Reader Response: Simple vs. Complex Carbs

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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