By Margaret Jasinska ND

If endurance athletes don’t need to, perhaps you don’t either.

I’m sure you realise there is a great deal of conflicting dietary advice out there. There are thousands of different diet books advocating one diet or another, plus you can regularly hear opposing dietary views expressed on television or in the newspaper. This can leave the average person terribly confused.

Dr Cabot and I have written several books advocating a low carbohydrate diet and this is the diet we place most of our patients on. We believe the average person consumes far more carbohydrate rich foods than they require.

What do I mean by carbohydrate?

Sugars, grains, cereals and starches, and all foods containing these.

Foods made of grains and cereals such as bread, pasta and rice contain complex carbohydrates. That just means they are composed of many sugar units joined together. However, once you swallow them, these complex carbohydrates are very quickly and easily broken down into simple sugars. So we can say these carbs are complex to draw their molecular structure on the blackboard (because they are made of many carbon units joined together), but to your body they are seen as very simple.

What are the consequences of consuming too much carbohydrate?

Most people gain weight if they consume more carbohydrate than their body needs. Some of them can get away with eating lots of carbs while they are young, but the kilos start accumulating once they reach their late 30s, or menopause. Some people are also more genetically prone to weight gain from carbohydrate consumption; generally they are those individuals with a family history of type 2 diabetes.

Carbohydrate can promote weight gain because it promotes the secretion of the hormone insulin from your pancreas. Insulin is a fat creating hormone; it encourages the deposition of body fat (and the manufacture of cholesterol and triglycerides), and inhibits the action of fat burning enzymes in your body. Insulin also fuels hunger and sugar/carb cravings. You can see what a recipe for weight gain this is.

Apart from promoting weight gain, some carbs can cause digestive problems. Grains, particularly those that contain gluten can be difficult to digest for many people. Therefore they can trigger irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, heartburn, abdominal bloating and gas. Sugar and carbs can also promote the growth of unhealthy microorganisms in the intestines, leading to Candida overgrowth and SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). For all these reasons, we often place our patients on a grain free and sugar free diet.

Do we need carbohydrate for energy?

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Television commercials for breakfast cereals work hard to try and convince you that bad things will happen to your health if you don’t consume enough carbohydrates. Most dieticians are keen to reinforce how important it is to eat “healthy whole grains” each day; preferably at each meal. Grains are far from healthy for the average person. Apart from the fact grains are digested into sugar, the vitamins and minerals in them are very poorly absorbed. Most grains are fairly high in phytates, which are compounds that bind with minerals and inhibit their absorption into your body. Iron, calcium and magnesium deficiencies are very common in people who consume a lot of grains.

Several endurance athletes have switched to a low carbohydrate diet

There was a very interesting article recently on the website Men’s Journal called “Paleo’s latest Converts”. You can read this interesting article here.  In recent times there have been several endurance athletes who have switched from their former pasta and cereal rich high carb diet to a diet that is much higher in fat and protein. A paleo diet is one type of low carbohydrate diet where grains, sugar, legumes and dairy products are excluded.

We have always been told we won’t have enough energy to function and get through the day if we don’t consume carbohydrate rich foods each day; but isn’t it interesting how long distance cyclists or ultra marathon runners can somehow function without carbs, and achieve better performance than when they were consuming them?

Traditionally athletes have been told they must “carb load” – basically they must accumulate high levels of glycogen (stored glucose) in their liver and muscles to power them through their athletic events. The problem is, humans have a very limited capacity to store glucose in their liver and muscles. Therefore athletes that compete in endurance events that last more than two hours quickly run out of glucose and then must ingest gels and liquids to provide additional glucose.
It seems ironic that a person would run out of fuel and require additional glucose when their body fat could provide endless fuel. Even an elite athlete with 8 percent body fat has enough fat on their body to power them through an endurance event. Most of us are not athletes, so we surely have plenty of fat to spare.

The problem is, if you are a “sugar burner” you cannot access the stored body fat. This is regardless of whether you are exercising or sedentary. People who regularly consume carbohydrate rich foods have trained their bodies (and enzyme systems) to primarily run on glucose. Whereas people who have been on a low carbohydrate eating plan for some time switch over into fat burning and we refer to them as a “fat burner”. I think you’d probably like to be a fat burner.

It seems strange that overweight people with high blood insulin levels (as a result of consuming carbohydrate) can have too much fat on their body, yet feel hungry, tired, weak or irritable if they don’t eat every few hours. Shouldn’t they just be able to dig into their fat reserves for fuel?  It is a bit like a huge petrol tanker running out of fuel on the highway. Its contents are full of fuel, yet it cannot access that fuel.

It takes several weeks for most people to switch over into fat burning mode. People typically lose weight very quickly on a low carbohydrate diet, but much of the initial weight loss is fluid. (Insulin promotes fluid and sodium retention, thus can make you look puffy and bloated and can promote high blood pressure). It usually takes a couple of weeks before your body starts burning significant amounts of fat.

If you would like to learn more about low carbohydrate eating and follow our eating plan, you will find this information in the following books: “I can’t lose weight and I don’t know why”, “Diabetes Type 2: You can Reverse it” and “Fatty Liver”: You can Reverse it”.

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