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Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?

author image Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles and the publisher of the Humor Columnist website. His work has appeared in Salon, Cracked.com, DAME and other publications. Donatelli is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?
Man eats bread (a.k.a. "the evil carbs") with cheese. Photo Credit Tommy Kay/Photodisc/Getty Images


I’m pretty sure carbs are trying to kill me. It’s not like they’re meeting in a diner and exchanging envelopes and calling each other later to say, “That thing? It’s done.”

I wish my killers were that cool. My enemies are lame. They are a noodle, a cereal flake, a loaf of bread. The blandest, most boring food on earth -- food that requires the presence of other food and/or spices and sauces to give it flavor -- threatens to be my downfall.

I have seen my own death, and it is sad.

CSI Cop 1: “The victim had heart disease brought on by being overweight.”

CSI Cop 2: “Looks like this guy got whacked by one too many loaves of bread.”

CSI Cop 1: “Any way you slice it.”

I asked the editors at LIVESTRONG.COM if I could write this article to investigate my enemy. I know carbs are out to get me. I know because when I eat a lot of carbs I gain weight, and when I eat fewer carbs I lose weight.

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So, dummy, just eat fewer carbs, and you’ll lose weight.

But I can’t stop eating them. I just can’t. I know they don’t do my body any favors, but I eat them anyway, because they are right in front of me and because I am weak. So I figured, maybe if I knew more about carbs -- maybe if I could learn the nature of the carbohydrate and see what makes it tick -- then I would have a better chance of beating carbs and losing weight and not suffering the indignity of CSI cops trading fat jokes over my sandwich-clutching corpse.

Oh, and to all of you who read this article, and post comments at the bottom such as, “Carbs are good for you, idiot." "This writer is an idiot." "This report says this, you idiot, and that expert says that, idiot,” I remind you that I’ve approached this article from the perspective that carbs are trying to kill me. Carbs can go get a fair shake somewhere else. Most of the time, they do. But not here.

All of these (officially recommended diets) have created this toxic food environment in which we’re ingesting huge amounts of a nutrient we don’t need at the expense of the nutrients that keep us healthy

- Jonny Bowden, The Rogue Nutritionist

Profiling a Killer: a.k.a. "The Evil Carb"

Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?
Man enjoying cereal (a.k.a "The evil carbs") Photo Credit Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images

A carbohydrate consists of a neutral compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Those are three of the most abundant elements in the galaxy -- and in the human body. This is one of those things science people take for granted, but it blows my mind. Everything in the universe is basically made of the same elements. (Somewhere, the element called boron is throwing an empty whiskey bottle against a brick wall.)

Carbs are formed through the process of photosynthesis. This should take you back to school and growing potatoes in jars and then hitting those potatoes with baseball bats.

Photosynthesis is the synthesis of chemical compounds with the aid of light. The process creates carbohydrates from carbon dioxide in the air and a source of hydrogen, such as water, in cells containing chlorophyll that are exposed to light. Where are these cells found? They are found in plants containing sugars, starches and cellulose. To us, they are grains, potatoes, fruits, beans, vegetables and the components of processed foods such as waffles and beer.

You, me, Eggo Waffles, Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, the cosmos -- we’re all made from the same stuff.

What I’m saying is that carbs -- those magnificent bastards! -- have the perfect disguise.

Why Do Humans Eat So Many Carbs?

Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?
A woman eats a plate of French fries (a.k.a. "the evil carbs") Photo Credit Radius Images/Radius Images/Getty Images

Why do humans eat so many carbs? The answer is fascinating.

Carbohydrates, it turns out, are largely responsible for the modern world we live in. Everything from the clothes you’re wearing to the device you’re using to read this story to the electricity that powers that device is the result of Big Carb. In his paper “Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword,” Colorado State professor Loren Cordain explained how civilization as we know it rose because of carbohydrates.

Before 10,000 years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers. The human diet consisted of that which could be caught, hunted, fished or plucked. Cereal grains were not in the mix. As human population increased and animal numbers dwindled, mankind turned to farming cereal grains as a source of calories. The agricultural revolution made it possible to sustain a larger human population, a population that gathered in cities where, thanks to a confluence of intelligent carb-fueled minds, vast technological, medical, scientific and industrial advances took place.

The cornerstone of the Willis Tower in Chicago was laid on a farm in ancient Mesopotamia.

With the good came the bad. Cordain — who is a Paleo Diet advocate -- said he believes that discordance between humanity’s genetically determined dietary needs and its present diet is responsible for many of the degenerative diseases that plague us today. He also notes that agriculture made possible many of humanity’s societal ills including large-scale warfare, mass starvation, tyranny, epidemic diseases and class divisions.

“Cereals provide the major caloric and protein source for humanity and therefore are the mainstay of agriculture,” Cordain wrote. “They have allowed man’s culture to grow and evolve so that man has become Earth’s dominant animal species, but this pre-eminence has not occurred without cost.”

Humanity: We live by the carb, we die by the carb.

How Carbs Make Us Fat

Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?
Woman enjoying pasta (a.k.a. "the evil carbs") Photo Credit Image Source/Image Source/Getty Images

There are many influential organizations and individuals who say that carbs such as breads, cereals, and pasta should be a significant part of the daily diet. They will tell you that all calories are created equal. They say we should have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner.

And how’s that working out for America?

We’ve become a nation of fatty-fatty-fat-fats.

I asked Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS, aka The Rogue Nutritionist, what happens inside the human body when we eat carbohydrates.

He laid it out like this:

When you eat, your pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin, which has a number of important functions. Primarily, it acts as a sugar wrangler. Insulin takes excess sugar that just entered your bloodstream from the food you ate, rounds it up and puts it in muscle cells where it can be used for energy. That’s how metabolism is supposed to work.

Let’s take a 5-year-old kid. She eats an apple. Her blood sugar rises slightly and insulin is secreted from her pancreas. The insulin takes the excess sugar out of the bloodstream and moves it to the muscle cells. The muscle cells are glad to have it because she is going to ride a bike or play on the jungle gym. The muscles will use that little bit of sugar from the apple. Eventually her blood sugar will go down, and she will be hungry and eat again.

What actually happens is that adults eat massive meals of extraordinary caloric density, and most of these meals are made up of sugar or foods that convert to sugar before they hit the stomach. These are foods such as pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, breads, desserts and crackers. The pancreas rings alarms that the body has overdosed on sugar-filled Ding Dongs because it all looks like sugar-filled Ding Dongs to the pancreas and the stomach. Insulin is shooting through the system trying to collect this excess sugar. But there’s a problem.

This isn’t a 5-year-old kid who is going to go out and ride her bike. This is a guy sitting at a computer all day whose only exercise is clicking a mouse. His muscle cells don’t need that sugar. Where does it go? It goes to fat cells. When insulin is elevated, the fat cells basically shut their doors. They don’t release their goods. Processed carbohydrates put the body in a constant state of fat storage.

Extra glucose gets converted by the liver to triglycerides, which increase the risk for heart disease. And because the liver can’t keep up with the processing load, the body starts to get something called non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder. These are the downstream effects of eating too many carbohydrates.

Bowden advocates a low-carb diet. Most of the national organizations that publish recommended diets include carbohydrates as a significant source of calories. He calls those organizations a word it would be impolite to print here on LIVESTRONG.COM.

Bowden does not advocate eliminating carbs entirely. He just thinks we don’t need as many as we’ve been told we need. The body requires about 120 grams of glucose a day to function, but the glucose doesn’t have to come from carbs, Bowden says. It can come from good carbs such as fruits and vegetables and even from proteins and fats. He says that, as a rule of thumb, almost any food you can eat that comes straight from the earth contains "good carbs."

“All of these (officially recommended diets) have created this toxic food environment in which we’re ingesting huge amounts of a nutrient we don’t need at the expense of the nutrients that keep us healthy,” Bowden said. “We’re in a constant state of insulin arousal and blood sugar highs, and that’s why we have an epidemic of diabesity, which is obesity and diabetes.”

Laura Cipullo, a certified diabetes educator and eating disorder specialist, holds more of a pragmatic and mainstream view on carbs. She says that carbohydrates should constitute about 45 percent of the diet. Cipullo recommends meals that mix carbs with lean protein and healthy fat so that when they combine the body can’t break them down rapidly. As a result, she says, blood sugar never rises quickly, insulin does not spike and the body feels full longer.

“People go to the store, and they are exposed to so many processed foods,” Cipullo said. “It’s better to show people how to eat it in moderation and not make a big deal out of it because human psychology is, ‘If it’s bad, I want it.’ Then I will eat it and feel bad about myself.”

Cipullo just described my teen years.

Are All Calories Equal? (Even Carbs?!)

Is Eating Carbs REALLY Bad for Me?
Woman eating sandwich with bread (a.k.a. "the evil carbs") Photo Credit Kactus/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The results of a clinical trial by Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital and his collaborators were published in the June 2012 edition of "The Journal of the American Medical Association." Ludwig and company gathered obese people and, for lack of a better word, starved them (voluntarily) until they’d lost 10 to 15 percent of their weight. As science writer Gary Taubes noted in an opnion piece in "The New York Times," the researchers attempted to replicate a pre-obese human being in the lab.

Ludwig’s peers fed the subjects the same amount of calories each day. Each participant spent one month on a different diet that contained the same number of calories. One diet was low-fat/high carbohydrates. This is pretty much the diet that the government says we should eat. One diet had a low glycemic index, which means fewer carbohydrates and only ones that are slow to digest -- foods such as beans and non-starchy vegetables. The third diet was low carbohydrates/high fat and protein.

The results: the fewe carbs in, the more energy expended. The low-carb group burned 300 more calories a day than the low-fat diet and 150 calories more than the low-glycemic diet. For the low-carb group it was like receiving the calorie-burning benefits of an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity without having to go to the gym.

Taubes wrote, “If we think of Dr. Ludwig’s subjects as pre-obese, then the study tells us that the nutrient composition of the diet can trigger the predisposition to get fat, independent of the calories consumed. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the more easily we remain lean. The more carbohydrates, the more difficult. In other words, carbohydrates are fattening, and obesity is a fat-storage defect. What matters, then, is the quantity and quality of carbohydrates we consume and their effect on insulin.”

More research is necessary to shore up this finding, but, at the moment it would appear that not all calories are created equal.

The Case Against Carbs

Allow me to snap my lawyerly suspenders and stroll around the courtroom as I confront carbs, my would-be killer. Criminal court cases are won by connecting opportunity, evidence, and motive. So, let’s do just that.

OPPORTUNITY: Carbs are edible, easy to grow and cheap.

EVIDENCE: It is being gathered by the likes of Cordain, Bowden, Ludwig and many others too numerous to list here.

MOTIVE: Well, it’s hard to ascribe a motive to non-thinking entity such as a plant, but consider this: Today 40 percent of the United States is covered in farmland. Ten thousand years ago that number was zero.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say the carb’s plan was world domination!

This is the motivation I need to beat carbs.

It’s us against them: Carbs versus People -- a battle for the planet.

Will my species ultimately be defeated by a handful of immobile multicellular eukaryotic photosynthetic organisms? Or will mankind overcome its greatest threat — the potato chip?

The battle will be fought in my kitchen daily.

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