PJ's Fitness Blog

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Is Carbohydrate an Essential Nutrient?

Bagels and other carbs

People know about my low-carb lifestyle and they occasionally try to explain to me that the human body needs carbohydrates for energy.

Or that the brain has to have carbs in order to run properly.

Or that carbs are somehow necessary for optimal health.

And I have yet to hear this “advice” coming from someone who is healthier than me.

Things that make you go, “hmmmm…”

I realize their “advice” is also the current mainstream message, but if you do your own research and find out the facts for yourself, you will discover that the mainstream is wrong.

The mainstream happens to be wrong on lots of other stuff too. You should look into that. I have, and I don’t believe anyone anymore without researching it for myself, especially on the important stuff, like things that have to do with health.

Blindly following what the mainstream or even the “experts” tell you (including me), no matter how “qualified” or “credentialed” you think they are, without doing your own research, can get you in trouble (or sick, fat and even dead).

Here is an undisputed fact: Dietary carbohydrates are not necessary building blocks for any molecules or cells in the human body. This means carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient for humans.

Dietary carbohydrates aren’t necessary for human energy needs either (also contrary to what you might have heard). The body can obtain all the energy it needs from protein and fat, even in the case of long distance athletes!

Even if your body did need the type of fuel carbohydrates provide, the best sources are the slowly absorbed, complex forms found in green vegetables, which also happen to be the most nutrient-rich sources of food. They are also among the lowest net carb foods (among the foods that have carbs) because of their high fiber content. Is nature trying to tell us something? I think so.

I also get people telling me that the brain needs glucose (a type of sugar) for fuel. It is true that a small number of brain cells do prefer to run on glucose, but most of the brain’s preferred energy source is actually ketones, which can only be produced from fat metabolism. 

For that small percentage of brain cells who do prefer to run on glucose, guess what? The liver knows exactly how much to make for those cells and it does it with ease. Or, if you think you need to spare the liver the trouble (which you don’t because it’s designed for it), then those green veggies mentioned above will supply more than enough glucose for those brain cells.

What human science has found and what thousands of generations have taught us, is that there are certain essential nutrients necessary to sustain life. These nutrients are called “essential” because they cannot be produced by the body at all, or in large enough quantities, to sustain life. We must get these nutrients from the food we eat. Without adequate amounts of these essential nutrients, humans develop deficiencies which can result in less than optimal health, or even death.

These essential nutrients are:

  • Water
  • Energy (calories)
  • Amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine)
  • Fatty acids (linoleic and α-linolenic acids)
  • Vitamins (ascorbic acid, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, pantothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, and vitamin B-12)
  • Minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, and chromium)
  • Electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride)

Did you see carbohydrates anywhere on this list?

The way science and human experience has concluded the essentiality of nutrients is through the identification of specific deficiency syndromes: 

  • When people don’t get enough protein, it leads to kwashiorkormarasmus, and/or cachexia, any of which can result in death.
  • When people don’t get enough fat, they are lacking certain essential fatty acids, which blocks their ability to absorb certain vitamins, which can result in death.
  • When people don’t get enough calories, they starve to death.
  • When people don’t get enough water, they die of dehydration.

There has never been a single case or example of a “carbohydrate deficiency syndrome” in humans. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. When humans reduce their intake of carbs, they get healthier, leaner, fitter and happier.

Few modern human cultures eat low-carbohydrate diets anymore, but that’s how we used to eat (up until several hundred years ago) and it’s how we are still designed to eat. 

There are several extremely healthy societies who still eat the way we all used to and we can learn from them. The traditional Eskimo diet, for example, is very low (-50 g/day) in carbohydrate (J Biol Chem 1921;47:463–73.). Other hunter-gatherer societies have very low-carb diets too, so do you think it’s a coincidence that those societies also happen to produce the healthiest, leanest and fittest people on the planet? I think not.

So what about fiber? Is that an essential nutrient? Nope. It’s a carb and we already went over that. Is it good to have? Yep, and you can get all you need from green veggies. We went over that too.

But here’s another fun fact: By weight, the human body is made up of about 2-5% carbs. The rest is water, protein, minerals and fat. If someone stopped eating all carbs, but continued to consume adequate amounts of water, protein, minerals and fat, their liver would manufacture all the carbs their body needs. In fact, a healthy liver always makes the exact amount of carbs needed. No more, no less. It’s really good at that. But it’s easy to get more carbs than we need by eating them.

Am I recommending that we eat zero carbs? Of course not. I’m just saying they aren’t ESSENTIAL and that we are eating WAY too many carbs, especially in the Standard American Diet (SAD). This is the primary reason we are getting so fat and unhealthy in this country (and most other parts of the world now).

By weight, my diet is about 5% carbs, mostly in the form of green veggies (and that’s a ton, by the way). The remaining 95% is fat and protein.

By calories, my diet is about 10% carbs, 75% fat and 15% protein.

I’m getting all the nutrients I need, not to just survive, but to THRIVE and I’m the healthiest, leanest, fittest and happiest I’ve ever been.

Bottom line: To get all your essential nutrients, eat lots of fat, then green veggies and then protein, to reach optimum health.

Further reading and additional citations:

What is Fat Adapted?”

Eat What You Are