Low-carb diets are awesome.
The research is clear that they can reverse many common, serious diseases.
This includes obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and a few others.
Collectively, these are the biggest health problems in the world.
That being said, I've noticed a problem that has been growing steadily over the past few years in the low-carb community.
A lot of dogma seems to be getting accepted and many myths that are NOT supported by science have gained foothold.
This is a consequence of a phenomenon called group thinking, which is common in nutrition circles and can lead to a distorted view of the science.
This is a big problem, because dogmatic and extremist views will not help the low-carb diet gain acceptance.
They will simply scare intelligent people away and put them in a defensive mode instead of making them willing to observe the arguments objectively.
Plus... dogmatic, unscientific views are what got us into this terrible public health mess in the first place. Let's not make that same mistake again.
Low-carb diets are super healthy.
The studies consistently show that they cause more weight loss and improve most risk factors for disease more than the failed low-fat diet that is still being pushed by nutrition organizations all over the world (1, 2, 3).
That being said, low-carb is not appropriate for everyone.
We're all different and what works for one person may not work for the next.
I know many people who have given low-carb an honest shot and didn't like it, either because they didn't get the results they expected or they simply didn't feel good.
For others, low-carb can be downright detrimental.
This includes people who are physically active, especially athletes who do a lot of anaerobic work. These individuals need a lot more carbs than people who are sedentary.
We should be mindful of the fact that other people have different needs and different preferences. Different strokes for different folks.
Sugar and refined carbs are bad, pretty much everyone agrees on that.
But vilifying all carbs based on that is kind of like vilifying all fats because of the harmful effects of trans fats and vegetable oils.
The truth is... not all carbs are fattening. It depends completely on the context and the type of food they are in.
For carbs to be "fattening," they need to be refined and put into a package that is highly palatable and encourages overconsumption.
A great example is potatoes. On their own, they are not very exciting. They have fiber, a low energy density and you will most likely feel full pretty quickly.
On the other hand, potato chips, deep fried in corn oil, with salt and pepper and maybe even a dipping sauce... now you've got a highly fattening food that is easy to overconsume.
I've seen many real, traditional foods demonized by low-carbers because of the carb content.
This includes foods like fruits, whole potatoes and carrots.
True... it is essential to limit these foods on a very low-carb, ketogenic diet. But this does not mean that there is anything "wrong" with those foods.
People often tend to see things in black and white. Either a food is "bad" or "good."
But the truth is that in nutrition, everything depends on the context and "healthy" is a relative term.
For a person eating a Western junk food diet, replacing some junk food with a few pieces of fruit per day would be "healthy." But for a diabetic managing their symptoms on a ketogenic diet, the same amount of fruit would be "unhealthy."
In my opinion, low-carb zealots trolling the web scaring people away from whole foods like carrots and fruits, without any regard to context, are no better than militant vegans spreading fear mongering about meat and eggs.
A ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet, usually under 50 grams of carbs per day, with a very high fat intake (60-85% of calories).
But this really is not the only way to do a "low carb" diet.
Low-carb can be anything up to 100-150 grams of carbs per day, perhaps even more.
Within this range, there is easily room for several pieces of fruit per day and even small amounts of whole, starchy foods like potatoes.
Even though a very low-carb / ketogenic diet may be the most effective for quick weight loss and several disease states, this is not appropriate for everyone.
I know of a lot of people who didn't feel good in ketosis, but when they added in a few fruits (still low-carb) they suddenly started feeling awesome.
Saying that all carbs are broken down into "sugar" is true, but misleading.
Technically, the word "sugar" includes various simple sugars like glucose, fructose and galactose.
Yes, starches like grains and potatoes do get broken down into glucose in the digestive tract, which raises blood sugar levels.
To a diabetic, it is true that starches turn into "sugar" and raise the "sugars" in the blood.
But to other people, who are not chemists, the word "sugar" implies the white, unhealthy granular stuff... sucrose.
Telling people that "all carbs turn into sugar" is misleading. It makes people think that there is no difference between a potato and a candy bar.
Trying to mislead people into believing that starches are equivalent to sugar/HFCS is dishonest.
There are some who think that as long as carbs and insulin are low, that weight gain is impossible.
But the truth is... it is very possible to gain weight on a low-carb diet.
Many low-carb foods can be fattening, especially for people who are prone to binge eating (like I used to be).
This includes cheese, nuts, peanuts and heavy cream.
It is very easy to eat a ton of calories from these foods, enough to stall weight loss or even cause someone to start gaining weight back.
Back in my binge eating days, I used to binge on peanut butter. For a while, I used to eat an entire jar of organic peanut butter (70% fat, 15% carbs) every evening and I gained weight like clockwork until I stopped doing it.
Although many people can eat these foods without problems, others need to moderate them if they want to be able to lose weight without restricting calories.
There is no reason to avoid high-fat dairy products, fatty cuts of meat, coconut oil or butter. These are healthy foods.
But just because "normal" amounts of saturated fat are fine, it doesn't mean that adding a ton of it to your diet is a good idea.
It is trendy these days to add a whole lot of butter and coconut oil to coffee.
I think doing this is fine... in moderation. It will probably lead to a reduced appetite, so it won't cause weight gain or anything like that.
But if you're adding 20-30-50 (or more) grams of fat to your diet every day, then you will be eating less of other more nutritious foods instead (like meat and veggies).
There is a misunderstanding among some low-carbers that calories don't matter.
Calories are a measure of energy and body fat is simply stored energy.
If our bodies take in more energy than we can burn off, we store it (usually as body fat).
If our bodies expend more energy than we take in, we use stored body fat for energy.
Of course, these diets also optimize the function of important metabolic hormones like insulin, but one of the key reasons they work so well is that people start to eat fewer calories without trying.
Calories count, but counting them or even being consciously aware of them is not necessary in many cases.
Dietary fiber is indigestible carbohydrate material in foods.
Humans don't have the enzymes to digest fiber and therefore it passes through relatively unchanged.
However, fiber is not irrelevant to health, like some low carbers seem to believe.
Fiber actually gets to the bacteria in the intestine, which do have the enzymes to digest it and can turn it into beneficial compounds, like the fatty acid butyrate (14).
There are many different types of fiber. While some don't really do anything, others are highly beneficial for health.
Many people who are metabolically healthy can easily maintain good health eating carbs, as long as they eat real food.
However, when someone becomes insulin resistant and obese, the metabolic rules seem to change somehow.
People who have metabolic dysfunction caused by the Western diet may need to avoid all high-carb foods.
But even though removing most carbs may be necessary to reverse a disease, it does not mean that the carbs themselves caused the disease.
Healthy people who want to stay healthy will do just fine, even on a higher carb diet, as long as they stick to real, unprocessed foods.
The prevention does not have to be the same as the cure.
Group thinking is a big problem in nutrition. People tend to pick "sides" - then they only read blogs and books by people who agree with the side they have chosen.
This is a BIG problem among vegans. They are often completely brainwashed, with a severely distorted view of the science.
But I have started to notice the same thing in the low-carb community as well.
We need to be vary of this group thinking phenomenon and always look at the opposite argument as well. Science changes all the time and what is true today can be proven wrong tomorrow.
So let's continue to promote the incredible life-saving benefits of low-carb diets (for the people who need them).
But let's not ignore all contrary evidence or distort the science just to get our point across. That ain't cool.
If we do that, then we're no better than the vegans.