// 05 March 2019
A bit of low-carb Science by Domini Kemp
co-author of The Ketogenic Kitchen
Let’s just make one thing clear again: There’s no perfect diet for everyone. Although low-carb diets can be incredibly beneficial for many people, this doesn’t imply that all high-carb foods are “bad”. There is no doubt that there are a number of foods high in carbohydrates that have health benefits and that provide lots of essential nutrients, like for instance buckwheat, quinoa, bananas, beetroot, oranges, sweet potatoes, kidney beans or chickpeas. It is the high-carb foods that are refined and processed - like white breads and pastas - that we should try to reduce.
But these benefits can only be reaped if your body actually knows what to do with carbohydrates and can use them efficiently; otherwise carbohydrate-rich foods can wreak more havoc with your body despite all the nutrients. In order to understand how this happens, the role of insulin in the body needs to be explained.
The role of Insulin
Insulin is a crucial hormone; without it, we simply wouldn’t survive. Insulin tells our cells to pick up glucose from the bloodstream if levels become too high. It’s also the “fat storing hormone” that triggers our cells to store energy, either as glycogen (the stored form of glucose) or fat. Dr Robert Lustig, an American paediatric endocrinologist, sums it up: “Insulin shunts sugar to fat. Insulin makes fat. More insulin, more fat. Period.” And by this, he means chronically elevated insulin levels.
Across the span of human evolution, insulin production became the mechanism by which the body could choose which form of energy to burn (fat or glucose), depending on what foods were available. When we have a healthy metabolism, the body produces sufficient amounts of insulin to remove any excess glucose from the blood stream so that it can’t harm us. In times of starvation (winter, in ancient times), this enables us to switch into a fat-burning mode to provide more energy, but when there’s lots of food available, we become insulin resistant in order to store extra food as fat.
The problem is that in modern society we have access to, and consume, far more carbs than our ancestors – even our parents! And in combination with a high carbohydrate intake, insulin resistance can lead to big issues: Glucose isn’t getting into the cells and so it builds up in the bloodstream. The pancreas is getting signals that there’s still too much glucose and therefore keeps producing insulin. Eventually, this can cause Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
Elevated Insulin & Disease
The evidence is mounting that chronically elevated insulin levels are implicated in causal pathways in many modern diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurological issues. In the book “What the Fat?”, Professor Grant Schofield emphasises that it’s not only dietary factors that affects our level of insulin resistance, but many other lifestyle aspects like stress, poor sleep, smoking, sun exposure, pollutants, toxins, our activity levels or genes. But reducing insulinogenic foods (i.e. foods that raise insulin, like sugar, carbohydrates and excess protein) from our diet, keeping an eye on Omega 6/3 ratio and correcting micronutrient deficiencies is the first and foremost step to managing- or indeed preventing- some of the most prevalent chronic conditions.
After reading all this, you might ask why more people aren’t adopting this dietary approach and, more importantly, why
more doctors aren’t recommending it. We believe that it’ll take time to shift the current mindset of “fat is bad and carbs are good” and to move away from the food pyramid/ healthy eating plate that is at the core of most government policies across the globe. Most mainstream health organisations recommend restricting dietary fat to less than 30% of total calorie intake. But in the past 12 years, an increasing number of randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of science) have successfully challenged the low-fat dietary approach.
Low carb and very low carb/ketogenic diets can be a useful lifestyle tool. Most people can safely reduce processed carbohydrates and embrace a diet that is full of green leafy vegetables, low sugar fruits (like berries), good and moderate forms of protein (like oily fish, eggs and offal) and healthy fats like olive oil, butter, coconut oil. The problem is that unless you take the time to educate yourself, you hear of people adding butter to coffee and still eating sandwiches at lunchtime and not really understanding that you can't just load up on fat and expect a good outcome.
If you find a low carb diet suit you and that don't have any of the contra indications or illnesses that would prevent you from going on a ketogenic diet, (see page 239 of our book) then get informed and well prepared as a keto diet can be challenging. Sadly, many people plunge in and eat steak, bacon and butter at every opportunity and don't consume a well-designed and nutrient dense ketogenic diet. Low carb and ketogenic diets can offer people a huge range of benefits, but these lifestyle changes don't suit everyone. It's important to get educated, start cooking and to remember that sleep, exercise, non-burning sun exposure and being part of a community are all vital ingredients to add to whatever diet you follow.