There are an endless number of myths regarding the low-carb diet. If I had a 7-figure book deal, I would write an entire book debunking all of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” by Gary Taubes, a book that once influenced my thinking quite a bit. But now that I know how to NOT believe everything I read, I can listen to a new idea and take it with a grain of salt.
My approach to debunking myths is going to be a bit different than you may expect. My goal and agenda I suppose is to promote a holistic and intuitive way of thinking that is totally absent from the nutrition science community and the medical community in general (including people promoting functional medicine and ancestral health). I know, I’m an arrogant douchebag, but I can argue with anyone until they cannot speak and am happy to do so.
The approach I will take here involves examining where the idea/myth/belief comes from. If it comes from a questionable place, it is most likely incorrect. In the future, I will cite more science. But there’s an important reason why I refuse to cite any science in this post; most people do not understand it. With nutrition science in particular, we can go back and forth. It certainly helps, but we do not need to always cite research to understand the idea and think for ourselves. By asking critical questions, we are doing science, rather than casually reading headlines. Here we go.
1. Insulin promotes fat gain
This is a myth I succumbed to. This myth illustrates the focus in the low-carb community on fat loss. Already, because of this, the idea is bunk. Losing weight and fat mass is universally seen as a healthy thing to do, but it is not. It is merely a cosmetic enthrallment. Beyond the unhealthy place this myth comes from, it is foolish in isolating one hormone involved in controlling important metabolic processes in our body. Fat gain is caused by many many variables other than insulin, and this type of reductionism doesn’t help us understand those diverse mechanisms.
In scientific experiments what is often done to determine cause and effect is knockout a vital process in the body. This allows researchers to study something on an incredible level of detail and consequently miss the big picture most of the time. When it comes to insulin, certainly it seems that when studied in isolation it promotes fat gain, but we’re missing context if we conclude that eating carbohydrates promotes fat gain.
The context is our real-life experience, which clearly tells me without a shadow of a doubt that eating foods that increase my insulin levels do not automatically make me fat. I ate pancakes for breakfast this morning with a copious quantity of maple syrup. Am I fat? Did I just increase my risk of developing a heart attack? Hmm, I don’t think so. It’s what you do with the carbs that’s really important. Sitting down and writing all these blog posts to educate confused people certainly doesn’t help my blood glucose regulation (joking, I love writing).
Saying that insulin release from carbohydrates causes us to get fat (or makes us insulin resistant) is just like thinking that eating cholesterol raises our cholesterol levels. I’ve extensively cited research to debunk that claim (click here to read that post).
2. Insulin “spikes” are a bad thing
Even the low-carb community realized this one made no sense. It’s the overall number of carbohydrates consumed that determines insulin load. A short term spike in insulin from eating something rich in glucose and sugar does not necessarily mean worse health. What if our bodies actually want insulin spikes from time to time to lower cortisol after a period of starvation and/or exercise?
Judging by my qualitative experience of hunger after a workout, the last thing I want to do is eat “complex carbs” to keep my insulin steady. The other last thing I want to eat is fat. I want carbs and the faster the carbs are, the happier my brain is. Because of fucked up beliefs like this circulating on the internet, for years I only drank water during exercise and tried to avoid sugar post-workout. This only caused the surges of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine in my bloodstream from exercising to wreak havoc on my immune system long-term from chronically being elevated.
I would feel stressed all day every day from my diet in addition to my intense exercise routine. Nowadays I experience calmness mentally and I attribute this to many reasons but one of them is certainly that I am not on any sort of low-carb diet. In fact, I will order a burger right after I write this.
3. Refined carbs lower testosterone
The other day on Twitter someone was shocked that I suggested that a low-carb high fat diet (LCHF) could lower testosterone. It’s pretty obvious how it can work. The first step to understanding this is to google it and seeing the numerous forum posts of people talking about this, but the next one is a common sense understanding of how the body works.
Any form of stress lowers libido. Long term carbohydrate restriction, past the point of intuitive cries for more carbs, increases stress. Carbohydrates are very helpful in reducing stress. One reason for this is because insulin antagonizes cortisol and norepinephrine.
Often people who go on restrictive diets feel good because they’re high on adrenaline.
Now, certainly an excess of refined carbs in the diet can lower testosterone, but eating enough white rice keeps my testosterone feeling the best to be honest. I’ve had plenty of conversations with other men who have tried eating brown rice and such and their physical strength only decreased. It’s thus paradoxical that the low-carb diet can result in less energy and then potentially less strength gains. I think I need white rice too today. Ugh.
Now of course, physical strength and testosterone aren’t the same thing, but it’s a sign that the white rice diet increases physical strength partly due to increases in testosterone but it could be due to a variety of other unrelated mechanisms. But being well-fed, one mechanism that could explain this finding, is usually correlated with higher testosterone.
4. Unrefined carbs are always healthier
This is one of the most destructive health myths in general that causes food avoidance and phobias. We have been refining our foods for hundreds of thousands of years. There is evidence that we used tools to refine grains 100,000 years ago. It doesn’t matter what the details are. The big picture is that we cannot digest grains raw. We have to process them.
Too much processing creates a product that is low in nutrition but high in starch, a very direct source of fuel. Too much processing in the rest of the diet also leaves out vital nutrients we need to create healthy babies, strong bone structure, and a face that approximates the golden-ratio better (read Deep Nutrition by Dr. Catherine Shanahan all of this is explained there).
I shunned refined carbohydrates for years, until I realized I preferred the taste of white rice over brown rice. I realized then that my body was telling me something important and I wasn’t listening for the longest time. In the prime years of my life, I was robbing myself of vitality from these stupid ideas.
5. There is no dietary requirement for carbohydrate
This is my favorite low-carb health myth. Gary Taubes mentioned this in his book, and I heard it again at Ancestral Health Symposium this year in August. Let me ask you a simple question:
So what there is no dietary requirement for carbohydrate? That doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from carbohydrate. There is no requirement for masturbation. Does that not mean a self-induced orgasm can improve our health and release hormones that improve our well being? Most certainly it does.
What’s really happening when someone says something like this is they are using confirmation bias to support their point of view. If you are already fascinated by a low-carb diet, then knowing that there is no requirement just fuels your fantasy even more. It can also help those on the fence to go low-carb.
Conclusions & Summary
It’s tragic that people are still asking questions like “how many carbs should I eat a day” out of fear that they are transgressing imaginary laws. The answer is, as much as your gut wants. Do not fall for these myths but certainly fall in love with your body and learn to follow it.