Below is a short story about carbs, some history and a personal experiment. If you find that boring, scroll to the bottom for the tips. If not, I hope it adds something to your day.
Disclaimer: Moving to a low-carbohydrate higher-fat (LCHF) lifestyle requires commitment and understanding. You can do this by reading extensively and taking the necessary steps to implement it in a sustainable way, ideally with support. I'd always recommend consulting with your GP before making any dramatic changes to your lifestyle.
The current UK dietary guidelines recommend the majority (50%) of your caloric intake should come from carbohydrates; starch (260g) and sugar (90g). I don't support this notion and I am not alone. The evidence for these guidelines is less than underwhelming. If one takes a step back and looks at the latest figures, the UK population are in-fact following the advice of a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet; and gaining weight rapidly. I believe the messages are wrong, the advice a majority of health professionals have given and still do give is wrong. The 'people' are not to blame. The information given needs better evidence and a consensus between those delivering it.
Around 3 years ago I came across an article by Marika Sboros, a South African journalist, on 'Banting' (consciously limiting carbohydrates). It summarised recent research by Professor Tim Noakes, the eminent Exercise Physiologist, on the latest nutritional guidelines. Noakes, known for challenging mainstream thinking (and being right), had been researching the role of carbohydrate in the diet and had established that it was in fact, not necessary. This struck me. I'd learnt of Noakes' work as a student and held him in very high regard. I'd cited his papers in assignments and followed his nutritional advice to fuel my own sporting endeavours. Yet here, Noakes seemed to have back-tracked. His hands were in the air, apologetic, remorseful. In a brave, controversial move, he had publicly challenged the dogma and denounced our recommended Western-Diet.
When someone who is responsible for progressing an entire field of science comes forward and admits they were wrong, people notice. For me, it was confusing. Everything I was taught as a student was being challenged. If this had been any other scientist, I would have probably rubbished it as another sensationalist article aiming to put a 'sciency' spin on another fad-diet. Thankfully, I didn't. I decided to dig deeper. It didn't take long before the pieces of this big jigsaw puzzle began to come together.
I came across Dr. John Yudkin, the British physiologist, who in 1972 released the book 'Pure, White and Deadly' which shed light on the link between sugar, heart disease and obesity. Yudkin was the arch nemesis of Dr. Ancel Keys, the Amercian Physiologist responsible for the diet-heart hypothesis and key influencer/designer of the 1977 US-dietary guidelines we still follow today. Keys was critical in pushing the message that saturated fat, and therefore all fat was the cause of heart-disease, hence the emergence of low-fat diets. I discovered William Banting, the British Undertaker from the 1800's who promoted the idea of limiting carbohydrates, particularly those of 'starchy and sugary nature' as an aid to weight-loss. The term Banting or 'to-bant' was derived from his surname and refers to his method of weight-loss via a restriction in dietary carbohydrate. The more I looked, the more I uncovered. (Banting's thinking came from his doctor who had made his own realisations during a presentation from Clause Bernard, the respected French Physiologist). This was a tool that had been used for well over 100 years, hypothesised in the 1800's and fundamental to nutritional science. Why hadn't I learnt of these pioneers before? This wasn't another socially engineered, well-marketed celebrity diet. This was research started over a century ago by an Undertaker in London, lost in the World Wars and subsequently hidden by research trials conducted in the US throughout the 70's, to be finally reignited by an established, A1 rated scientist from Cape Town. My head began to fill with questions. The more I read, the clearer things became. The evidence was mounting. It became increasingly difficult to trust what I thought I knew.
Months passed. I read the little available research from the past 5 years I could find on low-carbohydrate living and eventually, curiosity won over. Out went the cereal boxes, pasta, potatoes, rice and bread. In came the butter, nuts, green veg (by the tonne) and fish. Equipped with the necessary knowledge, I committed fully to the Banting way of living. Initially, I felt great. I noticed my sleep improve and I almost had to remind myself to eat. And then it hit me. Like a brick to face. 40 minutes into an hour-long run. My body felt like there was no blood in it, totally empty. My hearing became muffled and my jaw stiff. I'd been in this situation before but usually after an all out effort, racing in the heat of doing a maximal fitness test. Not on an easy run round the block. After 15 minutes sat at the bus stop I collected myself, walked home and proceeded to eat an unfathomable quantity of food. Something was obviously wrong with my approach. If this so called no sugar, low carbohydrate way of living was the route to ultimate health, I needed to find a way to make it compatible with exercise.
The next 6 months involved several self-experiments, gravely attempting to combine the LCHF protocol with endurance training. The purpose was simple, I wanted to see if I could perform better on a diet that undermined the cornerstone of endurance performance nutrition. Eventually, I settled on a method that not only made me capable of a morning 2.5h+ run in the hills without breakfast or any food, but also allowed me to remain mentally sharp and productive without needing to constantly feed myself. I felt awesome. My body fat dropped 3.5%, whilst maintaining a comparable level of exercise (although significantly more sitting day-to-day). All whilst drastically increasing my fat intake.
Part of the successful adjustment was my persistence to keep trying new things until something worked. A majority the success was down to to the book 'The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance'. The authors, Jeff Volek & Stephen Phinney were responsible for the initial groundbreaking work in understanding and formulating a sound structure for athletes looking to exploit the benefits of Low-Carbohydrate performance. They have released numerous texts and are regarded as true authorities in the field of nutritional science.
Side note: The goal here was to see if I could use my own fat stores as fuel for exercise at a higher intensity instead of relying on external feeding (gels, flapjack etc.). This is a state known as nutritional ketosis (not be confused with ketoacidosis, a dangerous build-up of ketones in the body). The loss in fat was not expected, at least not to this degree. I don't attribute the loss of body fat to an increase in exercise for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was doing a lot less (sat at a PC instead of walking around all day on a 6 month travelling trip) throughout the day despite my slight (around an extra 90 minute a week) increase in exercise. Secondly, I don't support the simplistic model of 'calories in calories out' or 'a calorie is a calorie'. Weight-loss is complex and follows a hormonal model which few can be bothered to learn about. I don't want people to use my experiment as proof. I am an individual, as are you. It's an example of how a slim person can still lose fat mass by eating more fat and less carbohydrate whilst following sound advice. There are thousands of people doing the same under medical supervision to help manage numerous complex metabolic conditions. Anyone looking to go down the same route should seek professional support.
In 2016, I was fortunate to attend a lecture in Skipton, organised by Dr. Verner Wheelock. The speakers (Marika Sboros, Dr. David Unwin & Dr. Trudi Deakin) were all advocates of a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. The venue had even managed to convince their chef to prepare 10 low-carb dishes for the attendees (I promise this wasn't the only reason I went). Marika Sboros gave an interesting insight into the legal trial Prof. Tim Noakes had been involved in relating to a tweet he had sent discussing nutrition and the risks health professionals take when they challenge the status-quo. Dr. Trudi Deakin explained how her post-doctoral research had led her to helping type-2 diabetics manage their condition with diet alone, empowering them to regain control of their condition. Finally, Dr. David Unwin gave the audience a unique look at how as a G.P, he had successfully reduced patient's medications and in some instances removed all medications by using a low-carbohydrate approach.
The mist was starting to clear. A weight-loss idea applicable to mainstream population had arguably spawned from an overweight undertaker in the 1800's. It had laid dormant in Western society until 1972 when Dr. Yudkin stoked the nutritional fire, igniting a fierce battle with Dr. Ancel Keys the American physiologist (who's nutritional research was funded by the sugar industry. Although incidentally Keys conducted a number of excellent studies, the results of which were covered up so as not to contradict the research he had performed for the sugar industry. These studies were discovered recently and make fascinating reading, see: Minnesota Starvation Experiment). Key's ultimately 'won' this battle with Yudkin and the demonisation of fat was forever more. It wasn't until Prof. Noakes in the 00's (can I say naughties?) once again shed light on this idea; it isn't fat that makes us fat, it's sugar.
I was fortunate to get an opportunity to speak with Dr. Unwin after the talk, eager to learn more from a man brave enough to go against the grain and think outside the box. David explained the depth of this movement within the Medical Profession and how in-fact the NICE guidelines support an individualised approach, in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
One of Dr Unwin's papers of particular interest can be viewed here where he explains how viewing starches (potatoes, bananas, rice) as 'healthy' carbohydrates is something of a misnomer. The body does not differentiate between these foods and table sugar, it receives a signal to release a certain amount of insulin based upon the glycaemic load of the food eaten. We can see below, in the table taken from Dr. Unwin's research published in the Journal of Insulin Resistance, that a small (150g) bowl of boiled basmati rice has the equivalent impact on blood sugar as 10.1 teaspoons of sugar! We'd expect this perhaps from a Mars bar, but rice?! It's very telling information and particularly helpful for those looking to lose weight.
Doctors used to prescribe smoking. Society then started to realise that smoking can give you cancer, and now smoking is widely held as one of the most damaging things for your health. This didn't happen overnight. It took time. There were those smokers who didn't believe it. There were even campaigns to try and bury evidence. Scientists were paid to keep quiet and manipulate results. It wasn't until recently that tobacco companies stopped sponsoring sports events (they've now turned to junk food companies). Change can take a long time. But, and it’s a big BUT, you can be ahead of the curve. You can and should take steps to regain control of your health. We cannot rely on guidelines that have been written using flawed, conflicted and frankly dangerous research. We all have a responsibility for our own health. Science is evolving faster than ever before. Aside of the aforementioned figureheads leading the fight to a nation of healthier people are numerous charities and organisation. The Public Health Collaboration (PHC) is a charity promoting real food and healthy eating. It's run voluntarily by Doctors and directed by Sam Feltham, a Personal Trainer & Health Activist from London. The PHC website is an excellent place to start if you're looking to better inform yourself on how to start a low-carbohydrate lifestyle.
3 Tips for You
1. The first step towards lowering your intake of sugar is stop adding it to food and drinks like tea and coffee. Secondly, avoid hidden sugar in fruit juices, cereals and ready meals. Third, start reading labels. Don't be too concerned with the 'traffic' light system, (the food industry had a big hand in designing this). Look on the back at 'carbohydrates'. Aim for less than 5g per 100g for total carbohydrates.
2. If you are looking to replace starchy carbohydrates with fats, these are a good place to start:
Meat (including the fat)
3. If in doubt, eat real unprocessed food.
Further reading -
Diabetes and Obesity -