If humans are the smartest species on the planet, why are we the only ones confused about our own diet?
Most people share the opinion that excess body fat and blood sugar issues are caused by eating too many carbohydrates. In a society that’s obsessed with protein, we’ve forgotten that the healthiest foods for our bodies are the ones that grow out of the ground. Not only have we forgotten this, but we’re influenced by food lobbyists, pharmaceutical companies, and the media, that meat, dairy, and eggs should be staples in our diet. We’ve been conditioned to think that protein and fat are essential, and carbs are healthy, but only in moderation. Going out to dinner and ordering a piece of fish is fine. The problem is the sweet teriyaki sauce, or the rice on the side. This is a major misconception.
But of course we need to cut back on carbs when we want to lose body fat, right? Well, no. Science says the more protein and fat we eat, the fatter we get. But, of course, that’s not what we’ve been conditioned to believe.
Myths We Buy Into
Here are some things we actually believe:
Eating a diet of only beans, tubers, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruit cannot be healthy.
Fruit, although healthy, has a little too much sugar and should be eaten in moderation. In other words, fruit would be even healthier if it didn’t contain any sugar.
Eating a lot of fruit can cause diabetes over time.
The meal is imbalanced if it doesn’t have a ‘protein source’.
The quantity of protein in our food is what determines the quality of the food.
The Right Macros
Since we are fixated on protein and hyper-conscious about our carb intake, we have made a habit of reducing our food into macronutrients. Instead of eating actual food, we are eating parts of food; protein, carbs, and fat. Our food has macros, but macros are not food.
It’s very popular to manage weight and health by macronutrient tracking, or eating certain amounts of protein, carbs, and fat a day. While a meal plan based on macros may help in achieving an aesthetic goal temporarily, it doesn’t address overall health or tell you how the food will affect the body. A diet based on a rigid set of numbers, which are typically out of balance with nature, is very damaging for the metabolism. Protein targets are usually far too high, while carbohydrate targets are too low. It’s common to see recommendations like, 1-1.5g protein per lb of body weight (excessive) or only 40% of calories from carbs (insufficient). Not to mention calorie deficits, high saturated fat intake, and micronutrient deficiencies – all of which tax the body. Following diets like these, leads to dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation, binge eating, poor digestion, low energy, muscle cramps, hormone imbalance, high cholesterol, and weight gain. If you’ve tried low carb diets before, these side effects may sound familiar to you.
The most practical way to determine our macronutrient levels is by looking at the macro nutrient levels in the foods that grow from the earth. After all, we know these are the healthiest foods for us to consume. A potato is made up of 10% protein and 90% carbohydrates. Oats, a higher protein food, contains 16% fat, 17% protein, and 67% carbs. Beans, one of the most protein dense plants, are made of 20% protein, 8% fat, and 72% carbs. A banana is 1% protein and 99% carbohydrates. All plants share macronutrient ratios similar to these. Fruits, leafy greens, potatoes, beans, and grains, are very high in carbohydrates, but very low in fat and protein. These are also the foods that reverse disease and keep us the leanest.
Counting macros can be helpful in certain situations. For example, body builders and some athletes may need to eat a higher percentage of protein dense foods than others, whereas others may need to keep fats slightly higher, or lower. But ultimately calories, rather than macros, are most important for fat loss or muscle growth.
The philosophies of most diets, especially the ones that give you immediate results are the ones that have a heavy emphasis on reducing carb intake or cutting specific types of carbs. The most highly acclaimed diets (Zone, Atkins, Paleo, and the most recent, Keto) are ones that denounce carbs and glorify protein and/or fat. After all, a DIEt can’t really be a diet if it allows you to eat as many carbs as you want, whenever you want. Even people who claim that whole carbs are healthy believe that having another serving of chicken for dinner is healthier than having twice as many yams.
We can almost universally agree that health and vitality are associated with plants – not animal flesh or their secretions (this includes bone broth). We know that the cancer fighting and anti-inflammatory benefits are exclusive to fruits, veggies, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. But despite all this info on the benefits of plants, we are still encouraged to eat them in moderation, since their carbohydrate content supposedly out ways their nutritional benefits.
The low carb bandwagon is mainly due to the fear that carbohydrates cause high blood sugar and insulin spikes. But whole foods actually promote normal blood sugar and insulin better than meat or fats. One single high animal protein meal (which naturally contains a lot of fat) blunts insulin immediately and causes prolonged blood sugar levels. Not to mention, a lack of carbohydrates literally starves the body of energy and nutrition. These damaging metabolic effects are the reasons low carb dieters usually gain all the weight back. Fiber from whole foods, on the other hand, greatly assists in regulating blood sugar levels, blood lipids, digestion, and fat loss. Common symptoms of a low carb diet include constipation, low energy, high total cholesterol, and poor metabolism. Replacing meat or animal bi-products with whole food carbohydrates will create the affect that people hope to achieve with a low carb diet.
Ultimately weight gain or weight loss comes down to calorie intake. Eating in a caloric deficit over time will cause weight loss, whether the diet is low carb or high carb. Restricting carbohydrates will make someone lose weight IF they are in a calorie deficit. However, this is not sustainable for humans because their body runs on carbohydrates, not on fat or protein. Overloading the system with fat and protein cause weight gain and metabolic dysfunction because it can’t metabolize them like it does carbohydrates. Individuals who have tried a multitude of diets end up gaining a ton of weight back, and at that point, no amount of carb restriction will help because carbs weren’t the problem in the first place!
What’s interesting is that the longest living populations on the planet ate the least amount of protein and animal products altogether. These populations also experience the least amount of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Of course growing westernization has contributed to a rise in various health problems. Nevertheless, plenty of research shows that heart disease and early mortality increase as the consumption of animal protein increases. Indigenous populations who ate the least amount of animal protein had the longest lifespans and the least amount of disease. The majority of their calories came from grains, roots, fruits, and vegetables (carbs) and diabetes didn’t exist. Even in populations around the world today, who have the lowest rates of diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer, and obesity consume little meat, and a lot of carbs. It’s no wonder vegans have virtually no signs of heart disease or diabetes.
For more info on this, check out these studies: Adventist Health Study 2, EPIC Study, and the Ornish study. It’s also worth noting that T. Collin Campbell, a biochemist who specializes in the effect of nutrition on long term health, and the author of The China Study, has shown that a plant based diet is the only diet proven to reverse heart disease.
Our Body Runs On Carbs
Did you know that all our cells require glucose for energy? It is the most efficient fuel for our body to run on. Neither protein nor fat are used for energy unless the body is in a state of starvation or ketosis, in which it can use ketones for energy.
A healthy body metabolizes carbs better than protein or fat. Our cells have built in insulin receptors that allow the cell to uptake glucose and other nutrients. Without insulin, or working insulin receptors, we wouldn’t be able to utilize carbohydrates efficiently. This is known as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes – and it’s not the result of eating too many carbohydrates. Our bodies also have the ability to store excess sugar as glycogen or use it immediately.
People have this misconception that eating too many carbohydrates will convert to fat gain. In reality, only 2% of carbohydrates get turned into fat in a process called de novo lipogenesis, which can only occur in a large caloric surplus over the course of several days. If total carbohydrate intake exceeds maximum glycogen storage, then the body can turn 2% of that into stored fat. But keep in mind, since the body will need a constant stream of glucose for energy throughout the day, most of that glucose will get burned off. A whole food plant based diet is so high in fiber that it’s actually difficult to get fat unless you are eating well above your caloric expenditure. This is very surprising since we think that all of the excess calories from carbohydrates make us fat.
The blood sugar and insulin issues come into play when there’s excessive saturated fat and protein in our blood stream with the carbs. Essentially, when fat and sugar are in the blood stream at the same time, they compete with each other, known as the Randle Effect. The body detects the glucose in the blood and releases insulin for energy uptake, but the fat slows down the uptake of the glucose into the cell. The fat gets into the cell along with the glucose, but damages the cell’s insulin receptors and the cells ability to create new receptors. This causes insulin resistance, and eventually diabetes. After one single high fat meal, insulin becomes dramatically less effective.
Elevated and prolonged blood sugar levels happen when our insulin receptors lose their sensitivity due to high animal protein consumption, since all animal products have a high amount of saturated fat. Making whole food carbohydrates, like fruit, potatoes, rice, and beans, your primary source of calories, body fat will come off more easily and blood sugar levels will stabilize.*
Now’s a good time to address the rumors about fruit (the healthiest food for the human body). 5 bananas have almost the same amount of sugar as a 24oz soda. But that doesn’t make them equal by an means. Again, food reductionism is one of the reasons we are so confused. Soda and fruit are made up of the same two molecules: fructose and glucose. Fruit is a naturally occurring plant that contains sugar, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Soda is refined and devoid of nutritional value. Neither fructose nor glucose are bad. Both of these go through separate channels in the body. Glucose breaks down in the stomach and requires insulin to be metabolized, whereas fructose doesn’t need insulin and is metabolized in the liver. The fiber (along with all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) in the fruit is really the game changer. It gets you full, slows down the digestion of the glucose, gives the body more time to burn it off, blunts the spike of insulin, and prevents a blood sugar crash. Soda, on the other hand – well, you get the picture. Another cool thing about fruit is that after you burn up the glucose, your liver can release the metabolized form of fructose back into the blood stream when the body needs it. Science has confirmed that individuals who consume more fruit have better blood sugar and insulin regulation. Fruit alone is also not associated with metabolic damage or weight gain.
Fat In Disguise
We label foods like cookies, potato chips, cakes, pizza, pie, and doughnuts as all cause weight gain and diabetes? The problem comes from the heavy fat content of these foods, rather than carbohydrate content. We blindly label these high fat foods ‘carbs’ when 50% or more of their calories come from fat! Peanut butter is rightly considered a fat, even though it has carbs. Almost all processed foods that we call carbs, should really be called ‘fats’.
The combination of refined sugar and saturated fat is a recipe for insulin resistance. Simply, when saturated fat and cholesterol are in the blood, our cells cannot uptake glucose efficiently, which creates prolonged blood sugar levels and an overproduction of insulin. The blood transporting nutrients gets thicker and blood cells become jammed. Over time, this situation causes a spillover of fat into our muscle cells, called ‘intramyocellular lipids‘, blocking the body’s ability to use glucose or regulate insulin. This is the cause of diabetes.
Unlike carbs, which are burned immediately or stored as glycogen, dietary fat is immediately stored as body fat. The only time the body’s cells use fat or ketones for energy is when all the body’s glycogen stores have been depleted long enough for the body to switch into ketosis. Just to clarify, red blood cells actually require glucose. This occurs in a carb depleted emergency state, in which the body has no other choice but to metabolize fat to survive, and insulin is not needed. In normal circumstances, our bodies function optimally when we are consuming an abundance of carbohydrates.
Fat is a highly concentrated source of energy that has 9 calories per gram – that’s more than double the amount of calories that carbohydrates have. All animal products are a source of saturated fat, so you can see how it’s easy to over consume. In a higher fat diet, as opposed to a whole food plant based diet, there is more fat readily available to be stored as body fat. And since it’s is very easy to overeat.
Poly and monounsaturated fats from plants affect the body much differently than saturated fats from animal products. A single meal containing saturated animal fat blunts insulin sensitivity (causing high blood sugar levels) while causing blood vessels to constrict and arteries to harden. Saturated fat also causes oxidative stress, and directly spikes our inflammatory c-reactive protein, which is used to measure for heart disease. Whole food plant based fats are known to reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar, hunger levels, and triglycerides. They are also not associated with heart disease risk.
Protein Side Effects
We know that whole foods prevent blood sugar and insulin spikes, regulate satiety hormones, reduce cholesterol, and fight inflammation. Animal protein on the other hand, is basically everything that fruit, veggies, and starches are fighting against. Animal protein is not just protein. It comes in the form of meat or animal by-products, which contain a whole slew of things that raise inflammation, destroy stomach flora, spike insulin, and blunt insulin sensitivity. Some things you ingest when you eat animal protein are:
- inflammatory amino acids like methionine, which cancer cells need to reproduce
- saturated fat, which causes insulin resistance and raises cholesterol
- cholesterol, which the body produces sufficiently on its own
- IGF-1, which feeds cancer growth, causes early menses, weight gain, and inflammation
- carnitine, which can turn into TMAO and contribute to heart disease
- heme iron, which damages pancreatic cells and contributes to the creation of dangerous N-nitroso compounds in the body
- heterocyclic amines, a compound formed in meat when cooked at high temperatures that contributes to cancer formation
Most people who want to lose weight will restrict carbs and increase their protein consumption to prevent insulin spikes and manage blood sugar. The irony in this is that animal protein is insulinogenic. Even though there may be no blood sugar spike from the protein or fat, the amino acids in the meat stimulate insulin secretion which allows the protein and fat to enter the cell. Remember, intramyocellular fat is what causes insulin resistance and diabetes. When the cells become insulin resistant, they can no longer utilize sugar, which can create things like hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. The key is to keep the fat out of the cell so it can work efficiently.
Eating an abundance of whole foods, reducing or eliminating animal protein and saturated fat is the best way we can take care of our bodies. The body prefers carbohydrates and runs on glucose. It requires far less protein and dietary fat than we actually consume. Literally everything we eat contains amino acids. The body is incredibly efficient at storing and recycling amino acids, and manufacturing protein out of them. Eat enough calories and you will get enough protein.
Remember, the body gets its energy and nutrition from carbohydrates. So before you eat, rather than wonder where your protein will come from, ask yourself what your carbs will be.
Keep it simple by eating what grows from the earth and leave out the rest!
*Individuals with diabetes or insulin resistance may need to increase higher glycemic carbs and carbohydrate quantities at a much slower rate than individuals with a healthy metabolism. We recommend consulting with a licensed physician on monitoring blood sugar /insulin levels correctly when making any dietary changes.