Recently I was asked by a gym member what I thought about an article titled, “5 reasons you need to be eating carbs” that was written by a dietitian and published on the website of one of the gyms (Goodlife Health Clubs) where I work. Here is the article for your reference.
Aside from agreeing with the first two lines of the article, I pretty much disagree with everything else. And here’s why. The article misses the mark on some of the most basic principles of metabolism, it mischaracterises the low-carbohydrate diet and ignores the latest scientific evidence.
1. The author claims that carbohydrates “help to balance your energy levels” and justifies it by saying that low glycaemic index (GI) foods help achieve a “steady, stable stream of energy for two or more hours post consumption”. This is plainly wrong.
When researchers actually put this to the test under experimental conditions, they found that after ingesting carb-laden food with a known GI, the blood glucose response in 63 different people was so wildly varied and unpredictable, the researchers concluded that the “GI” value of food could not be used to predict anyone’s glycaemic response.
Nutritionist, Jennifer Elliott published a detailed critique of the flawed GI concept in a submission to the Western Australian Government’s investigation into type-2 diabetes (T2DM) prevention and management. She wrote;
“GI ranking of foods [is] one of the most inane concepts in the world of nutrition, despite reasonable competition….. The harm caused to people with diabetes in putting their faith in the GI as a way to make food choices that will help manage their condition, instead of a method with a sound physiological basis and proven benefits eg reducing carbohydrate intake, is potentially immense.”
It only takes common sense to realise that minimally processed foods and whole foods like eggs, fish, meat and butter do not cause dramatic spikes in blood glucose levels, they provide sustained satiety and they should constitute the majority of your diet.
The article posted on the gym’s website also claims that “very few people can maintain a low-carb diet beyond 3-6 months, without negative side effects“. A recent peer-reviewed study led by Dr Sarah Hallberg published in Diabetes Review, demonstrated long term adherence to a low-carb diet that included healthy, satiating fats. The study, funded by Virta, presented data from the first 12 months of a five-year study investigating standard- of-care, low-fat and low-carb therapies.
I myself have been following a LCHF approach to nutrition for six years and it is easy. What I find frustrating is when we are constantly told by so-called experts that our brains are going to stop working if we don’t eat enough carbs. The truth is that on low carb diets once we become “fat burners” instead of “carb burners”, our brains can also use ketones (a byproduct of fat metabolism) as a supplementary fuel source.
I myself, have coached over 200 people over the last three years to improve their health and move away from the poor advice being disseminated to the public. The majority of them are still following the lifestyle and they are loving it.
Professor Tim Noakes who founded the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and was awarded the prestigious South African Association for the Advancement of Science prize, also adopted a LCHF approach six years ago after his father died from T2DM. Prof Noakes was shocked after he, himself, developed T2DM despite being a fit marathon runner. He blamed the constant “carb loading” he did in preparation for his marathons as well as his family history. As a result, he has become one of the world’s biggest advocates for LCHF and has established a research foundation to help turn the tide on obesity and diabetes.
2. The article claims that carbs are “essential for exercise performance“. However, one of the most enduring myths about carbohydrates is that they are “essential” in the diet. Even the most basic biochemistry book will tell you that dietary carbohydrate is not an essential macronutrient,, unlike protein and fat.
I am not suggesting that we remove all carbohydrates from our diet, as consumption of appropriate vegetables, depending on your own level of insulin resistance, body composition, and intensity of exercise are important considerations. The key point is that you do not need to consume carbohydrates because your body can synthesise all the glucose your body needs to carry out the biological process of growth and metabolism. Our liver is able to perform this function in a process known as gluconeogenesis.
Research by Dr Eric Westman analysed the traditional diets and the health status of the Inuit who ate very low-carb, high-fat diets, and it clearly shows these people were very healthy and able to work very hard for weeks and months without ingestion of carbohydrates. While there are healthy populations that have eaten relatively high-carbohydrate diets compared to the Inuit, or the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya in general, the world has become obese and sick by following the mantra that we need to eat mostly carbs and that we should not deprive ourselves of them.
There is growing anecdotal evidence that marathon runners and those participating in Iron Man and other ultra-triathlon events, have improved their performance after reducing their daily intake of carbohydrate-rich foods. If you’re interested to hear more, there is a podcast featuring Stefano Passarello, a CEO based in Hong Kong, who has attained the highest level of triathlon success in his very first year in the sport. A 2:26 marathon runner who turned to triathlon due to repeated injury, Stefano qualified for Hawaii Ironman World Championships and ran a 2:53 marathon off the bike in Kona! This is the third fastest amateur marathon split in the 40-year history of the Ironman! Stefano’s approach to nutrition is ultra low carb.
From my own experience over the last six years, I have been training 15 hours a week for Half Ironman and marathons and my performance has increased. I train endurance athletes, all who follow a LCHF approach to nutrition and it works. Some of the world’s best endurance athletes follow this approach.
I also know from personal experience, when I was following the advice of a highly qualified (but mainstream) nutritionist, I was overweight, frequently injured and always hungry and stressed. Since sacking them and moving to a LCHF approach, I have been between 64-66kg for six years and running and performing faster than when I was 48.
Interestingly, Virta co-founder and CEO Sami Inkinen won his age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships only to find out the same year, he had prediabetes. Unsatisfied with the conventional wisdom of “exercise more and eat less,” Sami delved into the causes of T2DM, leading him to Drs. Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek, renowned experts on the science of carbohydrate restriction and metabolic health. In a recent blog they wrote:
“Published science has shown that ketones that are produced from either dietary fats or triglycerides stored in our adipose tissue reserves are an excellent fuel for the brain. Further, we now know that these ketones produced by the liver also have multiple beneficial effects on the heart, kidneys, and other organs that appear to translate into improved longevity.   Additionally, new research has highlighted that skeletal muscles, even those of competitive athletes, are not solely dependent on high dietary carbohydrate intake for glycogen replenishment and performance .”
Getting back to the article about why you allegedly “need to be eating carbs”, the author also falsely states that if you are “not consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel your exercise, replenish glycogen stores and support essential bodily functions, there is a risk your protein intake will be used for these tasks, and not for muscle growth and repair” and that this will leave you “vulnerable to injury and illness in the long term“.
The statement is breathtaking, as is the claim that if you are looking to build size and muscle mass, carbohydrates can help you “reach the calorie surplus you need“. To understand how misleading this claim actually is, you only have to read the seminal work of Phinney and Volek, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Phinney is a physician and Volek is a dietitian and former champion powerlifter; both have been on a ketogenic (very low-carb, very high-fat, moderate protein) diet for upwards of two decades and also happen to be two of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of carbohydrate and sports performance.
3. The article claims that high fibre carbohydrate foods promote bowel health. However, closer analysis of the literature is leading doctors to think that the benefits of fiber have been oversold. For example, a well designed study showed that constipation, bloating, bleeding & pain significantly improved when people cut fibre from their diet.
In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine there was a major review article on the causes and treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). One of the points discussed was the role of fibre in bowel function. For years, modern gastroenterology has put its whole emphasis on the fibre theory of bowel function which, briefly stated, is the theory that those who consume lots of fibre will have healthy bowel function. Fibre, by the way, is a term that encompasses the family of complex carbohydrates and other substances that are present mainly in the cell walls of plants used as food. The term includes cellulose, gums, mucilages, pectins and lignins. Humans cannot digest fibre, but these substances are said to contribute to the health of the digestive tract.
Rather than focusing entirely on fibre, we should look at the intestines as a complex ecosystem. Like all ecosystems, the intestines are populated by a wide variety of organisms all of which interact with each other and with their host. Each organism needs to be fed and its waste products eliminated, and each individual organism and the organisms as a whole have a profound connection with the health or disease of their host.
The big problem with legumes and wholegrains is the fact that they can cause serious damage to our digestion, which can lead to mineral deficiencies in our body. As discussed in the reference from the Weston A. Price Foundation phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds and beans represents a serious problem in our diets. This problem exists because we have lost touch with our ancestral heritage of food preparation. Instead we listen to food gurus and ivory tower theorists and we eat a lot of high-phytate foods like commercial whole wheat bread and all-bran breakfast cereals which often contain high amounts of sugar
4. Lastly, the article claims that you may live longer if you eat lots of carbs. The author uses epidemiological studies to justify this claim. However, these types of studies are often fraught with limitations because epidemiological studies that show a “weak association” between two factors cannot prove causation. For example, the idea that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters is likely to be because the latter group might smoke more, or exercise less – and it has nothing to do with their meat consumption. On the other hand, there is a considerable amount of evidence from randomised controlled trials (RCTs, the so-called “gold standard of modern science) to show that low carb diets are more effective at managing diabetes and weight gain, compared to low fat diets.
The article also claims that low carb diets are “trendy”, ignoring the fact that this nutrition approach was the gold standard treatment for people with type-1 diabetes before the development of medications like insulin.
For further reading, I’d recommend the works of US science writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, and Nina Teicholz’s ground-breaking work, Big Fat Surprise, Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong In A Healthy Diet.
So, what do you make of it?
Is Goodlife Health Club and the Fitness Industry as a whole focussed on the health and well-being of its members and the community? Misleading advice from articles like the one I write about here, are sure to keep its members overweight, struggling to be fit and healthy and it will keep them filling the classes and booking those PT Sessions.
I feel quite strongly about this issue and I’m concerned about the conflicts of interest that exists for the fitness industry at large with delivering appropriate, unbiased messages to the community while trying to maintain its profit margin. It is time to step up and consider this and really think about the misinformation that is being peddled to the public in an attempt to capture your business.
Andre Obradovic is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Triathlon Australia Development Coach, ICF Leadership PPC Level Coach, A Primal Health Coach, a Certified Low Carb Healthy Fat Coach and Certified Personal Trainer. He is a passionate triathlete and marathoner in the 50-54 age group. He also is a registered member of Fitness Industry in Australia and works at 3 gyms including Good Life Health Clubs.