Taking on Carbophobia

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“Hi, my name is Laura and I’m a carbophobe.”

I’m serious. I’ve spent the last 4-5 years literally AFRAID of carbohydrates. It all started when I gained about 10 pounds during a stressful period of my college career, and decided to try a very low carbohydrate diet as a way to lose weight quickly before an event. Big surprise, it worked. I lost the weight I wanted and looked amazing. I felt awesome, confident, and attractive. It seemed effortless, and I was walking on air. I was hooked on the low-carb lifestyle, and seriously thought it was the ultimate answer to all of my weight loss and ‘perfect’ health goals.

Another few months in, I had another stressful life situation, fell off the low carb diet wagon, and eventually gained all the weight back I had lost. (And then some.) Bummer, right? So I blamed myself and assumed that if I just got better at avoiding carbs, the weight would slide off effortlessly. And guess what… it didn’t. I’ve been battling against the same 10 pounds for about 2 years now, stressing about my diet and exercise routine. Feeling guilty and lazy for missing workouts. Trying to force myself into ketosis as a sign that I was truly burning body fat. Losing a few pounds and gaining them right back the second I even smelled a piece of chocolate. All the while lamenting about how my friends lived on pasta and bagels and had no struggles with weight whatsoever. It was infuriating, and a constant thought in the back of my mind was “what is wrong with me? why isn’t this working? I’M TRYING SO HARD!”

In the Paleo/Primal community, we’ve heard so much about carb addiction, how carbohydrates make you fat, and how eliminating carbohydrates will bring world peace. Just kidding about the last one, but seriously, you would think that carbohydrates were invented by the Nazis based on how they’ve been vilified in the field of alternative nutrition in the past decade or so. I personally feel like it’s starting to get a little ridiculous.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that a high carbohydrate, grain-based diet is healthy or ideal in any way. I agree that the ubiquity of refined carbohydrates in the American diet plays a big role in our current obesity trends, so I’m not trying to say we should all give up Paleo and live the rest of our lives on cupcakes and Wonder bread.

Who's hungry for some gluten??

What I would like to suggest is the concept that perhaps (for some people) low-carbohydrate diets are not sustainable, or even healthy, in the long term. 

There’s been a lot of back and forth about carbs online lately, and I don’t know about any of you, but its starting to get really confusing for me. The “safe starch” debate is the most current headliner, and even though I find both sides of the argument to be interesting and compelling in their own rights, I also feel that there is just too much of a range in human dietary needs for anyone to come up with a conclusive answer about what percent of our diet should come from carbohydrates. (If you haven’t seen the debate going on, check out the post that Jimmy Moore put up on his blog. It’s pretty incredible to see all the different reactions to Paul Jaminet’s work. I’ve read the Perfect Health Diet book and it makes a lot of sense to me!) Plus, as we’ve seen from the variety of ancestral diets of the Inuit to the Kitavans, people have thrived on both very low and very high carbohydrate diets. So whether or not we can even be certain of the existence of a perfect diet is dubious to me.

The only thing I’m certain about, really, is my own experience.

I have a fairly stressful lifestyle. I’m a graduate student in a challenging nutrition program, I work part time to pay my bills, I try to stay active as much as possible, I take care of a dog, I do a ton of cooking, and I try to go out and be social every now and then. I am constantly either running around or doing work that requires a significant amount of brain power. And lately, I’d been feeling extremely anxious and stressed out. I cut out the coffee, and tried to sleep as much as possible, but it didn’t seem like enough. Something was still causing me to be excessively frazzled.

I recently got some blood work done, and noticed that my T3 levels are clinically low – 1.7 in a reference range of 2.5-4.3. T3 is the functional form of the thyroid hormone, so even though it seems like my thyroid is working fine, for some reason the conversion from T4 to T3 is not adequate. Which is pretty crappy, because T3 essentially controls your whole metabolism, and having low T3 will make you have hypothyroid symptoms.

So I did a little research, and it turns out that while there are a few different reasons why T3 levels can be low when TSH and T4 are normal, one of the most common reasons is a lack of carbohydrates in the diet. I wasn’t actively trying to go low carb, but after analyzing my daily diet, I realized that most days my entire carb intake consisted of one whole sweet potato. Which is like 40-50 grams of carbohydrate, max. Maybe I’d have a piece of fruit, which would bring my day’s intake up to around 70 grams. That’s pretty dang low, especially for someone who is active and using their brain constantly.

I came across Matt Stone’s work in my Google search, and I decided to read what he had to say, mainly because I knew Chris Masterjohn was friendly with him, so I figured he’d have to have some validity. I was actually really surprised to find that his writing made a ton of sense to me, even though a lot of it was somewhat anti-Paleo.

What really struck a chord with me was the information Matt provided about how dieting, cutting out food groups, and following strict eating behaviors can really slow down your metabolism, and particularly reduce the T4 to T3 conversion. He even quotes Dr. Atkins, who said:

“…remember that prolonged dieting (this one [Atkins” diet], low-fat, low-calorie, or a combination) tends to shut down thyroid function. This is usually not a problem with the thyroid gland (therefore blood tests are likely to be normal) but with the liver, which fails to convert T4 into the more active thyroid principle, T3. The diagnosis is made on clinical ground with the presence of fatigue, sluggishness, dry skin, coarse or falling hair, an elevation in cholesterol, or a low body temperature. I ask my patients to take four temperature readings daily before the three meals and near bedtime. If the average of all these temperatures, taken for at least three days, is below 97.8 degrees F (36.5 C), that is usually low enough to point to this form of thyroid problem; lower readings than that are even more convincing.”

Matt also wrote a whole chapter about cortisol, and explains how both eating too little carbohydrates and worrying about your food can cause cortisol levels to go up. High cortisol can make losing body fat extremely difficult, and the stress of low-carb eating can really cause some problems for your adrenals. I’ve already done a huge number on my adrenals over the past few years with coffee, alcohol, physical and emotional stress, and poor sleeping habits. Add low-carb eating to that list, and I was pretty much guaranteeing a chronically high level of cortisol and adrenal burnout.

Matt also explains how the reduction in T4 to T3 conversion slows your entire metabolism down. And by metabolism, I don’t just mean the ability to burn fat. I also mean the general rate that your body performs its vital functions like digestion, assimilation of nutrients, thermogenesis, etcetera. I definitely feel like my whole body has felt sluggish recently, and I’m starting to wonder how my diet has been negatively affecting my T3 levels.

I wasn’t actively trying to eat super low-carb, but just by habit was generally leaving carbohydrates out of my shopping cart. I figured they weren’t really that necessary, and that eating them would cause me to gain weight. I guess I was a little bit wrong about that.

So I’m conducting a little N=1 experiment to see how adding more carbohydrates into my diet will affect my mood, my digestion, my sleep quality, and my weight. So far I feel like it’s been helping with these issues, but I need to give it some more time. And I really feel like Matt’s nutritional philosophy isn’t necessarily contradictory to the root values of Paleo eating. In fact, much of his writing is anthropological in nature, and explains the reasons why non-Western cultures had such superior diets. He focuses on a lower omega-6 intake as a significant factor, which I think is 100% true, and a point that I think is pretty well taken by the Paleo community in general.

I just think that sometimes certain writers in the Paleo “blogosphere” tend to take carbohydrate restriction too far, and I wonder how many other people out there are suffering from the same carbophobia that I’ve been dealing with for the past few years. I know its going to take me a while to get used to eating more carbs, but I think its definitely worthwhile for me to make the effort, so I can get my metabolism functioning optimally again. So I’m eating more starches such as buckwheat, white rice, and sweet potatoes, plus fruit like bananas and citrus. It’s all real food, even if its not strictly Paleo. I think being too strict with my diet is just adding to the high cortisol issues I’m dealing with from other stressors in my life, so its appropriate for me to loosen up a bit!

Reducing stress, cutting out caffeine, getting adequate sleep, and not burning myself out at the gym will all be other important strategies for reducing my cortisol levels, which I believe to be the root of my sub-optimal health. I’m also adding a phosphatidylserine supplement to my routine, which I’m hoping will lower my cortisol levels even more substantially.

I apologize if this post rambled on too much, but I’m just starting to get exposed to a larger variety of opinions about diet that on the surface appear to clash with Paleo ideology. I truly think that the work of people like Matt Stone can actually be used to modify the Paleo diet to help make it work better for you. You can eat a higher-carb Paleo diet, and I do think certain foods that are considered to be ‘not Paleo’ are completely fine and possibly even beneficial to be included in the diet. So just always make sure you’re paying attention to your own body and how it responds to what you eat. Just because someone tells you low-carb is the best way to eat, doesn’t mean you should ignore your body’s own needs and blindly follow that suggestion.

On a side note, I also have been extremely frustrated with the amount of bickering going on regarding the topic of carbohydrates. I’m also very surprised at the level of animosity with which some people responded to Paul Jaminet. I think Paul’s diet plan is perfectly reasonable, and fits nicely with other diet plans like the ones Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser blog about.

I don’t agree with a one-size-fits-all diet approach, particularly when it comes to macronutrient ratios. So I’m going to give this higher-carb thing a shot, and see how my health is affected.

Is anyone else feeling this way? I’d love to hear some comments!


More resources:

Paul’s response to his critics

Cheeseslave’s experience with cortisol

Matt Stone on Cortisol

Dr. Mercola’s take on the safe starch debate

Danny Roddy’s view of Matt Stone

Chris Kresser’s podcast on eating non-Paleo

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

I help nutrition entrepreneurs grow their income and their impact by packaging their brilliance into transformative coaching and consulting programs, and get crystal clear on their marketing strategy.

I'm on a mission to help nutrition business owners drop the hustle and come into alignment with their ideal business goals, so they can work from a sense of ease and abundance, and build the online business of their dreams. 

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