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A Mild Critique of the Low-Carb-Diet Encouragement to Add Fat

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Please understand right off the bat that I am not an enemy of low-carbohydrate dieting as a lifestyle. And even for myself, on average, I’d put it in the moderate carbohydrate category. Even Atkins, the modern pioneer, allowed up to 120 grams of carbohydrate—if I recall my 1991 reading of The Revolution correctly. That’s right. If it works for you, up to 120 grams of carbohydrate would have been considered “low carb” by Atkins’ stated standard.

These days, however, I see stuff around and about that very nearly amounts to any gram is too much; and a carb is a carb (sound familiar?). I’ve been doing guerrilla here and there to kinda figure out what’s up and why it’s gone that way. To really know and understand—because everybody lies automatically—one must push all boundaries, to see what everything is really made of.

For a few years, I thought it might be Jimmy Moore’s unbelievably embarrassing speech Down Under where, turns out, carbohydrate restriction to bare nothing isn’t enough. Steak is now chocolate cake. Because human metabolism has a nasty tendency to make sugar from meat when your body absolutely requires sugar to survive, but you aren’t eating sugar, then this means that you must take much of that away too, because sugar is just sinful and our body’s absolute glucose requirement of 60-120 grams daily is tantamount to Original Sin, but there is redemption available via both carbohydrate and protein restriction.

I went off publicly on that life-diminishing, health compromising, unsubstantiated balderdash from an obese guy—who doesn’t even believe in evolution—because nobody else would. I give fuck-all care to what anybody thinks about me. This is my essential role in everything I do: say explicitly what I think without equivocation over feelings, offense, or pink panties in bunches. So what can I say? Jimmy’s a faithful Southern Born Again who believes the Earth is 5,000 years old, evolution is a scientism scam, and so on. If he can’t hit you with the science, he can hit you with sinful implications.

Yea, perhaps I was a fool for years, but I didn’t do it to help Jimmy.

So, if one concedes that your path to heaven is not by means of how many ketones you produce, then why the insistence on lower and lower carbohydrate?

I think I’d have to charge Gary Taubes, though I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to do it. Good Calories, Bad Calories was such a fully excellent-complex book that in the end, lots of simple minds just derived the simplest message possible: carbohydrate = bad. I don’t think that’s what Gary intended.

It’s taken on a sub-culture life of its own since. Unintended consequences? After hundreds of people in thousands of comments over years, yes. I’m no clinician, and I always try to make distinctions in terms of Atkins, Eades, Kresser and such, different from Grant Whores. But I perhaps get more feedback regularly than some. The message to me is that extreme LC dieting creates lots of problems, and particularly older girls, >40. Just like vegan forums, essentially.

I just find it very odd that there are so many out there who now seem to believe that any dietary carbohydrate is going to be stored as fat. Whereas, gluconeogenesis is Lord and Savior, de novo lipogenesis is Satan, hiding behind every microgram of sugar and starch.

But neither are of much importance in any normal life. For the former, it’s a starvation or food-scarcity, evolutionary adaptation that gives you sub-clinical insulin resistance in exchange for meeting minimum sugar requirements for the brain, an organ that primarily runs on sugar—but can also use ketones in part, via fatty-acid oxidation, as well as the sugar created by scavenging lean muscle. This leads many—including myself way back—to pump up chest and declare that “there is no essential carbohydrate.” Which is true, just as it’s true that it’s not essential to present your girlfriend with a diamond ring when you ask her to marry you.

I don’t think low-carb advocates go as far astray in extending a generally unnecessary red-carpet to sugar-genesis, as I think they do in pulling the rug out from under the latter thing, fat genesis—where your body makes fat out of sugar and insulin can store it.

First, let’s think of why it even exists as a metabolic pathway in evolutionary context. Think to the extreme, of hibernating bear mammals. From late summer through fall, they’re in a mad rush to overeat yuge, and add as much fat as possible—to acquire metabolic status as a Type II diabetic prior to a 5-6 month nap where they’ll be cured. At first, they’re packing it on via dietary fat storage, eating as much salmon skin fat as possible, at every opportunity. The excess energy is being stored as fat. Dietary fat in excess of need is being stored as fat. Does anyone dispute this, in bear mammals?

But since the salmon runs eventually dry up, they turn to sugar, via wild berries. They’ll gorge on them for weeks. And to the extent they can eat more than their increasing girth needs, the body can take the excess and store it.

In this context, de novo lipogenesis is a backup fat-storage mechanism. You can imagine humans accessing it too, in times of feast, in order to get through famine, or a long winter.

It is by no means an efficient metabolic pathway. I’ll just refer you to the literature. Essentially, for DNL, you have to be in a chronic energy surplus, or it’s at most a few grams of fat in a 200-300 gram bucket of dietary fat intake.

But this is what I get the gist of when challenging folks out and about. They literally think that if they eat a higher carb meal, it’s going to spike their blood glucose, then insulin, and wham! all those carbs are going into fat storage.

No.

That huge meal—assuming you’re not chronically overeating to the tune of a few hundred excess calories day in, day out—is going to be using the carbohydrate for your energy whilst easily and more efficiently storing the dietary fat.

So here’s where we’re at. Atkins modernized and popularized a low carbohydrate diet; generally, that you do a couple of weeks in objective ketosis, followed by a maintenance slash lifestyle; a regime where you do 60-120 grams in order to find where you’re just on the edge. Pee light pink. Go from there. It tells you that your metabolism is functioning nicely, just enough carbs, but you’re also always recycling fat…maybe storing some sometimes, but also metabolizing; and it’s most likely both dietary and storage.

See the beauty? It’s hard to be fooled because with sane levels of dietary fat, combined with sane levels of dietary carbohydrate, you can really get pretty confident that on average, some of the ketones are coming from stored, but not dietary fat.

Let’s contrast that with The Ketone Game, where the dishonest person with the most ketones wins.

How do you cheat at that game? That’s easy. Go pretty much zero carbohydrate, and also restrict protein. Pretty much eat 80-90% fat, and then enter your ketone log in The Keto Game contest, in order to determine who’s the most dishonest person.

You’ll have plenty of ketones, but by eliminating other variables, there’s no possible cross-referencing, or possibility of thought, or caluculation. Of course you’re making ketones, as you’re eating almost nothing but fat and that’s just elementary and hiding that makes you among the most dishonest.

…You fill your plate with water, in the form of non-starchy vegetables, in order to pretend you’re not on a ridiculously extreme diet of vegan proportions, being just as dishonest as they are.

…And in my experience, now, there’s not a lot of difference between vegans and high-fat low-carbers, except for the elements. The level of extreme, and the zealotry, is quite similar.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

30 Comments

  1. John on February 15, 2016 at 08:22

    …………..unless you have type 1 diabetes……

  2. Robert17 on February 15, 2016 at 09:00

    I used to buy into the ‘carbs cause insulin and turn into fat’ camp. But based on what I’ve read about de novo lipogenesis, you literally need to be taking in about 500g per day, otherwise it’s too inefficient. Anybody else with other information? My lean body mass is nearly 240 lbs, but I’m obese as well. Based upon 20 years of low body temps, dry skin, yoyo dieting, low carb dieting, etc I’ve come to conclude that I probably needed more carbs, less vegetable oils most of my life.

  3. Ian Duncan Smith on February 15, 2016 at 09:50

    If nothing else, the extreme veganism route is more appealing aesthetically. You’ve got being the guy packing in stupid amounts of textured starch vs. being the guy that’s the gluttonous oil-beast. That photo of JM gesturing at a full pack on butter on his plate with a whackadoodle expression is a haunter.

  4. king of the one eyed people on February 16, 2016 at 02:07

    I know you do not see yourself as a health and fitness expert but I find your approach incredibly informed. It’s like you’ve taken Ocam’s Razor to the plethora of information out there and distilled it to the barest of necessary and usable essentials. It’s so clear you probably don’t see it! Thankyou.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 16, 2016 at 10:30

      I really like your comment, man. It’s probably so clear how much I like it you don’t even see it. 🙂

      [solemn nod your way]

      • king of the one eyed people on February 17, 2016 at 00:52

        [solemn nod in return] 🙂



  5. sassysquatch on February 16, 2016 at 05:08

    At the end of Jimmy’s lecture, he’s talking about how much fat loss and muscle gain he’s had in his legs and arms. I’ve been in this business a long time and I don’t know of any ‘test’ that establishes individual body part FL and MG!
    And of course all of this was from his VLCHF diet!

    • Hap on February 20, 2016 at 11:28

      Sassysquatch……..see

      http://Www.skulpt.me

      Maybe not what this jimmy guy is talking about…..but presumably possible

  6. John on February 16, 2016 at 10:35

    This became very clear to me, after reading GCBC, when I started reading Martin Berkhan’s stuff on macronutrient metabolism.

    Dietary carbohydrate does not make its way to fat storage as efficiently as dietary fat.

    His article on how to drink on a diet is really good for understanding this.

    I came from a different perspective than most people that bought the carb/insulin hypothesis, though. I dieted, 6 meal a day protein/carb bodybuilder style with cheat day, down to single digit bodyfat, then followed MDA “meat/veggies/fruit/nuts” to insane leanness on about 1800 calories/day with no cheat day. I somehow ignored the impact drinking heavy cream and prioritizing fatty cuts cooked in butter had on my systematic re-belly softening. Until 6 months later went by and I saw a picture from 6 months before and though “holy shit what have I done.”

    • Robert17 on February 16, 2016 at 12:22

      Are you speaking of this article, or another?

      • John on February 16, 2016 at 12:38

        Robert,

        Yeah, that put it all together in my mind – the website is full of more detailed explanations too, though.

        and

        Those lifted a lot of bullshit from my mind and answered a question I hadn’t thought of but should have – “If carbs are the devil and cause fat gain, how is ‘carb’ even stored as ‘fat’?”



    • Richard Nikoley on February 16, 2016 at 11:49

      Well that’s cool, john.

      Really, there is nothing like BB with results to tell you how shit really works in practice.

      What would be your general advice for 40+ women who want to feel sexy? Fuck the guys, they can figure it out on their own.

      • John on February 16, 2016 at 12:32

        As a man who is younger than 40, who has met many sexy women who are older than 40, I’ve got some opinions on that!

        If they want to feel sexy, they should be sexy. And all the 40+ women I knew usually had a few things in common.

        So, to be as general as I can be:

        “Accept the truth of sexiness.” Understand what is sexy, and strive for that – in other words, understand that sexy does not encompass bad attitudes or obesity (contrary to modern popular opinion).

        My perspective is:

        “Be in good shape.” Good bodies are sexy.

        “Be well put together.” Clothes, hair, etc.

        “Have a sexy mind.” Confidence, charm, principles, purpose, etc.

        Is that really different than what women find sexy in men? (Though I could add for men get serious income 🙂 (the market doesn’t lie about how much you’re worth and women see that!)).

        And these things are all symbiotic. A good body is the product of discipline and effort. Discipline and effort demonstrate personality and character.

        I think there’s an argument to be made that those who push “fat is the new sexy” are the real superficial (and self absorbed, and egotistical) people. They reject biological drive and societal perspective to justify their lack of discipline or even disregard for their own health. Further, they want the whole world to change its thinking to agree with them.



      • Richard Nikoley on February 16, 2016 at 14:36

        It’s a nice job, John.

        So many >40 women have the bodies they didn’t temd to want but who is the largest demographic to tell you to fuck off, there are authotities on teve.

        So don’t feel sorry.

        Rather, give a few smart ones some clues.



  7. GTR on February 16, 2016 at 15:34

    One of the arguments for low-carb diets is that normal fat metabolism, called beta oxidation, less complex I and more Complex II of mitochondrial electron transport chain, which apparently has some health benefits:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755292/

    The problem with ketones is that they are metabolized similarly to glucose: they utilize Complex I whis is supposed to be more problematic in the first place, and more prone to age-related degeneration. Thus if Complex II superiority theory is true then a ketogenic diet is inferior to fat burning non-ketogenic, beta oxidation-based diet.

    • John on February 16, 2016 at 15:45

      In my experience, low carb adherents are generally overweight, and thus possible macronutrient metabolism:health benefit should be a distant second, in their minds, to loosing weight.

      I view it as “likely to have health benefits” vs “theoretically may have health benefits according to a technical paper I once read.”

      I am suspicious that for many, feeling like they’re doing something good, while sticking with a “diet” that lets them eat a bunch of stigmatized foods, will let them feel satisfied with heaviness, and they’ll be happy to find justification for their behavior. “Sure I wanted to lose weight, but now my focus is not on weight loss, rather, its on eating foods high in heart healthy fat because there’s possible longevity benefits.”

  8. Amy on February 17, 2016 at 05:11

    Well, Richard, this was a great post.
    I followed a VLC keto diet for over a month, and never, ever, EVER got over the “carb flu.” I had chronically low energy, followed all the advice to eat more fat, cut protein, give it time, etc. I followed Phinney and Volek’s formula, as I am an athletic type (ride, run, lift heavy weights 5-6 times a week). I dutifully cut back on my high intensity activity while “kicking over” into keto adaptation, all the while growing tired and soft all over. I lost so much muscle mass and gained fat mass, my weight only changed by a pound or two over the month-long period.

    I said fuck it and ate some pasta one night, had oatmeal the next day for breakfast, and within a week of eating more carbs, on the order of 200g or more per day along with moderate protein and less fat, I was smashing it in the gym. I quickly recovered my strength and in about six weeks time I brought my deadlift and squat numbers up.

    My diet now is about 80-90% VEGAN. Yeah, I know…If my husband didn’t kill it or catch it, I don’t eat it. I find I’m thriving on beans, greens, and grains just fine, and I even eat pasta now and then without blowing up overnight and turning into OMGdiabetic!

    This personal 8-9 month long experiment taught me what MY body needs to thrive, how I feel MY best. But I was willing to question and be curious about what works for others and why, and try it out on myself. I’ve been thinking about the guru phenomenon, and it comes down to lazy thinkers wanting to appear learned and open-minded when, really, they’ve just let someone else do the thinking for them.

    I don’t like to let that happen to me if I can help it…Cheers.

    • Amy on February 17, 2016 at 05:37

      And if I may add…that one month of following keto was not the first and only time I tried it. I would bounce back and forth between keto, paleo, bodybuilder macros (high protein, mod carb, low fat) trying anything to get the weight to budge. Low carb made me feel the worst by far. High protein was second worst in terms of bloat and general low mood and digestive discomfort.

      After going mostly veggie and eating animal proteins 3-4 meals max per week, I rapidly lost water weight and my body fat is declining. I take measurements beyond weight, and all of my numbers show good muscle mass retention while I lose fat.

      Whatever works for you. Just don’t lie to yourself about it. And if it stops working, change it!

      • Karl on February 17, 2016 at 09:34

        Great post Amy,
        I found what works for me as well, after long time of experimenting. Unfortunately there is no formula that works for everybody and that’s where the problems start.
        You grow up in a family and your parents decide what you eat. Nowadays, they are a bit more”health conscious” than in my time, where pa just ordered you to empty your plate, because he had been hungry during WW2. But when I see what these parents feed their kids, it is always based on their “believe” what is best, and I have seen none that feed their different kids different foods because they still believe in that illusionary “this is good for all of us” story.
        So it took me ages to find what works for me, with several missteps and periods of “je m’en fou” where I just did not care anymore. The last 5-6 years of so I seem to be on the right path, finding back the strength of my youth, if not yet the stamina.
        I see my oldest children make the same mistakes and there is very little I can do to help them. And even worse, my youngest is only 5. So far she is strong, seldom ill. But here the problem is to listen to the signals, trying to give her the food she needs. Let her choose and you will get a mix of things she probably needs and others she craves because, for example, snacks she gets in school or gets from her friends. ( I am amazed by the amounts of sweets the French kids get, as opposed to what she got in China). And then there are confusing things like, she likes to eat fish eyes. Yes, fish EYES. It makes me frown, I’m not against any edible food, but why does a 5 year old craves fish eyes? Is there something in it she needs/misses? Good luck finding what that means…
        As for myself, I had serious heart problems a few years ago. Just by adjusting my food, a few supplements , I not only survived, but seem to slowly repair the damage that has been done. And off course I did everything CONTRARY to what the cardiologists told me. Yes I do walk, but I do feel much more improvement by just pushing and shoving hard. No gym for me, too boring. But anything that requires a big guy, to cut, push, lift , demolish, YES! I swim too, makes me calm. Can you believe in 2010 a doctor even warned me to limit the pressure on the toilet?
        And the typical medicines in my case, after a short trial that sucked away my energy, I threw in the garbage. I take a mild beta blocker, that’s all.
        But after seeing so many specialist doctors, NONE have ever mentioned the few essential substances you need in my case, like Magnesium and Co-Q10, let alone the many others that have proven or likely positive effect on a damaged heart and blocked arteries.
        “And if it stops working, change it!”. I like that, I do that, but for a long time there was always the fear that a wrong change would be fatal…
        The time that we get screened and get a perfect diet advice that guarantees our long life, is far off. And luckily, because life is not about becoming a 1000 year old organism shielded from any harm, instead it is about facing the harm, overcome and survive and feel great doing it. And when the time comes, just make sure that the time you have had was worth it.



  9. Hap on February 19, 2016 at 10:43

    Not essential to present a diamond ring……but advise strongly at some point. I pleaded poverty….which fortunely was obvious but not inevitably prolonged.

  10. gab on February 19, 2016 at 15:53

    I have come to the conclusion that the Pharaoh Ants who visit my kitchen know more about what’s good than a lot of silly humans.

    They won’t touch anything zero carb, high fat and protein. Fortunately, because the catfood my cats are eating is zero carb and if the ants would like this stuff, I’d be in big trouble. They don’t chomp down on cooked meat. They are not into honey or sweet stuff. They don’t bother with butter. Not bread or tortillas or rice for these ants.

    They absolutely love black eye pea soup made with smoked ham hock and other vegetables. They also love beef with potato and vegetable soup. Fat, carbs and protein combos is what these little guys like: a balanced diet.

    Smart ants. 🙂

  11. David on February 19, 2016 at 18:49

    I missed the steak=chocolate cake speech, good for you for posting a retort. I remember seeing a PBS documentary a few years ago with Michael Mosley. I can’t remember if he was doing alternate day fasting or the 5:2 fasting, but at the end his health markers were improved and he hit his target weight. You could at least see it worked for him. For me, that gave some credibility to fasting and IF, which have worked for me.

  12. hap on February 20, 2016 at 17:19

    Intermittent irregular feeding would be an intuitive and common sensical interpretation of human history. Being omnivorous expands opportunities for survival and adaptation to an extreme spectrum of environments. Widespread agriculture must have impacted the vagaries of hunting and gatherin…..but maybe not so much and maybe without definitive selection pressure,

    Yes we eat a lot of shit and suffer due to faulty science, governmental interference, and colluding corporate interests. But the public gets what it deserves….however I digress. The main point is that our human code is different than that of ruminate and we are built to thrive irregular feeding intervals, amounts, and foodstuffs. This capability has its limits but within limits appears to be healthy. Notwithstanding the subject of processed or adulterated food, a predominant factor might actually be the ancient cycles of food surplus and famine, relative or absolute. Intermittent fasting is potentially a key to human health. Just like we found regular artificial respiration rates in ICU and regular heart rates without variation are indicators of I’ll health, so is regular overfeeding…..or regular anything in biology.

    Now…..I need to learn how to practice this as discipline in a world full of available calories whereas it would have been reality not even that long ago.

  13. David on February 21, 2016 at 11:35

    For the sake of argument, assume eating a stick of butter with a meal is neutral to weight loss or health- WHY would anyone want to eat a stick of butter with a meal? If you think carbs are health promoting- would you eat a bucket of oatmeal for breakfast, the same for protein- would you eat a 3 lb steak?

    • John on February 21, 2016 at 12:13

      Because one enjoys gluttony.

      Thus, yes, people would.

    • hap on February 22, 2016 at 09:59

      David
      There’s a sucker born every minute…..or so it is said.

      Not necessarily to inject politics but I saw Ben and Jerry this morning on a financial show extolling the virtues of socialism. Guess who they support? Anyway B and J made a nice fortune in the free market. Good for them. the inconsistent bastards should have given the ice cream away. If they never made a profit they never could have created all those flavors or found a way to get them to market….or now have the leisure time to be idiots. What a bunch of shmucks.

      I’m waiting for Richard’s ice cream hack.

      • Richard Nikoley on February 22, 2016 at 10:13

        I’m a Haagen-Dazs man. Cream, egg, milk, sugar and whatever particular flavors.

        A pint a week is all you need.



      • John on February 22, 2016 at 11:27

        A container of Haagen-Dazs usually lasts me 2 days 🙂



      • Richard Nikoley on February 22, 2016 at 15:09

        Me too, but I only buy them once in a while.



  14. Makki K on July 5, 2016 at 01:48

    Hello Richard,

    Thank you for a well written, well informed, and informative piece. Through some of the beginning portions of my healthy journey I followed what people said about “no carbs” and I went about exercising regularly and eating zero carbs. I found myself tired and moody all the time. It wasn’t pleasant. Then when somebody told me it needed more structure to it and recommended the atkins diet, I tried that but again it didn’t bode well with me as same as before, except now I was doing a plan and still felt the same. What worked for me (both physically and mentally) was a balanced diet with a cheat meal every two weeks. Nowadays I have changed my mindset so I don’t really need a cheat meal, but my overall food preferences are healthy ones.
    Anyways, between you and Leangains (I found your site from the link above) you’ve honestly done so much to help me separate the trash from the realistic. All while making for a fantastic read. So Thanks Again
    Makki

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