Carbs are carbs, right?

Balancing nutritional requirements against calorie intake in the context of our processed food environment just doesn't seem possible with the choices on offer. Here's why western guidelines make it impossible to meet your nutritional needs without overeating.

Consider the macro nutrient composition of any "single ingredient" whole food item (that's the fat/protein/carb ratio). Exclude grains for a moment, notice the ratio of carbohydrates to fat and protein. Almost without exception, real food has a ratio of carbohydrate that isn't far above 20%. Bananas, sweet potatoes and even pseudo grains like buckwheat and quinoa have about 23%, 19.5%, 20% and 21% carbohydrate respectively.

Now consider the macro nutrients of conventional packaged food. Kid's cereal such as Sugar Puffs, Lucky Charms and Frosties are amongst the very worst being 76%, 81.5% and 87% carbohydrate respectively. Packaged snacks aimed at health conscious adults aren't much better, they too are comprised mostly of grains and sugar such as digestive biscuits, whole grain bread and rice cakes, which are, 63%, 45%, 80% carbs respectively.

What does this look like on your plate? A large burger bun has about 40g of carbohydrate, to obtain the equivalent carbs from spinach requires eating 3kg, or two large plates of raspberries and blueberries, or two large plates of mixed non-root vegetables with leafy greens. Consider the nutrition these alternative 40g portions of carbohydrate provide compared to that burger bun.

Now think, the UK government recommends that fifty to sixty percent of your daily calories come from carbohydrate. Forget for a moment the "Eatwell" Plate diagram that recently replaced the food pyramid, what might that look like on your plate? Specifically, the advice as of 2017 is that "at least 50% of your calories should come from carbs." For a man, that is half of the recommended 2500kcal, 1250kcal. There are approximately 4kcal per gram of carbohydrate. From their recommendation, simple math shows that 1250kcal divided by the 4kcal per gram means they're recommending that you consume 312.5g of carbs each day. So I ask again, what does this look like on your plate? The plate of real food in the headline image showcases a whopping, wait for it... 20g of carbohydrate!

Allow me to be as ridiculous as the guidelines for a minute. To get 312.5g of carbs from spinach alone would require that you eat 8.6kg of spinach. At £7.50/kg for Tesco Orangic Spinach you're looking at a bargain price of just £64.50 per adult, per day. Maybe spinach is a freak of nature you think; broccoli would only take 4.5kg to achieve your 312.5g. Cauliflower requires 6.25kg to make the 312.5g. Even carrots (considered relatively high-carb amongst low-carb folk) would entail a ridiculous 3.2kg to get to 312.5g of dietary carbohydrate.

So where am I going with this? Of course, I'm not recommending that you take out a mortgage, buy a large garden shed able to hold the hilarious quantities of spinach you'll need, set your alarm earlier than usual and start forcing spinach down your throat from dawn until dusk. Even if you can afford that, your garden shed is clear, and you love spinach, you'd be consuming 162 times the RDA of vitamin A, and about 40 times the RDA of iron. Even though plant sources of these particular nutrients have notoriously low uptake in most individuals, I don't suppose that would be a good thing day after day!

I am suggesting you consider that the concept you're expected to run your body on 50-60% carbohydrate could be farcical. In my opinion, it is farcical! In a post coming soon I'll lay out why 50-100g of carbohydrate is plenty for almost everyone, and those of us with sedentary jobs, particularly those of us that have piled on a few extra lbs during a mid-life might want to experiment somewhere in the 30-75g region. If you're trying to manage diabetes or you want to supercharge your energy (both mental and physical) less than 25g might even work best for you.

I'm not sure if I've convinced you yet, but since I mentioned the "D" word (diabetes) and I'm not a doctor I'll quickly say this. The low-carb, high-fat diet is incredibly powerful at reducing blood glucose (after all, diet is where all that glucose comes from in the first place.) If you're on medication for diabetes, you MUST discuss these changes with your doctor. If your doctor takes no interest in your lifestyle, then I recommend you find a new doctor. If you inject, you should already be aware that too much insulin while consuming too few carbs can kill, quickly and with little warning.

Back on topic. I hope I've got you thinking about what constitutes a balanced diet. I don't need to tell you that the grain based, sugar laden, high-carb foods I mentioned earlier are deficient in nutrients. Most of the health claims on the packagings come from lab-created vitamin fortifications or merely because they're low in fat. You're probably not aware, but the body burns through precious vitamins and minerals just to process all those carbs. Grain and sugar based foods are inherently pro-inflammatory and fan the flames by blocking absorption of much of their promised nutrition anyway. Can you see now how hard it can be to get enough nourishment without overeating?

Paleo Wellness Low Carb