The SCIENCE behind the headlines: “HIGH CARB vs LOW CARB diets results in early death”

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There is so much conflicting information in the nutritional world. Studying functional medicine has opened up a whole world of science that is both intensely fascinating and constantly evolving as we are starting to learn more and more about our incredible bodies.

Chris Kresser is a world-renowned leader in the fields of functional, integrative medicine and ancestral health. He has also been named as one of the 100 most influential people in health and fitness. Author of ‘Unconventional Medicine’, he has written extensively on the controversy around carbs in our diet.

Headline news and scientific research are not always the best bedfellows. Sensational news creates clicks and often leaves behind the key science.

As discussed in my recent post- Paleo, Keto, Low Carb, High Fat, Atkins…Which one really is the BEST diet for me to achieve Optimum Health? (click here to read ) let’s start with the bottom line that remains despite every diet related headline:

“Eating a nutrient dense whole foods diet with a small portion of good quality animal protein  or plant based protein has been proven to reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease.”

-Chris Kresser

What are carbs and do we actually need them?

Part of the 3 basic food groups called Macronutrients or ‘Macros,’ including protein and fats, Carbohydrates are ESSENTIAL for a healthy life.

Carbs are the body’s main source of energy and provide us with building blocks and scaffolding for our cells. The body cannot make them; We need to eat them as part of our daily diet to function optimally.

Carbs are fuel for our muscles during exercise and a source of energy for our brain and red blood cells.

Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fibres found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products.

Are all carbs equal?


Carbohydrates can be divided into Whole vs Processed / Refined carbohydrates.

We should look to be eating WHOLE FOODS instead of REFINED FOODS in the main. This applies to carbs and how we can class them in terms of what we think of as good vs bad.

WHOLE CARBS ARE GOOD: Unprocessed and have natural fibre left in them.

Examples: Vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, sweet potatoes, seeds, nuts and whole grains. These foods are generally healthy.

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REFINED CARBS ARE NOT HEALTHFUL: Processed, stripped of fibre and made in a factory often with added sugar and colourings.

Examples: Most children’s breakfast cereals, Sugar-sweetened drinks, fruit squashes, fizzy drinks, fruit juices, pastries and other foods with added sugar. French fries, potato crisps, sweets, cookies and cakes all fall under this too.

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It’s the REFINED carbs that have been shown to be linked with obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, blood sugar spikes and sugar cravings.

When we make food choices- think of fresh vegetables, whole fruit (not juice), nuts, seeds and legumes as your choice of carbohydrates.

So will a LOW CARB or HIGH CARB diet put me at risk?


Just as we now know DIETARY CHOLESTEROL does not contribute to increased rates of CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE we know that low-carb diets do not increase your risk of mortality.

60 % of Americans have been shown to gain the majority of their daily calories from highly processed ultra-refined foods. It is the QUALITY of the carbs that is causing the obesity and diabetes epidemic NOT Quantity.


A recent study in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) showed that those who cut back on sugars, refined grain and processed foods alone lost weight and kept it off for over 12 months.


OK so if Carbs are necessary…

AND whole carbs are the best…

HOW much should I eat in my diet?

50% of your plate of food should be carbohydrates.

The British and American guidelines are roughly equal and recommend that about 50% of your DAILY ENERGY INTAKE FROM FOOD should be from CARBOHYDRATES (for an average adult with average activity levels).

There are populations around the world that survive outside these Government guidelines and unsurprisingly thrive:

POPULATION: Kitavan Islanders of Melanesia (Horticulturists by nature)


60% CARB INTAKE from mainly whole fruit and vegetables and HIGH FAT.

HEALTH STATISTICS: Low fasting blood glucose and insulin levels, No significant diabetes or furring of arteries and most notably  No significant obesity whilst on this High carb diet.


POPULATION: The Maasai population of Africa (Hunter-Gatherers)



HEALTH STATISTICS: No evidence of cardiovascular or metabolic disease.

Another population studied in Bolivia  has a 72% carb diet and a sample tested from this population of 40 to 94-year-olds were found to have completely CLEAN ARTERIES with little to no risk of cardiovascular disease.

Where does that leave us?

  • We know that carbohydrates are necessary.
  • Whole carbohydrates should make up HALF of our plate of food at each meal.
  • This could look like 2-3 servings of vegetables- maybe green beans and perhaps try putting grated courgettes, grated carrots and sliced leeks into a curry or pasta sauce  (you won’t even know they are there).
  • And 1 serving of cruciferous veg such as cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli (HUGE SCIENTIFIC evidence to back these guys to help our liver detoxify)
  • A base of salad of watercress, spinach or kale with side of sweet potato perhaps.
  • Some whole fruit perhaps in your breakfast smoothie.

Don’t forget to dress all the veg and salads in extra virgin olive oil which helps us absorb all the good stuff inside all the health building, nourishing whole carbohydrates.

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But what about the cakes, breakfast cereals, sweets and pastries?

Life is about BALANCE.

THINK 80: 20 ratio

HEALTHFUL to TREAT foods to start with

…working towards 90:10.

As you think about all the good stuff you can ADD to EACH meal and you get closer to eating healthfully 80-90% of the time then you can treat yourself to some refined carbs without feeling guilty.

We need to change our relationship with food and rather than demonising a food group or thinking BAD vs GOOD, think of your daily energy needs coming from:

HEALTHFUL HEALING WHOLE foods and save the rest for the odd treat and with a guilt-free mindful presence really really enjoy that piece of cake

–  ‘cos you deserve it.

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