Do You Need Carb-Ups?
I had the great opportunity to speak at Low Carb USA in San Diego this past July. I was also on a Women’s Panel that discussed if keto was different for men versus women. One of the questions was, “What about Carb-Ups? Do women need to carb-up for hormones?” I was on the panel with the top doctors and experts and we all agreed that there is no science to this. When it came to my time to comment I stated, “There are essential fatty acids, there are essential amino acids (protein), there are no essential carbohydrates. Cholesterol makes healthy hormones, carbohydrates do not. When women start having thyroid issues or hair loss, it is lack of protein and focusing too much on fat bombs or bulletproof coffee rather than eating protein.”
A ketogenic lifestyle has many benefits of health and healing. But there are some in the ketogenic community that believe you need to add carbs or do a “carb-up”, especially woman at certain times of the month for hormone support. Let’s take a look at the science to see what it tells us.
Top 5 Myths That You Need Carbs:
1. You Need Carbs to Make Serotonin
Serotonin is primarily produced within the occipital lobe, the area of the brain that regulates sight, serotonin is associated with mood, ambition, decision making and the ability to experience pleasure. Low levels of this brain chemical can cause psychological symptoms like depression, impulsiveness, shortsightedness or aggressiveness. Serotonin comes from our gut! You need a healthy gut to make serotonin. Eating primarily meats will help the gut heal. Fiber is menace and many studies have confirmed that a high fiber is harmful for intestinal health and you become dependent on the irritant that fiber is to the gut in order to eliminate daily, which causes further damage.
An interesting editorial done by Tan and Seow-Choen in 2007 refer to insoluble fiber as “the ultimate junk food”, stating “it is neither digestible nor absorbable and therefore devoid of nutrition.” They go on to prove that excess insoluble fiber binds to crucial minerals such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, and iron, inhibiting the absorption of these essential nutrients.
We have also been mistakenly told by our trusted doctors that a high-fiber diet is a great defensive against the change of diverticulitis and IBS. On the contrary, it has been proven that a high-fiber diet decreases gut flora and irritates the lining of the gut; which increases risk of this disease. It has also been found that there is no link between the diverticulitis and intake of a high fat diet or consumption of red meat, which are other factors commonly blamed to cause diverticulitis.
By eliminating all grains, fiber, foods high in histamines, and in many cases dairy, the gut can finally heal and clients find emotional healing.
Case number one, L. Amber O’Hearn. She eats carnivore, zero carbs. She is off all medications if she eliminates all plants. THIS article by Dr. Ede is great for understanding how carnivore can be great for brain health.
Read more on how to increase dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA in my book Secrets to Controlling your Cravings, Weight and Mood. Click HERE to check it out.
2. You Need Carbs for Energy
Check out Zach Bitter, the world record holder for the 100-mile race. On a recent podcast with Craig, they agreed that the vast majority of people, when keto adapted, can work out for up to 2-3 hours without adding any carbs. This applies to about 99.999% of people out there. Only the most elite, like Zach, need some carbs during races because they are breaking world records and doing multiple hours at high intensity. In that case we recommend about 5-10g carbs per hour plus some MCT type oils for fuel. Zach runs sub 7-minute miles for 100 miles! You need fuel for that kind of performance. For everyone else, you don’t need to fuel a workout with anything, especially not carbs.
When you are low in energy it is typically an electrolyte issue. You aren’t getting enough salt, magnesium and potassium and your are getting dehydrated. Since carbohydrates make you retain water, doing a carb up will temporarily ease the issue as you will retain a bunch of water reducing the dehydration and making energy go back up for a while. But it isn’t going to help the root issue, you need more electrolytes when eating low carb. So instead of doing a carb up, just add electrolytes. We suggest shooting for about 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt a day. Some can get away with less, others need more. We have some clients that need 10 grams sodium (about 5 teaspoons salt) to feel their best.
Further proving this point, a Volek and Phinney study of athletes that depleted their glycogen with 3 hour intense workouts had the same levels of muscle glycogen within 24 hours if they added carbs or if they didn’t add any carbs (Study HERE). The body is remarkably good at keep glycogen levels and blood glucose levels at their proper levels without any need for dietary carbohydrates.
3. You Need Carbs for Hormones
You need Cholesterol to make healthy hormones! In most cases carbohydrates are what cause issues with hormones. Many women I see, including myself, suffer from PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and in this case, carbohydrates and caffeine are increasing androgen hormones. The only way to heal PCOS is to steer clear of carbohydrates and caffeine.
I work with one of the top fertility doctors in the country, Dr. Robert Kiltz of CNY Fertility (click HERE to watch a YouTube video with him) and he is so successful because he requires every patient to be on the keto diet. Keto is what is fixing their hormones so they can get pregnant. You do not need carbs for healthy hormones.
Another point given by promoters of carb ups is for thyroid function. This is another myth that Dr. Phinney explains well in THIS article.
“Taking this one step further, why would anyone want to force their thyroid or liver to greater levels of thyroid hormone production by eating lots more carbohydrates? Forcing the pancreas to make more insulin by eating more carbs clearly doesn’t do a lot of good for type 2 diabetics, and we think the same logic applies here for thyroid function.” – Dr Phinney
4. You Need Carbs to Ensure a Healthy Gut Flora
There is also a belief that you need carbs, or fiber specifically, to feed your gut flora and have a healthy gut. But studies have shown that our gut flora can change drastically in just 24 hours. Check out this randomized controlled trial (gold standard of studies) where they took two groups of people and put one on a vegetarian diet and the other on a carnivore diet. What happened to their gut flora was striking. Within 24 hours of ingesting the new diet, the gut flora made a dramatic shift, especially on the carnivore diet. But the types of bacteria (the different strains) stayed the same. You just had more of certain types and less of others. Why is this? Well, it makes sense really. The gut bugs that help digest animal proteins rise and the ones that help digest plants reduce in number. They are all still there, they just change in amounts. And just 1-2 days after returning to a standard diet, they changed back.
This shows how flexible the gut flora is and how it can quickly adapt to what we are eating. Eating carnivore just feeds more of the bugs that love animal proteins and so their population goes up.
Also, plants aren’t the only thing that gives our gut flora food. Plant fiber (cellulose mainly) can feed the gut flora. But lots of fiber can also bulk up the stool causing irritation of the bowels which can lead to other issues (see the Fiber Menace book). And it just isn’t needed. There are lots of animal-based things that can feed the gut flora. Here is a list of “fermentables” or things that feed the gut flora.
As you can see from THIS study, FOS is the highest. FOS is found in very small amounts in some vegetables. But what are the next highest? Animal sources like casein, collagen, glucosamine, chicken cartilage and glucosamine chondroitin. Cellulose (plant fiber) is all the way down at 1.53. I think it’ss clear that the gut flora can thrive on a carnivore diet without any plant fiber.
Another interesting note form the above study on gut flora, they also looked at gene expression in the different diets. One very interesting thing that occurred in the carnivore group but not in the vegetarian group is a large increase in the genes vital for vitamin biosynthesis.
Why would this happen on a carnivore diet and not on a vegetarian diet? The next myth will explain how our bodies are getting a large increase in bio-available vitamins and minerals from the carnivore diet and thus have to up-regulate the genes to synthesize them.
5. You Need Carbs to Ensure You Get All the Nutrients Your Body Needs
This is a common belief that just isn’t true. You can get all the nutrients your body needs and in a more bio-available form, from animal proteins. Animal proteins are the most nutrient dense foods and the nutrients are very bio-available. What does that mean? Here is a good example.
In this study, they looked at absorption of zinc from oysters (a great source for zinc). When the oysters were eaten alone, there was very high absorption of zinc. When eaten with black beans, about 1/3 the amount of zinc got absorbed. When eaten with corn tortillas, no zinc was absorbed. This demonstrates how plants can interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption. One of the culprits is anti-nutrients (see below) like oxalates which can bind to minerals and remover them from the body so they don’t get absorbed.
Fact: All veggies have anti-nutrients. Check out this YouTube Video of Craig. A case for carnivore. So not only are the veggies not the best source of vitamins and minerals, they also come with negatives. Anti-nutrients are compounds that our bodies don’t want and can’t use and can even cause harm in high amounts.
When you look at the vitamins and minerals in animal proteins, you find that, not only are they much more bio-available, they are in much higher amounts. Look at this chart form our book Keto.
As you can see Beef by itself is higher in vitamins and minerals across a wider range then most plants. And Beef Liver, that beats almost anything out there for nutrient density.
Does this mean you should never eat veggies and plants? No, you can enjoy them in moderation if you choose. But don’t look at the veggies as necessary and definitely don’t look at them as a prime source for nutrition. For that, look at animal protein.
Many People Need to Treat Carbs Like an Addiction
I have many clients that are former alcoholics. Many times when people cut alcohol, it is replaced with sugar. On one of our Sunday support group meetings, a question on adding carbs came up. The best response was from another participant. “I treat adding carbs, like I do alcohol. I can’t add vodka on Fridays and be sober. If I add in any carbs, even sweet potatoes, my cravings get a hold of me and I start craving sugar.”
Carbs are a slippery slope. Most of my clients admit they have food addictions. Cutting carbs out of their life is important to keep them free from addiction.
It isn’t an overnight process to be truly Keto adapted. It takes time to teach your body that you are no longer going to use carbs for energy. However, if you keep adding carbs, even “healthy” carbs, you are never going to teach your body to be an efficient fat burner. And the more time you spend in that “in-between” state, the more muscle you will lose. If the body thinks it is a glucose burner, when the carbs go away again it will spend some time trying to get more glucose. With none coming in the diet anymore, it taps muscle to make more glucose (gluconeogenesis).
If I get any extra carbs, my energy tanks. I am the energizer bunny! On less than 10g carbs a day, I can run, lift weights, bike, hike… my body thrives on fat as my energy source. I once ate something that had carbs and sugar in it without my knowledge. I could barely walk. My energy was so low, I was going to go to the doctor until I was informed that I ate sugar without realizing it.
We have so many clients that say, “I was just going to eat one cookie” and it ended up being 6 months or a year of bad eating. If you have metabolic syndrome from years or decades of eating high carbs and sugary foods, most people have to treat it like an addiction to prevent falling back into old patterns.
PCOS. Adding carbs can cause more hormone imbalance.
It wasn’t an overnight process, I’ve been eating basically zero carbs for 20 years now, but I need no carbs for energy! Adding carbs causes hormone imbalances for me and my PCOS symptoms come back and they come back FAST! Eating keto has eliminated my IBS and you do NOT need fiber for a healthy gut flora! I get my nutrients from grass-fed beef and organ meat. When I started 20 years ago, I didn’t lose weight at first, but my depression was gone and that alone helped me stay on this lifestyle! If I add carbs, my energy TANKS because I have trained my body to use fat for fuel; I am truly keto adapted! If I add carbs, I crave more and more sugar! I once was the PICKIEST eater and ate nothing but junk, but your pallet WILL change if you give it time! My body now craves BEEF! I once despised exercise and I now CRAVE movement!
In summary, I think this chart says it all. There are no essential carbohydrates. The body can function perfectly, and many times better, without any dietary carbohydrates. Does this mean you have to avoid all carbs? No, some people can thrive having low carb veggies, leafy greens, etc. But the idea that you need to add carbs or Carb Up is not backed by any good science.
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I truly enjoyed reading this very informative article. It gave me greater insight into the carnivore way of eating and adapting my body to be a fat burner. Thank you for all you do to help and inform people.
Thanks for this article. I’d love to hear more research about hormones and no need for carb ups beyond the PCOS items you mentioned, to provide more clarity for us with estrogen dominance, endometriosis or even a balanced sexual hormone individual.
I talk about it in detail in the ebook linked above. 🙂
Excellent article! Thank You!!!
What about activating the mTOR pathway with eating too much meat?
That isn’t really a big concern. mTOR is what keeps you from losing muscle. It is about quality of life. Do you want to be frail and weak when you are old or strong and active? Getting enough protein every day will help you to stay strong.
Maria there is a MD that says post menopausal woman need the carb up days for hormone issues as well. Of course I questioned and then this popped up on Facebook (can you say karma) and However does the above ebook discuss menopause as well?
Actually, we talk about menopause more in our Keto book. 🙂
I actually had my first completely pain free cycle right after going Carnivore. My cramps were significantly reduced on Keto, but they are completely gone on Carnivore.
I believe I may have had PCOS or at the very least the beginning stages of it before beginning my Keto journey. That is scary to think about because I was 15. Now I am 20 and I never thought I’d be eating only meat, animal products, and loving it.
Such a great/educational article. Thank you!
Hi Maria! I commented July 31 on another post regarding PCOS, seizures, and hyperparathyroidism issues. Sadly got bad report yesterday from my tests.
I just wanted to thank you for answering me back so quickly! At this time with the medical bills insurance doesn’t cover I can’t purchase the plan but I am determined to keep following Keto because I do feel a difference. I hope I can continue to heal and my test will come back better in the next round of testing.
It’s funny doctors think eating moderate protein is bad for those with osteopenia or osteoporosis because of the phosphorus found in meat. Oh I also loved your post on calcium regarding you don’t recommend it. Clearly me taking it all these years hasn’t helped at all! I think doctors are clueless about nutrition. I am adding the vitamins you recommended on a post about bone health. Can’t wait to see the results.
Thanks for writing great books, fantastic posts and giving amazing lectures.
Great article! I have been trying carnivore for about four weeks for digestive issues and blood sugar regulation. Blood sugar is now in awesome ranges but have developed insomnia and constipation as well as having trouble balancing electrolytes! I always read and hear that these things improve not get worse. Thoughts? Many thanks!!
Everyone is different with electrolytes. Have to find you best spot. But 2 1/2 teaspoons salt is a good goal. For sleep, it could be low progesterone. Adding Emu oil 3 times a day and progest cream before bed can help.
I have been off and on keto for a few years. I’m being absolutely on and committed now so I can lose weight, regulate bs and BP. It needs to be my woe for life. I’m type 2 diabetic. Many years ago I went on the Stillman diet which is pretty much carnivore if I remember correctly. After a time I had uncontrolled diarrhea. I’m not a big vegetable eater so it was and is easy for me. But now if I eat ham and cheese rolled up I get uncontrolled diarrhea for about 16 hours. I had keto pancakes this morning to try to plug myself up -lol- what is going wrong?
I would try adding digestive enzymes to help with digestion. And if eating any MCT oil, stop that. 🙂