In the Swing of Carbohydrates

Two years ago, I went to the doctor to get the results from a blood test called the HbA1c. It is a test that measures the amount of sugar on your hemoglobin (on your red blood cells) and apparently correlates very well to your average blood sugar over the past 3 months. Then, just out of the blue the doctor tells me: you are pre-diabetic. It seemed surreal. Me? I exercise a lot, healthy eating, no weight to lose (maybe a couple of pounds, but there will always be a couple of pounds). My HbA1C, was at 5.9, pre-diabetes starts at 5.7 and diabetics at 6.4.
First of all diabetes means that your blood sugar levels are higher than average. There are two types. Type 1 is when your pancreas does not produce enough insulin due to genetic defect or other causes. Insulin is a hormone which acts on cells to absorb glucose, in particular muscle cells and liver cells where glucose is synthesized into glycogen (a long sugar chain, similar to starch) or fat cells where it is converted to you guessed it: fat. Insulin has also multiple other roles, which I won’t cover in here. Is insulin really bad for you? Not really, it is not the insulin the problem, it is the overload of sugar. High sugar, the body secretes insulin, cells absorb, absorb and sometimes a bit too much which results in hypoglycemia. Now you are feeling weird, hungry, dizzy and well, reach for another snack which increases your blood sugar again. Welcome to the sugar roller coaster. If you are pre-diabetic or Type II diabetic, this roller coaster is like the Matterhorn. Your insulin does not control very well the process, just like a poorly tuned thermostat which never reaches a set-point but goes way up in temperature and way down before it kicks in again. Some people might be better at regulating this whole process depending on your genes and lifestyle.
Here is a graph that I found at Suppversity. It helps explain where we, humans are coming from compared to where we are at now. It shows the average percentage of carbohydrates in the diet (minimum and maximum) compared to the latitude our paleolithic ancestors were living at.
As you can see some of our ancestors living in the North did not have any carbohydrates during the cold months of the year. While people living in warmer climate had up to 34% of carbohydrates in good times. What is the RDA recommendation these days: 45-65%! And some of us eat up to up to 70% of their diet in carbs. That is a lot compared to what we were technically supposed to handle. No wonder our thermostat is out of whack. Of course if you are very active, you can probably handle more without significant effect, but when I say very active, I mean it. Our ancestors where already pretty active so if you think that you move more than a hunter gatherer, well go ahead.
So what should we do? Low-carb, Ketosis diet, Paleo diet or a mix of these? These are the new cool diets out there. You don’t know what these are? To tell you the truth, I would ask different specialists, I would get different answers but bottom line, the idea behind these is to get closer to what our body is able to handle without negative effect on our health. I would define low-carb diet as having less than 35% of your calories from carbohydrates. From a 2000 calorie diet that is less than 175 g or the equivalent of 5 apples. The ketosis diet is when you go below 50g, at that point your body starts making ketone bodies for your brain because of the lack of sugar, but don’t worry it is not dangerous and can be actually beneficial. The paleo diet uses only ingredients that could be found from hunting and gathering. This diet can be higher in carbs but because of the restrictive carb choices, it tends to be around 35% too.  There is a super interesting article in the National Geographic on paleolithic diets. It turns out that eating paleo is not just about eating more meat. In fact our ancestors did not have access to meat half of the time. I think this is important to point out as some people take the paleolithic diet to extreme and eat too much meat. Although as you will see below, meat and saturated fat in meats are not as evil as we thought. However, other sources of protein should be considered such as in fish, seafood and plant protein and present a much sustainable way of living for the future generation. So what else did our paleo ancestors eat? They had to rely on plants, tubers and nuts found in nature. And yes, these are carbs, but they are non-processed and it turns out that carbs’ density (g of carb/g of total food) is actually low. So on some days they might have eaten a lot of carbs, other days mostly meat and the rest of the time mostly fat depending on availability, but when you run the number you get what you see in the graph above.
Are these new diets here to stay. I would say YES! More and more studies are pointing towards the benefit of a low-carb diet. Even the New York Time lately had an article on low carb diets. The article starts like this: People who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades. This study actually confirms the result of other studies. This meta-analysis, meaning that it summarized and analyzed the results of multiple studies on low-carb diets, concludes that diets that are lower than <35% carbohydrate, keeping the caloric content the same to higher carb group, had participant lose more weight and increased lean body mass (that also throws away the theory of one calorie is a calorie but that is the subject of another blog).
Mind you these all point out to the health benefit of a low-carb diet but what about performance? That is a different ball game…My next blog will definitely address this conundrum. I will share with you more about my experience with going low-carb. Am I still pre-diabetics??? How does that affect training and racing? You’ll see…


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