Carbohydrates: Should We Eat Them?

This post covers part of the Introduction of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Most information is referenced in the book. Opinions are mine unless indicated otherwise.


I know that low-carb diets are all the rage right now, and when you consider how much sugar and refined carbohydrates most Americans and other Westerners eat, it’s kind of obvious that people would feel healthier on a low-carb diet. But even going from a no-refined-sugar and no-refined-grain diet to a low-carb diet seems to help a lot of people. Is it because the wheat we eat isn’t the same quality as the wheat humans used to eat? Is it a genetic mutation caused by generations of people eating poorly? Is it because people aren’t eating grains prepared in the proper way? Or is it because humans aren’t supposed to eat grain at all? Or sugar? Or milk? Or legumes? Or fruit???

Although I don’t want to get into a debate over it, I don’t think that we were not ‘meant’ to eat grain. My basis for this is mainly religious–I don’t believe we evolved from “primitive” man, and I believe farming began with our first parents, Adam and Eve. While I totally understand the hunter-and-gatherer theory, and I do not doubt that people thrive on such a diet, I believe most of us can thrive on a diet that includes whole, non-engineered, properly prepared grains. I’m not saying grains should take up the majority of the diet–unless you are, say, in a famine, and there is nothing else to eat, or–a more likely scenario in our modern culture–some sort of natural or perhaps governmental disaster that cuts off your supply to fresh food. Grain is an ideal food storage item. Same for legumes. And guess what? They magically go together to form a complete protein! (Not advocating vegetarianism here, by the way.)

As for how much we should eat of grains, legumes, and carbohydrates in general, it seems to be that this would depend on several factors: your heritage (both your ethnicity and how your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents ate–unfortunately for many of us, eating habits have an affect on the genetic makeup of offspring), your previous eating habits (too much refined/engineered grain or pasteurized dairy may cause intolerance or allergies to develop) and current state of health (a very low-carb diet can be a road to healing, but may not necessarily be what you need long-term), your activity level or whether you are sustaining another life (athletes and pregnant or lactating women tend to want more carbohydrates), or other reasons that may cause you to have a tolerance or intolerance for high-carbohydrate foods.

Bread is considered “the staff of life” in countries around the globe, not just in high-carb America. We tend to think of “staff” as meaning “main staple,” but could it also mean something that “helps” us? Reasons for many people to eat grain and legume are that they provide nutrients and sustain life for less money–for some, this is simply what is available. And they store well. I think this is a wonderful thing, because without this type of food, many people would go hungry.

Grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, and fresh milk.

Is there a such thing as too many carbohydrates in the diet? It seems that humans need protein, and we need fat, but we don’t really need carbohydrates. Our bodies can convert fat into glucose, the main sugar in our bodies, so carbohydrates are non-essential. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. [Update: Since writing this I’ve learned that not eating carbohydrates–or too few of them–can overtax the liver, decrease thyroid function (the zero-carb Eskimos had to eat thyroid to protect their own and they had enlarged livers), and it can slow metabolic function in some people. Best bet is to eat the amount that makes you feel good, and be wary of “carb flu” which may be an indication that you aren’t getting enough carbohydrates.]

Weston A Price, the famous dentist who studied many groups of vibrantly healthy isolated peoples, found that humans can be perfectly healthy on a diet that contains plenty of dairy, bread, a little meat, bone broth, and a few vegetables (for the isolated Swiss groups); or no dairy, but plenty of fish and oats (Gallic fisherman off the Scotland coast); or almost purely animal-based diet of meat, milk, and blood (the Masai in Africa); or marine animals such a fish and seal, including roe and blubber (Eskimos); or seafood and plant-based foods (South Seas, and Maori of New Zealand)…

The foods that allow people of every race and every climate to be healthy are whole natural foods–meat with its fat, organ meats, whole milk products, fish, insects, whole grains, tubers, vegetables and fruit–not newfangled concoctions made with white sugar, refined flour and rancid and chemically altered vegetable oils.*

*italics added {source}

So apparently we don’t have to eat like hunters and gatherers, though that is one diet that seems to produce healthy people. But we can also eat grain and dairy and be healthy, too! We just have to do it the right way. This is the main thing that led me to searching out traditional diets: I love dairy, and I like a little grain, so I don’t want to give up either if I don’t have to.

This post ending up being mostly my opinion, though I think it pretty much parallels Fallon’s take on carbohydrates in Nourishing Traditions. Which, to summarize: Not too much, and not refined.

Now, if you are asking why we should eat a macronutrient that is non-essential, my answer for you is: Why do deer eat roses when there is plenty of grass to be had? Because food is food, and most of us like variety.


9 thoughts on “Carbohydrates: Should We Eat Them?

  1. I’ve been reading the primal blueprint again. My answer to should we have carbohydrates? Yes! Should we have grain? No.
    I think we can get plenty of carbohydrates from foods we eat with out grain. Fruits and veggies both have carbohydrates. But the don’t have the ridiculous amount in them that grains do.
    You said what if you are an endurance athlete? Well then you do probably have to find carbs some where else, but then you have to decide if it’s worth the cost of eating grains. Grains cause your body to have high insulin spikes which causes various problems including heart disease and diabetes. They also inhibit nutrient absobtion because all grains have phytates that bind minerals in your tummy but make it more difficult for you body to absorb. They hinder the absorption of vitamins d, c and b12. I think most people could get the needed carbohydrates from a few yams or potatoes and a banana.
    Grains also have lectins which can mildly distroy your digestive tract. They cause basically scratches in your digestive tract and allow unhealthy amounts gluten, undigested protien, amino acids, and vitamins to go into your blood stream. This leaves your immune system to decide what’s good and what’s bad and that triggers autoimmune responses.
    When I was reading your Saturday post about your past health problems, a lot of those are ones people write in about either on Marks Daily Apple and Everyday Paleo. And how cutting grains made such a huge impact for these people with similar issues.
    I guess you could be ‘healthy’ with some grain, but isn’t worth trying to be at maximum health? At least that’s why I’m doing it. Maybe I dont have many health issues now but maybe when I’m older in the future I might have prevented some disease. Or at the least maybe my body is just running at the maximum health.

    1. Also, regardless of the specifics of science, I think it’s the whole picture we need to look at. I’d rather examine a robustly healthy people and see how they are being healthy, because there is always so much we can’t see yet in science. I mean, science is what got Americans on the track to poor health in the first place. I do appreciate the research studies, and it’s really fun to pick out the ones that support whatever your theory is, but they often don’t tell us everything we need to know. For example, saturated fats and cholesterol have been shown in studies to be both beneficial and harmful. You have people loading up on saturated fat because they believe it’s really good for them, and people who avoid it like the plague because they think they are going to get a heart attack from it. I’d rather use my common sense, which tells me that fat goes naturally with meat and milk, so of course I’m going to eat it. But I’m also going to eat a balance of foods that makes me feel healthy. Sometimes I really do want a bit of grain. Maybe the conventionally prepared kind isn’t very nutritious, but maybe the traditional way is.

  2. One more thing- but I do thing grains are good for an emergency because they do store well. And they are helping feed people who don’t have much. It’s too bad they dont have access to fresh foods. I think mist people would agree that they would eat anything to stay alive. But if it’s possible not to eat that way all the time then why do it?

    1. I do think we should eat the healthiest we can afford, there’s no doubt about that. While I think a heavy-grain/carb diet can cause the health-problems you describe, I can’t even imagine one or two small servings of grain a day, properly prepared, being harmful in a healthy person. But I really am trying to not to make a set-in-stone opinion on this. I want to try for myself and see if soaking grains makes a significant difference for me.

  3. Well you should look the science when it’s done by people who don’t have alternate interest. Like say rge people promoting grain because it’s what makes most profit. Think of all the business that would go out of business….
    I understand that you eat grains because you enjoy them. I do too, though not as frequently as I used to. But, all I’m saying is that taking them out drastically changes people’s health, the science is there and so are the vast number of personal testimonies.

    1. I do take independent studies more seriously–you know that. Weston Price was a dentist who obviously had more to gain if he continued to see patients whose health was deteriorating due to poor diet. Instead, he chose to travel the world and discover how people were attaining vibrant health. That’s why I like his studies so much–he actually cared.

      I’m also aware of the problems with grains and carbohydrates. I know that removing them can be a road to healing for many people. However, we are talking about people on modern diets removing grains. What about people who are vibrantly healthy, eating grains? That’s what I’m interested in. I want to know what is different with the way they eat.

  4. well, you lost me a little there with the whole starting with adam and eve thing (!!!!!) there is zero debate if it’s a religious basis – each to their own belief.

    for me, nature is perfect. the fact that grains and nuts have phytates to stop being eaten tells you everything.
    there are many foods that many/most of us do SEEMINGLY perfectly fine on – that is a poor argument for a reason to eat them.

    white cane sugar is pure poison. do most people do fine with a little of it – sure, depends on your definition of fine of course. but regardless, that’s not a reason to suggest it’s ok. do you WANT to eat sugar despite what you know about it? if yes, that’s a better reason than the moderation’s more honest.

    i eat nuts despite knowing their consumption was extremely low back with primitive humans. i love them and they’re a fab sub for baking. i prepare them to reduce phytates etc, but don’t kid myself that it’s the best thing for my body (what my body was designed to eat).

    and which is why i disregard debates of ‘shoulds’. 😉 we make our choices according to many factors, what matters initially is doing so informed.

    1. I suppose I see the phytate thing differently. I see nature giving us a way to deal with them. Is it ideal for us to eat them? The evidence that supports paleo eating says no. I haven’t had the chance to read every single study ever done, and I’m not a scientist, and I can’t do my own studies. But I do have a religious base for the way I eat, which like you said, isn’t debatable–which is why I didn’t want to start a debate in the first place. I was just trying to share what makes sense to me right now.

      Anyway, good thoughts. Sounds like you’ve chosen a sensible way of looking at food.

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