Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
The most common objection I get when recommending a no-grain diet is: “What about the healthy whole grains? Don’t I need the fiber?” I covered this in depth in my grains post, but it seemed that a more thorough explanation of the role of carbohydrates in the body would be a good idea.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates exist in varying levels in a lot of foods including grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, etc. Typically, foods containing grains have a higher carbohydrate content than, say, an equal amount of spinach. In general, the more processed the food, the higher the carbohydrate content. Any food that you eat: protein, fat, or carbohydrate, is broken down by the body. What you don’t immediately use is stored for later use.
Any form of carbohydrate is eventually broken down by the body into glucose, a simple form of sugar. While the body can use glucose for fuel, levels that exceed what is needed are toxic to the body. In the long run, that whole wheat muffin, cup of millet, or bowl of oatmeal turns into the exact same thing as a cup of soda, a donut, or a handful of candy. The fructose in fruit and the carbohydrates in vegetables are recognized the same way.
The Problem of Carbs…
The problem is, glucose is actually toxic if it is just floating around in your bloodstream, so the body has a defense mechanism. Any glucose that is not immediately used is stored as glycogen in the liver and the muscles. This would be all well and good except that your body has a limited number of glycogen receptors. When these are full, as they almost always are in inactive people, the body only has one option left: to store all the excess glucose as saturated fat within the body.
To make matters worse for the inactive, carb addict, when the body senses glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) to signal the body to store the glucose as glycogen. If the glycogen receptors are full and it can’t do this, the body thinks that the cells didn’t get the message and releases even more insulin.
When this happens for a period of time, the cells start to become resistant to the presence of insulin, causing a vicious cycle. The body then releases even more insulin, trying desperately to get the cells to uptake the toxic glucose. The presence of excess insulin in the bloodstream is also toxic and further damages the receptors on these cells. Eventually, the insulin allows the glucose access to your fat cells to get it out of the bloodstream. In other words- Fat isn’t stored as fat in the body- Sugar (from carbohydrates) is stored as fat!
Now that we understand that, it is easy to see why the Insulin/Diabetes/Fat equation can be so confusing. It is the glucose from Carbohydrates that causes the rise in insulin, the insulin resistance and the excess fat, but since this commonly manifests itself as excess weight (fat) in the body, researchers once assumed that fat caused diabetes.
Interestingly, high fat diets are also blamed for heart disease, but fat got this reputation falsely as well. Excess glucose in the bloodstream is toxic, and a gross, sticky sludge. Combine this with the sticky glucose molecules that leech through the small intestines of people who consume grains, and you have a chemical structure similar to wall-paper glue. Which do you think has a higher possibility of clogging arteries: slippery lipids or sticky wall paper glue?
Excess glucose can also cause a rise in triglycerides (it has to be stored somewhere!) and cause joint inflammation. The body keeps storing excess glucose as fat, and the extra insulin that is excreted blocks the action of fat burning enzymes, reducing the body’s ability to burn stored fat. Soon, even the fat cells become resistant, so all the glucose and resulting insulin are free to circulate the bloodstream wreaking havoc and increasing cancer risk.
As if that weren’t enough, the resistance of your cells eventually keeps them from absorbing amino acids (proteins) either, making it difficult or impossible to build or maintain muscle. Since the cells are resistant and the body can’t access them for stored energy, it has no choice but to start cannibalizing muscle tissue and converting it into sugar for energy. Since the excess insulin is blocking fat burning enzymes from functioning, the body can’t burn fat and is forced to burn muscle. (This, by the way, is the real cause of muscle wasting, not skipping meals, as some would suggest)
The ending to this sad story? Eventually, the liver is damaged by excess insulin and stops converting thyroid hormone T4 to T3, causing low thyroid function and excess weight gain. Nerve damage and loss of eyesight can follow. Finally, an exhausted pancreas throws in the towel and refuses to make insulin anymore. This lovely condition is called Diabetes, and comes with the added bonus of getting to inject high levels of insulin… until you die! Sound exciting? I didn’t think so!
What to do about it…
The good news is that the body has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate itself and that the reverse of the above horror story is also true. When we eliminate grains and other nutrient inferior sources of carbohydrates and get the carbs we do need from vegetables and fruits, our bodies start to become more sensitive to insulin again. Exercise helps too, as muscles that are being used need to access the stored energy (glycogen) inside them. This is the reason that type 2 diabetics often see improvement of symptoms when they adopt a consistent exercise routine.
Removal of bad carbohydrates and commitment to a regular exercise routine allow the body to become sensitive to insulin again. At this point, the body can burn body fat during the day because it is not busy trying to neutralize the toxic glucose in the bloodstream. Since the cells are not damaged, they can absorb amino acids from proteins again. At this point, the body is able to burn fat and build or maintain muscle with fairly little effort.
Unfortunately, this muscle building and fat burning won’t happen with the average American diet! It is estimated that the average American consumes between 350-500+ grams of carbohydrates a day from mostly processed grain and sugar sources. The body does need carbohydrates in some amount, so if grains and sugars aren’t the answer, where should we get them?
Vegetables (and some fruits) are the most nutrient dense sources of healthy carbohydrates. They also contain much higher nutrient levels than grains/sugars and have a cleansing effect on the body. The average person should consume around 100-140 grams of carbohydrates a day from mainly vegetable (and some fruit) sources for optimal health (and less if he/she is trying to lose weight). Consuming adequate levels of vegetables is also the answer to the “what about the fiber” question. Vegetables contain high levels of healthy fiber and are very helpful to the digestive system. Don’t believe me? Eat a bagel and drink a veggie smoothie and let me know which one cleans you out more!
While it is easy to buy into the argument that obesity and diabetes just come back to our genes, it just isn’t true. (I personally think the whole nature/nurture debate on genetic predisposition to health problems is less separated than we think. Families and those in the same culture tend to eat the same foods-causing the same problems!) We have much more ability to affect our gene expression than the mainstream media and the medical community would have us believe. For Moms, this means that the raising rates of childhood diabetes comes back to us…. kids don’t buy their own food!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Agree? Totally disagree? Share below in the comments!
Discussion (59 Comments)
I know a lot of people here agree with this lady, but she has no idea what she’s talking about. I’m not here to preach on my soapbox about what the right way to approach dieting is, but picking up any anatomy and physiology textbook will disprove much of what she’s saying. So if she’s not getting her information from the experts, where then? Perhaps many of you that really want to learn about proper diet and living habits should do the research on your own instead of listening to a self-proclaimed nutritionalist. It’s not hard and it only takes a little bit of effort to learn these things. Do yourself a favor and spend the time to research a plan before you spend the time on the plan.
I agree.. I hope readers do take the time to do research before listening to me or anyone else. To be fair though, I not only have a background in this but have spent thousands of hours researching it, and your attempt to disprove anything I said (with sources) above is strictly your opinion…
I agree with Kevoh. Look, I adore your blog, love your recipes and especially all the effort and research that goes into every single one of your posts. You’ve helped many a great deal to live a more wonderfully natural life. However, when one starts speaking about the topic of diets and fitness, I strongly feel one needs to be a good role-model to serve as a living example of the strong claims they make. I cannot see you being such role model. I too, used to be on this no-grain low-carb high-fat wagon, supported by acclaimed research, always searching for more ways to make some no-sugar desserts due to insane cravings. This lifestyle has not only destroyed my metabolism, it has also generally slowed down my mental clarity and brought on what I thought was an ED but actually was my body’s scream for carbs. I’ve been a high-carb vegan now for over a year, I’ve lost the excess weight, gained great mental clarity, my health and skin improved immensly, and I have incomparably higher levels of energy. My mood swings and winter depression disappeared as well. This doesn’t go to say that veganism (or any one view) is the right answer – but these claims you’re making are very likely coming from research paid for by the meat industry and might not only be wrong, but also dangerous.
To be honest I already researched since I was 13 years old. And true there a lot I didn’t know I rather not take the risks anymore. My future and kids future is in stake. But I did know for some time the better option and diet from every source led back to veg being the main carb diet. I only decided at the time it was a bug step needed to really love your veg which at 16 years old and again at 24 I didn’t really. Still don’t love it enough to eat loads of it purely alone. But to be honest more ready to try make those next steps. But I know that the best nutrient dense foods are best forms of carbs even doctors attend scientist been saying it for years. But most people can’t convert away from variety sources and unhealthy choices so they justify it and make it simpler for us to follow. But truthfully half healthy is eating carbs from low nutrient sources and full healthy is taking it all from veg. Taking all your nutrient you can take from veg is super healthy. It’s common sense. So I don’t get the problem here
I completely agree with your last statement that it’s less about our genes and more about how we were raised to eat. My parents are polar opposites when it comes to how they were raised to eat. Thankfully for us, my mom is the one who raised us to eat, so we are all skinny twigs (except for my baby weight) while our cousins on my dad’s side are over weight.
This is not so the case. When a person is dieting, however they choose and really putting effort into it, yet seeing no results. It is a combination of genes and the diet.
Love your comment about genetics not being the issue, but a matter of being raised to eat the wrong way so you continue to do that as an adult…been saying that for years! Kudos!!
I second the sprouted grains/Ezekiel question.
Post on this coming soon. Short answer: If you are going to consume grains, this is the way to do it, but there is no nutritional need to do so, and there are much better sources of nutrients…
What’s your opinion on oxalic acid? I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on it. Some people say it inhibits mineral absorbtion like phytic acid, others say you don’t need to worry about it unless you’re prone to kidney stones. And then I’ve also seen people debating whether high-oxalic vegetables should be eaten cooked or raw! All this contradictory information is coming between me and my spinach, darn it!
I second this comment. It’s something that bothered me for a while. I decide kale is better substitute for spinach as it is a lot more healthy than spinach in that higher and more amounts of vitamins and minerals 😉 I learnt this way back in 2012 I believe too so can’t remember all the details
I know this is an old post and hopefully you can still give me an answer. Am I understanding correctly that you are saying that type1 diabetes is preventable? That doesn’t make any sense to me, some people are diagnosed as young as two years old, they haven’t been alive long enough to sabotage their body with food. I have always had the understanding that type2 diabetes is preventable, type1 is not. Please let me know if this is wrong.
I was curious about this too….I have had type I since 10 and my 10 year old developed it at age 1. I do concur that food has something to do with it. It seems too convenient that the gene for Celiac disease and the gene for type I diabetes are one and the same. Just wish I knew that 10 years ago so I could have spared my son! (milk is a problem too)
Interesting article by Dr. Chris Kresser, 50 Shades of Gluten Intolerance, says that there are about 6 elements in gluten that people can react to, but current Celiac testing only screens for 2 of them. Which means you can have “normal” Celiac test results & still have the condition. He said that people who are sensitive to gluten are often also sensitive to the proteins in other grains & the milk protein casein because they are so structurally similar. This is why some people still have gluten-like problems even after going completely gluten-free.
What about brown rice?
What if I ate only sprouted grains in the form of Ezekiel Bread and Ezekiel Cereal?
That would be better, but there are still some harmful lectins and phytic acid even in sprouted grains and even sprouted grains can have a pretty big impact on blood sugar.
I really appreciate your post! I’ve recently removed grains from my diet and I’m always being told by others that this is dangerous but I FEEL soooo much better, and I’m losing the extra 20-30 pounds that I’ve been carrying around since in my 40’s. I’m glad for your explanation of why it is working so well for me. On my mother’s side there is a lot of adult-onset diabetes and I do not want to be among those numbers as I head into my 50’s and 60’s. Thanks for the encouragement with “real” answers!
Thanks for such a clear and concise explanation of the carb/insulin problem. I’ve been following the GAPS diet for about 8 months. I felt really great for the first few months, but more recently have been having bouts of unexplained extreme tiredness. My guess is that I haven’t been consuming enough carbs (as I typically only have veggies and a very small amount of fruit each day). Do you think it is possible that women need more carbs than those from veggies/fruits if they are nursing? (My 15-month-old still nurses on-demand for at least half of his daily food intake.)
Its definitely possible, and I notice that some with nursing. I’d
recommend starchy veggies like sweet potatoes or fruit if you think
you need the carbs. Also with breastfeeding though, it could be that
you need more fats. I’ve read the recommendation to add 4-6 tbsp of
coconut oil or other quality saturated fat when nursing because baby
is getting so much of your good fats through the milk. Personally, I
noticed lack of energy more from not getting enough fats, even when
I’m eating very little carbohydrates. There is also the possibility
that your hormones could be shifting at this point and prolactin
levels might be starting to drop, which can lead to fatigue.
Oh, I never would have thought of trying more fat! I eat quite a bit already (mmm, butter), but now that you mention it, I do tend to feel the fatigue more in the afternoons, and my lunches are usually a bit lower in fat than my other meals. I’ll try supplementing with some fat. Thank you!