How Low-Carb Can You Go?

What does low-carb mean? Well, the first thing it means is that something else has more carb. So what are you comparing it to? Breakfast cereal? Fast food? Angel food cake? The standard American diet? Anything would be low-carb compared to those.  

The standard American diet is drowning in stripped carbohydrate. Breakfast cereal, toast and bagels for breakfast; sandwich, chips and soda pop for lunch; pasta for dinner…. You want fries with that? America has a problem. We’re not nourishing ourselves; we’re entertaining ourselves. All day long. The standard American diet is driving the epidemics of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, arthritis, heart attacks, and strokes. So why would I pick a name that presupposes the standard American diet is some kind of normal? I wouldn’t. That’s my point. 

I join many of my colleagues in the medical community who are becoming increasingly vocal about the fact that carbohydrates, at least certain ones, are playing a major role in the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. I agree with what they say, but I disagree about what to call it. We all see that carbohydrates [refined, stripped, manufactured, processed, and stripped carbs] are a major player in the obesity epidemic, but we should not call the preferred strategy a low-carb diet. I admit it; I’m mincing words (instead of garlic). But when we call something a “low-carb” diet, that makes high-carb diets the default. The norm.

When you categorize a product as low-, there must be a high-. If you call a detergent low-suds, there must be high-suds ones. Low-salt soup? The regular kind must have a lot more. And so it does. If people are talking about a low-carb diet, that means there must be a high-carb diet. And what would that be? The standard American diet.

When you call a diet “low-carb,” you are automatically comparing it with the standard American diet. And that diet is so high in stripped, processed carbohydrates that virtually every other diet is an improvement. The term “low-carb,” therefore, doesn’t tell us much. It doesn’t say whether you’re reducing your intake of all grain, or only the stripped, processed ones, or maybe some other combination. It presumes that the standard American diet has a normal amount of carb. Which it does not.

This perspective highlights the difference between absolute and relative comparisons. Imagine, for example, that a new medicine decreases the likelihood of a rare and life-threatening side effect from 2 in 10,000 to 1 in 10,000. Because the likelihood is halved, from two to one, you might say that the medicine was “twice as safe.” That’s called a relative comparison. And while it is true, technically speaking, it’s not the whole story.

The other way to look at this is that, in fact, the side effect is deadly, and it becomes just a bit less so if you switch to the new medicine. That is the conclusion to be reached from evaluating the absolute, or actual, numbers.

Now, back to food. When you call nourishing food a “low-carb diet,” you are making a relative comparison. Relative comparisons might tell you where you landed, but they don’t explain how you got there. Because relative comparisons don’t take into account where you started from, they are notoriously undependable.

So let’s not call diets with generous amounts of nourishing carbohydrates, like fruits and beans and vegetables, “low-carb.” What then? Smart-carb? Natural-carb? Garden-carb? Pre-industrial carb? Some people eat the Paleo diet, which is based on the presupposition that the idea amount of carbohydrate would be what humans ate in the pre-agricultural era. Why pre-agricultural? Because that’s before we began to grow and domesticate grain, especially wheat. Wheat, corn, and soy are the primary sources for the great majority of processed, food-like products at the American supermarket. But “Paleo” doesn’t feel right either, unless you are on board with the Industrial Revolution diet.

It’s important to remember that all carbs aren’t all-bad. With rare exceptions, most people can eat all the peaches and lima beans they want. Some people, though not all, thrive on a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast every day. 

Instead of low-carb, try to clarify exactly what it is you’re doing. Are you eating a low-grain diet? Or maybe you’re limiting processed items? Or stripped carbs? Understanding your choices will help you identify what works best for you.

4 thoughts on “How Low-Carb Can You Go?

  1. My thought is “low carb diet” is like “low fat” or “gluten free” or,
    “insert term here”, for the next fad. Carb free carbs! Low carb potatoes!

  2. Smart carb—which I believe you’re really focusing on here—isn’t so much of a problem for me, except for breakfast. In fact, I might have been the one you were referencing in your remarks about oatmeal, which has been a regular choice for me. But I’d like to really take the gluten out of my life entirely. Do you have any suggestions for breakfast that will get me going in the morning? Thanks!

    • How about a sweet potato with your favorite nut butter? Hard boiled eggs? leftovers from dinner?
      Let me know what you like to eat, and I’ll see what I can come up with —

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