Why carbs make many of us fat and sick

In previous two posts I have written about why we don’t know what to eat and that fat isn’t dangerous as long as we avoid certain types of it. When you’ve read this post you’ll know the facts about carbohydrates. Knowing all this you’re armed with the knowledge that will inspire you to undertake the exciting 2-week eating experiment. How to ensure that this 2-week experiment is a great success is the focus of next week’s post. Something to look forward to!

First however, we need to focus on 1) what carbs and macronutrients are, 2) why carbs make many of us fat and sick, and 3) what foods contain carbs.

1 There are four macronutrients in the foods/drinks we consume of which alcohol and carbohydrate don’t promote health

Proteins – Without them you’ll die

Protein is an essential part our diet (what we eat). Every cell in the body needs proteins. Proteins are used as building blocks in your skin, bones, organs, muscles, nails, hair etc. and they help rebuild and restore the body. Proteins also function as enzymes, hormones and important components of other cells such as genes. You might not die of protein deficiency next week but if don’t consume protein over time your chances of living a long, healthy, life are zero.

Fats – Without them you’ll die too!

Fat is another essential part of our diet. Fats are primarily used by our muscles and organs for energy (this also includes your heart and brain), and for critical functions such as making cell walls, and leveraging vitamins & minerals. As for proteins, not eating fat will kill any hope you have of living a long, healthy life.

Carbohydrates – Without them you will run low on energy until you’re adapted to using fat for energy

Our bodies don’t need carbs from our diet. As unbelievably as that might sound it’s true. We don’t need to consume a single gram of carbohydrates and still be perfectly healthy. Most research suggests however, that for top athletes it’s important to consume some carbs from the right sources in order to maximize performance. Nevertheless, for the 99% of us who aren’t competing at the top-level: carbs make no positive difference to our lives as long as we’re eating enough fat.

Advanced content #1: Some people believe you have to eat carbs as your brain, red blood cells, and retina can only use carbs (glucose) for energy. What these people don’t know is that the body is able to produce all the carbs we need from protein and fatty acids (through a process called gluconeogenesis) or from glycerol (through a process called glycolysis).

Advanced content #2: Some people also argue that we don’t need to eat fat if we eat lots of carbs as our bodies quickly make fat from carbohydrates. This is a terrible strategy as not only will it make you fat but additionally our bodies aren’t able to make all the different types of fats necessary for our survival.

Alcohol – Without it you’ll die of boredom!

I am joking of course. To be clear: There’s absolutely no need for us to drink any alcohol from a health perspective. The more we drink the worse for our health. However, keep in mind that what you eat isn’t the only thing that affects your health and happiness! I strongly believe that living in a bunker and never going out for a drink with your friends is way worse for your life & health than having a drink every now and then is.


It should now be clear that eating protein and fat is of utmost importance to our bodies. Furthermore, eating carbs seems less important than we’ve heard from the media, commercials, government, personal trainers etc. However, most of us eat carbs all the time. How does this affect our health and well-being?

2 Carbs enable you to easily store fat and to become a grumpy grandpa!

First of all, carbs affect all of us differently. We all have different genes, different life experiences, and different lives. This very much affects the degree to which carbs are problematic for us. Unfortunately, the science is poor with regards to whom and how many of us are:

  • very intolerant to carbs
  • somewhat intolerant of carbs
  • generally quite tolerant of carbs

Some experts state that at least 70% of the worlds’ population is very or somewhat sensitive to carbs, others use a higher or lower number.

Personally, I don’t have a clue about what the percentages are. What I am very confident about though is that substantially reducing our carb intake, especially refined carbs & sugars, will make nearly every one of us feel, look, and perform better. I have three main reasons for my confidence:

  1. Everyone I’ve helped that have significantly reduced carbs (especially refined carbs & sugars) and increased healthy fats in their diet feel, look, and perform tremendously better in every part of life than they did before
  2. The data out there from other people who coach & help others using the “reduce carbs, increase fats” approach is overwhelming. Yes, there are examples of people who can eat anything, including lots of carbs, and be perfectly healthy. Yes, there are examples of people who don’t thrive on a reduced carb diet. However, almost everyone I’ve heard of (we’re talking 95+% here) have improved their life substantially after changing their diets to lower carb, higher fat.
  3. The science on what effect carbs have on our health is interesting. I won’t bore you with the details but I’ll give you a brief summary of four points I believe are especially relevant:
    • A high-carb diet results in unstable energy levels, mood swings, and irritability, especially when you haven’t eaten in a while.
    • A high-carb diet increases your body fat over time as carbs intake increase insulin levels in your blood stream. When insulin is present the body doesn’t burn fat. Additionally, when you eat more carbs than the body needs insulin ensures the extra carbs (glucose) are stored as body fat
    • Increased insulin levels lead to increased speed of aging. There are other factors behind this too of course (sleep, stress, lack of enjoyment etc.), however insulin seems to be the main factor. I highly recommend learning about the fascinating experiments Cynthia Kenyon has done in this field (see this TED talk for example)
    • Many of the carb rich foods we eat damage our gut/stomach wall so that undesirable “stuff” gets into our blood stream and cause inflammation. Increased chronic levels of inflammation is believed to be one of the main reasons for disease and death

From the above I believe it is at least worth experimenting with a reduced carb diet to see if you too can feel, look, and perform better when changing what you eat. In order to do that however, we need to know what foods contain carbohydrates.

3 The main carb sources are grains, legumes, and processed foods

The following foods are the most common high-carb foods we frequently consume:

  • Processed foods such as serials, pasta, pizza, bread, cake, candy, etc.
  • Processed drinks such as juice, sports drinks, sodas, alcoholic drinks
  • Grains such as wheat, oat, rice, rye, barley, millet, corn etc.
  • Legumes such as beans, lentils, peanuts etc.
  • Roots and tubers such as potatoes, yams, etc.
  • Nuts such as cashew, pistachio etc.
  • Fruits, berries, and seeds generally have medium to low carb content, and vegetables, meat, chicken, eggs, dairy, fats & oils and water are generally low in carbs. If you want to check the carbohydrate content of foods I recommend using this site (www.nutritiondata.self.com)

Advanced content #3: Different foods have a different impact on blood sugar and consequently insulin levels. This is primarily due to two factors; 1) the amount of carbs in the food and 2) the type of carbs the food consist of (monosaccharide, disaccharide, polysaccharide). As we’re looking to reduce blog sugar spikes we aim for foods with a low glycemic load. To learn more see this link. Keep in mind that alcoholic drinks or foods that contain fructose, for example fruits, will get a low glycemic load. This does not mean they are good for us. I’ll address this in a later post.

To conclude: Our bodies don’t need carbs and they make many of us fat and sick.

Here’s a quick summary of this post:

  • Our bodies don’t need carbs. We, nevertheless, eat lots of carbs and for most of us carbs have several negative effects on our bodies
  • If we avoid foods that have lots of carbs and eat fats from good sources instead we will feel, look, and perform better
  • Consequently, I recommend significantly reducing your carb intake and instead eat more fat from good sources

Enough with all the information, I want to start the 2-week self experiment now!

Hold your horses. You’re not ready. Don’t start just yet. Next week I will write about how to make the 2-week eating experiment a great success. If you decide to start now without spending lots of time reading on your own you will fail. That I promise you. The reason is that you need to know a few more critical things like:

  1. What is the process of the 2-week eating experiment?
  2. What foods can I actually eat when I reduce carbs and increase fat intake on the 2-week eating experiment?
  3. What supplements do I need to use during the 2-week eating experiment?

Don’t worry though! Next week’s post tackles these fundamental points and other important questions. Then you’ll be good to go!

Acknowledgments

Over the last few weeks I’ve thoroughly read five health books that came highly recommended from people in the health community. Two of these authors are in my opinion especially gifted people with a perspective on health that reaches far beyond nutrition. This is important as nutrition is only one important part of living good, long, healthy lives. Check out these guys:

Robb Wolf: www.robbwolf.com

Mark Sisson: www.marksdailyapple.com

In the meantime, take it easy.

Regards from Laos!

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For this post I borrowed some pictures:

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Post update: Do I think we shouldn’t eat any carbs?

I have received lots of questions with regards to my take on carbs and based on them I think this post paints a little too negative picture of my general view of carbs.

Just to be completely clear: I don’t believe that completely avoiding carbs is the best way for our health. I generally recommend eating 50-150 grams of carbohydrates pr. day from low-toxic sources such as potato, sweet potato, taro, rice, some fruits, and some nuts. Keep in mind that most vegetable carbs are fibers and consequently doesn’t end up as glucose (carbs) in the blood stream.

To rapidly help someone adapt to using fat for energy, for kick-starting fat loss, or for treating a number of diseases etc., I do recommend lowering the carb intake to maximum 50 grams carbs a day (in order to get into a stated called ketosis).

However, I strongly believe that everyone is different and the way to find out what works best for the you is to self-experiment.

I hope this makes my view clearer.

20 thoughts on “Why carbs make many of us fat and sick

  1. kikki

    Are there some carbs that are “better” than others if I want some? For example, would rice be better then pasta or potatoes?

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      That’s a good question.

      I believe the best carbs are from foods that are not/very little processed, that provide the most nutrients, and contains the least antinutrients (protection mechanisms in the grains that aim to create all kinds of problems for our bodies to avoid being eaten).

      For those reasons pasta isn’t a favorite of mine although I certainly eat it every now and then. Potatoes (white “normal” potatos, sweet potatos, yams etc.) are way better for our bodies and I recommend them. To a somewhat lesser degree I think white rice is ok too.

      I find that most people lose fat faster if they generally avoid these foods, however I do know that for others eating a little bit of these foods can actually further improve weight loss after having plateaued on a diet low in carbs.

      Reply
  2. Bjarte Bakke

    I have received lots of questions with regards to my take on carbs and based on them I think the article above paints a little too negative picture of my general view of carbs.

    Just to be completely clear:
    In most cases I recommend eating about 50-150g carbs pr. day depending on the individuals exercise habits etc. I don’t believe not eating any carbs is the best way for our health. I recommend getting these 50-150g carbs from low-toxic sources such as potato, sweet potato, taro, rice, some fruits, and some nuts (those that are low in omega-6). Keep in mind that most vegetable carbs are fibers and consequently doesn’t end up as glucose (carbs) in the blood stream.

    In other cases, for example to rapidly help someone adapt to using fat for energy, for kick-starting fat loss, or for treating a number of diseases, I recommend lowering the carb intake to maximum 50g carbs a day in order to get into a stated called ketosis.

    I hope this makes my view clearer.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Jits, I just had a quick look at the links above. From your question I’m not exactly sure what you’d like me to comment on. Having said that, I do think the articles you mention are decent to understand the basics of ketosis.

      Reply
      1. Jits

        It sounds like much of what you are discussing in this post (and others) relates to being in a state of Ketosis. Is that correct? Or is it a variation of Ketosis that you’re aiming for?

        Reply
        1. Bjarte Bakke

          Thanks a good point. I’m not necessarily saying someone should or should not aim at being in a state of ketosis. That depends on the individual, his genetics & epigenetics, life story, aims etc. What I’m aiming for in this post is to provide some fundamental knowledge that will allow us to later carry out the 2-week eating experiment.

          On a general basis I believe being in a state of ketosis can have some excellent effects, however it depends on the individual and self-experimentation is necessary. Some people prefer to eat some carbs from good sources (about 75-150 grams pr. day) as they look, feel and perform better when they’re not in ketosis whilst others love being in ketosis.

          Reply
  3. Jits

    I wanted to highlight something mentioned in the article: http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/faq/f/whatisketosis.htm which corroborates your points:

    “There is an assumption that if a body is burning a lot of fat for energy, it must not be getting “enough” glucose. However, there is no indication, from studying people on reduced carbohydrate diets, that this is the case (though there is usually a short period of adjustment — less than a week, in most cases). Although it’s true that our bodies can’t break fat down into glucose (though, interestingly, they easily use glucose to make fat), our bodies can convert some of the protein we eat into glucose. Indeed, this works well for people who don’t tolerate a lot of sugar, because this conversion happens slowly so it doesn’t spike blood glucose.”

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Nice find Jits. I would agree with most of what’s said in the paragraph above, however it’s worth noting that our bodies can produce glucose from the glycerol part of fat.

      Reply
  4. elyphx

    While I dont agree with all of your recommendations, I want to thank you for not saying that ALL people get fat and sick eating carbs. For some reason, many people I’ve spoken with who advance the anti carb/grain message insist that all carb eating cultures and athletes are secretely sick even if they arent outwardly fat. It casts doubt on the whole validity of the argument.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      I share your view about argument validity. I’m sure I also make the mistake of over-generalising sometimes, however I try to avoid explaining things in a black or white manner.

      Reply
  5. elyphx

    Thank you for not claiming that all people get fat and sick on carbs. I’ve actually had discusions with wheat belly and paleo diet proponents where people insisted that grain/sugar eating elite endurance althetes must have hidden and festering illnesses beneath the surface because there is no way to eat a high carb diet and be free from sickness.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Thanks for your kind words. I think there are substantial individual differences between people with regards to what foods they thrive on. I consequently believe that it’s important to not only provide general recommendations but also to be clear about the fact that what makes one person healthy might make someone else sick. Self-experimentation and careful listening to the body is the best way that I have come across to learn about what’s optimal for you.

      Reply
  6. Glenn

    I find it upsetting that people with little idea about basic biochemistry are able to lead those with an even lesser idea. You need carbs. Catabolising amino acids and fatty acids may lead to ketosis-this isn’t a good thing, and acidosis, as well as hyperfiltration due to increased GFR, higher kidney weight, etc. Please only write about topics you have knowledge on.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Thank you for your comment Glenn. I agree with you that eating carbs isn’t bad as long as they are from quality sources. I’m not sure if you saw the comment above where I mentioned that and some other thoughts about carbs? In any case I added that comment to the end of the blog post for it to be more visible.

      With regards to the rest of your post you are making some false assumptions. Also, ketosis can be great for lots of people and acidosis doesn’t stem from eating a ketogenic diet.

      Reply
  7. roastinc

    A friend of mine and I have been going back and forth on the use of carbs in an endurance type events. I currently am training for a 6+ hour event (ultra marathon) and simply see no way for my body to effectively use pure protein and fat for an energy source during events where I burn 1100+ calories an hour. What are you views on fueling during endurance events. Do you advocate just the use of water and and electrolytes as well as supplementing energy source with protein and fats. How do you account to the time delay for the liver to convert to a carb, for your muscle to continue to use glycogen? I am currently using a blended formula that contains maltodextrin, whey protein, a little fat, and a BCAA as constant fuel during my races. Are you suggesting that I should eliminate the carbs. If so how much sooner in the exercise program should I start fueling, and how do you suggest fueling to control nausea. As much as I love bacon, 3-4 hours in it’s not looking too appetizing. I agree with you that fueling between runs should be primarily protein and fats, but I find that my body is craving for clean carbs, fruit, oatmeal, etc. More so now as my mileage start to increase to 50-60 miles per week. Any suggestions on helping mitigate those cravings?

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Thanks for some excellent questions Roastinc.

      First of all it’s important for me to say that I’m not an expert in how to fuel your body for optimal performance. As I’m sure you know health & performance doesn’t always go hand in hand. Secondly, I don’t know what you’re currently eating.

      Having said that I do believe training your body to use fat as it’s main source of energy instead of glucose is something you should look into if you haven’t already done that. This is especially a good idea for endurance athletes like yourself. When your body use fat for energy you rarely “bunk” or run “empty” as your fat stores are significant, many times greater than your glycogen stores, and consequently can keep you going for ages. Keep in mind that it usually takes a few weeks for the body to convert from being dependent on glucose to using fat as the main energy resource. Check out my “2-week eating experiment” posts for how to achieve the adaptation.

      I recommend that you check out Ben Greenfield, Jonas Colting, and Peter Attia for details related to endurance performance.

      Reply
  8. Dr. Bill Wilson

    I agree that alcohol, while not essential, can be a healthy addition to a diet. Alcohol in moderation has been shown to lower cardiovascular risk. I would change your picture of a tall glass of beer to a glass or red wine–my fructose researcher friend Richard Johnson has shown that beer raises uric acid levels and uric acid plays a key role in pushing us to store mire fat–hence the classic beer belly.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Bill, I would agree too that wine is more healthy than beer and I definitely recommend moderating beer consumption. However, I for one prefer a Guiness to a glass of wine taste & feel wise.

      The fructose research is interesting and I’d love to hear more about Mr. Johnsons findings. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply

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