodstream. However – a big however – your brain can run on fat, and actually runs better on a product of fat metabolism called ketones. The reason for this is that blood… Read more »
Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago
Katie – quick question. I’m looking at what you eat, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how you’re getting enough calories! If you’re only having 1 serving of dairy or eggs, less than the food pyramid’s 6 recommended grain servings, and no meat or fish, you’re hardly eating any calorie dense foods. Do you eat a lot of legumes? Add a lot of fat to your diet? Eat mostly tropical fruits (which are higher in calories than apples or berries)? I’m not trying to pick on you, just genuinely curious about how somebody could consume 1800 or more… Read more »
Matt Metzgar
8 years 7 months ago

“there’s a growing movement among paleoanthropologists that suggests the dietary shift to more starch among humanity’s earliest ancestors proved critical to our evolution”.

http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53576/

Jen
Jen
8 years 7 months ago
Matt: It’s an interesting article that you reference, and the idea certainly brings an intriguing possibility to the table. However, I have to say that the article doesn’t (in my humble estimation) follow through on really supporting the claim referenced in your post. Though I’m just “regular folk” and not a scientist, the lone comment posted by a reader at the end of the article reflected my reservations about the article’s claim (though in much clearer terms and detail): comment: Selective effect of amylase copy number? “It’s my impression that salivary amylase has little direct digestive significance — it doesn’t… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago
Wow. Great stuff, everyone. I have been traveling the past week (extensively the past 24 hours) and returned to see this discussion. I love the input and will attempt to refine it and recap it shortly. Matt, I read that study and analysis when it came out and was immediately suspect (as Jen notes) because salivary amylase contributes VERY little to starch breakdown in the overall scheme. Migraineur, thanks for pointing out the ketone pathway. We will do more explanation along those lines soon as well. Anna, every doctor should be compelled to read GCBC. The rest of you, thanks… Read more »
LiveWellBeWell
LiveWellBeWell
8 years 7 months ago

Great stuff. I also try to get a high % of my diet from fat and little from carbs.

Do you know where I could find a few low carb/high fat dessert recipes… that are actually good?

Jen
Jen
8 years 7 months ago

Check out http://paleofood.com/ for low carb recipes (for desserts and just about everything else).

Migraineur
8 years 7 months ago
LiveWellBeWell – I generally try to take a dessert recipe that doesn’t contain flour (such as a custard or a macaroon or a crustless cheesecake) and drastically reduce the sugar. Sometimes – and I know this is controversial on this blog – I’ll use a little artificial sweetener to make up for the difference. But this is increasingly rare. This all started because my husband, who doesn’t turn on the lights over the work surfaces in the kitchen, once misread a cheesecake recipe calling for 3/4 cup sugar as 1/4 cup. No one else at the party we took it… Read more »
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[…] excellent article from Mark’s Daily Apple about fats, well this week Mark has one that talks about Carbs. Mark has a harsher view point on simple carbs than I do, but we both agree that refined carbs are […]

Joe
Joe
8 years 7 months ago

“Then the body makes 200 grams of stored glucose (glycogen) from the FAT in our diet every day. That’s enough to fuel your brain and then some…but it takes getting used to.”

You have a source for that? Why would ketones be required as a substitute for glucose on a low carb diet if fat was converted to glucose in such large quantities?

You would need at least 88 grams of fat to create 200 grams of glycogen.

I’d be very surprised if you’re statement is remotely accurate.

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[…] Simple vs. Complex Carbs […]

Mark Sisson
8 years 7 months ago

Joe

Read this in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Should have specified fat and AA. But here’s the quote: “(Even if no dietary carbohydrate is consumed, it is estimated that 200 g glucose/d can be manufactured by the liver and kidney from dietary protein and fat.)”

http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/86/2/276?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&author1=westman&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&volume=86&resourcetype=HWCIT

Just because the body can use ketones doesn’t mean it abandons glycogen.

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[…] Simple vs. Complex Carbs […]

Sunday
8 years 5 months ago

Hey Mark,

Can blood type also dictate which way to lean towards (high carbs [from fruits & veggies], moderate protein VS low carbs, high protein) when looking to eat healthy, such as a study from Peter D’Adamo, ND, suggests, or is his research somewhat flawed due to the mold & fungus factors in grains & meats (grain-fed animal meats anyway)?

Also, are coconuts a good source of balanced carbs & protein, or does the laxative like property outweigh the nutrition?

God bless!

Mark Sisson
8 years 5 months ago

I’m not a fan of the “blood-tyoe” diets. I think we are much more alike than that and would all be best served by a diet lower in carbs, higher in protein and fat. Coconuts are great in moderation, like most healthy foods.

trackback

[…] fiber, they won’t result in sudden blood sugar spikes. However, as I said a while back in the whole grain post, at the end of the day carbs are […]

Joe
Joe
8 years 2 months ago

“80 grams is 80 grams”

True but what size were these people? Modern day hunter gatherers are very small. The men probably weigh less than 140 lbs on average.

Also, what is their activity level? Walking around looking for food with the occasional sprint. Pretty tame by today’s standards of Crossfit and other programs which demand a high anerobic load.

You need carbs to do anerobic work.

Mark Sisson
8 years 2 months ago

Joe, you must be joking. Ironically, look at this study that came out today on the aerobic expenditures of the Maasai. 2500 caloriies spent each day. All fat-burning. Not many carbs to speak of. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080718075357.htm

Meanwhile, if you follow PB or Crossfit, you know that you have enough glycogen on a low carb diet to get through any CF workout, regardless of how intense, because it’s over quickly. Then you burn fat the rest of the day as your body makes ketones and/or any added glucose it needs from dietary protein (or muscle).

Brian K
Brian K
7 years 20 days ago

“low carbohydrate diets are effective not just for weight loss but for ‘reducing saturated fatty acids in the blood and reducing markers of inflammation.'”

One of the functions of insulin is decreased lipolysis – reduction in the conversion of stored lipids into blood fatty acids. Decreased insulin causes the reverse.

Pups
7 years 9 hours ago

So beautiful guestbook style of site. What CMS do you use ?

Jon
6 years 11 months ago

Wow, nice server design. What CMS do you use ?

Lsd
6 years 11 months ago

So nice guestbook design. What CMS do you use ?

Mark Sisson
6 years 7 months ago

Ivan, spaceba.

Sam
Sam
6 years 5 months ago

Mark,

I read this post when it first came out and I was very pleased to see more information on Complex Carbs. As you stated above, are you going to release a “Definitive Guide for Complex Carbs?” I would be very interested in reading it.

Thanks!
Sam

Primal Toad
6 years 3 months ago

Another fantastic article in the series of grains from the best of MDA. More reasons to avoid grains 🙂

Henry
Henry
6 years 21 days ago
Hi, I’m a little new to the site but trying out the Paleo diet. Just a couple questions/concerns I had: 1.) Is it not true that complex carbs can take tens of hours to digest? Wouldn’t that minimize insulin spikes during meals and wouldn’t you feel energized for the rest of your day if your breakfast was say 20-50 g complex carbs? 2.) I don’t understand how you can lump all carbs into one evil category while still urging people to consider that there are good and bad fats. Can’t the same be said for carbs? Simple carbs (sweet and… Read more »
Seth
Seth
5 years 11 months ago
I was paleo for a long time and switched back to a vegetarian diet because I cant afford grass fed beef, because the feed lot stuff makes me sick. I would mostly eat fruit and veggies and eggs in my diet and found it to be fairly effective of a diet so not really knocking it, but I noticed that I felt pretty low on energy all the time and starving hungry, so after that 10,000nth piece of fruit I was eating in the day wasn’t filling enough I needed a change. You are saying that we haven’t evolved since… Read more »
Mark Sisson
5 years 11 months ago

@Seth, the difference is that everyone is born with the ability to digest lactose (mothers milk) and some of us lose it in time, while others keep it. There was no prior enzymatic toolkit to easily digest grains.

carice
carice
5 years 8 months ago

Quinoa is a seed from a plant related to spinach, it’s not a grain!!!

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[…] topics up my sleeve for a while now, and grains are it for today. Yes, grains. I know we’ve given them a bad rap before, and it’s safe to say I’ll do it again here. Sometimes the truth hurts, but you know […]

Eileen
Eileen
4 years 5 months ago

If you eat meat, please do not buy factory farmed. Learn to hunt or pay the price and invest in pasture raised…just eat less of it or use the money you save on not eating junk food. Treat animals humanely.

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3 years 6 months ago

[…] […]

bobbie
bobbie
3 years 6 months ago
Mark i realise this is an old post but i have been reading up on low/no carb diets and came across this artical and interesting comments below. However you havent responded to some of the readers comments asking isn’t balance a good thing? can’t there be such a thing as good carbs as there are good fats? I must say i also agree with other readers comments stating that low carb diets give them brain fog, I would add to that digestive discomfort. As for combatting that by eating more fat? queue even more brain fog and greater digestive discomfort.… Read more »
trackback

[…] low carb is not no carb, so we need to be wise about where are carb sources are coming from. I like this post at by […]

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[…] the grain-free gospel all over the interwebs.  Mark Sisson wrote about it here, and here, and here, and here, and Chris Kresser wrote about it here, and here,  Katie the Wellness Mama wrote about […]

Melodee
2 years 3 months ago

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thought was going on for the listener, wouldn’t excite the neurons firing.
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Lola Castro
Lola Castro
1 year 3 months ago
At the end of the day, humans are like most primates who get most of their nutrition from fruit. We are frugivores and nothing else. We need a small percentage of nuts and seeds, and some leaves to supplement but the bulk of our nutrition should come from FRUIT. That’s the story. That’s why we like sweets. Breast milk has all the protein we need as children and fruit has a bit more than breast milk. Horses eat grass all day and have incredible muscle bound physiques. Some leaves and lots of fruit with 10% nut and seed intake. That’s… Read more »
Colleen
Colleen
1 year 11 days ago

Ugh! I would be so sick on a mostly fruit diet, especially since today’s fruit is so full of sugar. Just having a fruit smoothie for breakfast every day for awhile gave me headaches and yeast infection symptoms. Humans evolved eating meat too and much lower sugar fruits IN SEASON! It is great that you can survive on a mostly fruit diet and feel great (is that really true for you?) but your blanket statement that “Some leaves and lots of fruit with 10% nut and seed intake. That’s the human dietary need” is bogus, sorry to say.

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