Can Carbs Help You Live Longer?

New science confirms that a plant-based diet peppered with whole grains and healthy carbohydrates is the winning strategy for mind-body health.

In This Article

New Research on the Risks of a Low-Carb Diet

In 2016 I wrote a book called Eat Wheat, which pushed back against the bias that carbohydrates were somehow the cause of dementia, heart disease, and a whole host of other health concerns.

To make my case, I cited more than 600 scientific studies and numerous follow-up articles suggesting that our intolerance to wheat and other foods is a symptom of a bigger problem. Meaning taking foods out of your diet will only kick the can—or the real problem—down the road.

Recently a handful of large studies published in prestigious journals, including The Lancet and the European Heart Journal, have linked eating low-carbohydrate or keto diets to fairly significant shorter life spans.

In the European Heart Journal study, researchers followed almost 25,000 people for 11 years and found that the group that ate the lowest amount of carbohydrates had a 32 percent increased risk of dying from any cause, a 50 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease, a 51 percent increased risk of dying from a stroke, and a 35 percent increased risk of dying from cancer.

The overall mortality risk was stronger in those study subjects considered non-obese, at 48 percent, compared to those considered obese, who saw only a 19 percent increased risk of mortality.

In The Lancet study, more than 424,000 participants were followed for 25 years. Researchers found that both low-carb diets (with carbs making up less than 40 percent of the diet) and high-carb diets (with carbs accounting for more than 70 percent of the diet) were associated with increased mortality. There was minimal risk of mortality for those who ate a diet made up of 50 percent to 55 percent carbohydrates.

Interestingly, among the folks who ate a low-carb diet, those who chose animal-based protein and fat from sources such a beef, pork, chicken, and lamb had higher mortality rates than those who ate vegetarian-only protein. Those low-carb consumers who chose to eat more plant-based proteins and fats, such as veggies, nuts, peanut butter, and whole grain bread, were associated with lower mortality. This suggests that if you are going to eat a low-carb or keto diet, you should consider making it a plant-based venture, rather than a carnivorous one.

See also Vegan vs Keto vs Ayurveda Diets: The Pros and Cons

One Pandemic After Another

As we get used to living in the COVID era, we are struggling with another pandemic. According to the study in the European Heart Journal, obesity has become a worldwide pandemic that has been directly associated with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.

Heart disease accounts for more than than 17 million deaths each year globally and that number is expected to reach 23 million by 2030. The cause by an overwhelming consensus of doctors and researchers is diet.

While the touted solution is often to avoid carbs and eat a higher-fat or keto diet, more and more research is emerging that suggests diminishing returns when eating a low-carb diet.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that low-carbohydrate diets produced a 4 percent greater weight reduction than conventional diets for the first 3 to 6 months, but after one year, the study subjects gained the weight back.

In 2017, I wrote about the long-term risks of low-carb diets, citing studies studies linking long-term use of a ketogenic diet to arterial stiffness and other side effects including dehydration, gastrointestinal disturbances, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, gastritis, bad breath, and fat intolerance. Long-term use may also increase the risk of osteopenia, renal stones, cardiomyopathy, secondary hypocarnitinemia, and iron-deficiency anemia, according to research.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the risks of eating a keto diet for extended periods of time is an examination of the the Inuit culture in the Arctic Circle. The Inuits are the only community that has access to a naturally occurring ketogenic diet and they express a gene that prevents them from stay in ketogenesis for an extended period of time.

See also The Ketogenic Diet from the Ayurvedic Perspective

Eating with the Seasons

Every spring, natural harvests of carbohydrates decline, suggesting that, at the very least, our early ancestors ate a lower-carb, more ketogenic diet in the late winter and spring. But seasons change and so does the harvest, which provides an abundance of carbohydrates every summer and fall.

Studies of remaining hunter-gatherer tribes have found that their gut microbes change seasonally to accommodate the natural, local harvests: from microbes that digest fat and fiber in the spring to microbes that digest carbs in the summer and fall.  

Nature made sure that in the course of its 365-day nutritional cycle, no one food could be over eaten for any length of time.

Nature, from the Ayurvedic perspective, is about balance and sustainability. And we now have the science to show that there are long-term risks to going against the grain, so to speak, and eating a low-carb or keto diet all-year round.

See also Stanford Study Backs Seasonal Eating for the Healthiest Microbiome

Tips for Reintroducing Carbs

The number one reason for carb intolerance is poor digestion.

To get started, troubleshoot your digestive system with our free Digestion Troubleshooting Guide.

Then you can determine your challenges and the right foods and herbs to strengthen your agni, or digestive fire.

For example, if you are gluten- and dairy-intolerant, start with the easy carbs at the top of my best carb list (below). Also try waiting to introduce them until late summer or fall, when they are harvested, and when your digestive fire generally becomes stronger.

The Best Carbs, From Easy- to Harder-to-Digest

Beets

Carrots

Peas

Winter squash

Sweet Potatoes

White potatoes

Red potatoes

Berries

Lentils – small beans

Gluten free grains: oats, buckwheat, millet, quinoa

Fruits

Yogurt

Beans

All Whole grains – minimally processed or unprocessed

Corn

See also Seasonal Living for Better Health: Ayurveda + Western Science

1 thought on “Can Carbs Help You Live Longer?”

  1. Dr. John always has outstanding insight. So many health experts say to eat low carb, no gluten, no dairy, and it doesn’t make sense. People have eaten gluten and dairy for thousands of years. So, why the epidemic of gluten and lactose intolerance now? The only thing that makes sense is that the modern diet has weakened the digestive fire leaving the body vulnerable to disease. Decades ago I ate garbage, got sick frequently, and had IBS. I started doing the bi-annual Colorado cleanses, cleaned up my eating habits (not perfect, but improved it about 85%), and kept eating wheat and diary. IBS gone. Haven’t had a cold or the flu in YEARS. (Knock on wood that it stays that way for a long while). There’s a lot of change in habit that evolved over years that goes into my statements. I recommend signing up for LifeSpa’s weekly email videos. They’re short, to the point, and give you tips for radically improving your health over time. I’ve learned that getting well is not an overnight thing. It takes a while to get sick, and it takes a while to get well again. It’s a journey into true health, not a prescription pill that masks symptoms.

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