A short history of refined carbs

Looking at high energy carbohydrates from an evolutionary, disease, sports and science perspective.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”

Ancestral Health

Global cooling around the last modern ice age, 2.5 million years ago, meant early humans found fruits and vegetables scarcer to find and helped bring about the adaption of hunting and gathering, which more than anything else evolved our bodies via natural selection to be the way they are today. Archaeology shows early humans learnt to control fire about one million years ago and cooking sites appear frequently around 400,000 years ago. Cooking food enabled us to obtain enough energy to evolve our uniquely large brains and distinguish ourselves from other species through intelligence.

Fossil records show hunter-gatherers were tall, healthy, with little tooth decay and when not killed by another human or animal had a good chance of living into their 7th decade. Just 200,000 years ago modern humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, eating wild animals for fat and protein with staples of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The human genome has changed little since, instead Cultural Evolution has taken over as the dominant factor of change.

Hunter-gatherer societies have very different diets from one another, far Northern climates naturally get less fruit and vegetables during winter months and traditionally survive on a more animal and fish based diet, think of the Inuit who are healthy living on almost exclusively fish and animals. What they have in common is not containing processed food, sugar or high-energy farmed cereal grains that form the basis of a lot of the modern human diet.

Agricultural Revolution

Funnily some theories suggest we started farming primarily to get a reliable source of alcohol to get drunk, either way it was only 12,000 years ago that we started eating grains in any quantity, with the result of reduced height, a fatter, more sickly lifestyle and shorter lifespan. Although dying younger was not purely due to diet, other factors such as famine and disease from farming animals were also components.

In ancient Egypt people ate similar food to the recommended ‘Mediterranean diet’ of whole-wheat bread, barley, fruit, vegetables and olive oil but very little meat, (Mediterranean people do not all eat the same food). Analysis of their mummified bodies reveals a lot of sickness, obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and short life expectancy dropping from 40 to 20 years. The Pharaoh’s daughter Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon who died in 1550 BC most likely led a sedentary life with an energy rich diet, a CT scan of her mummified body revealed atherosclerosis or heart disease.

“Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The Industrial Revolution brought about improvements in the quantity and quality of food available to people, it increased childhood life expectancy, made us less sick and probably taller and heavier too.

In 1862 William Banting was an obese London undertaker, his Doctor William Harvey restricted the amount of carbohydrates in his diet and his weight loss was so successful that he published a diary that became very popular and resulted in ‘Banting’ becoming a regular word in English to mean dieting by restricting carbs, but has since been lost from common usage. Banting was the standard way of treating weight loss in all major European and North American medical schools until the end of World War 2.

The dominant Austro/German hormonal model of obesity and insulin production as a result of carbohydrate consumption was largely forgotten after WW2 as America and Britain lead the post wars field of science and were only interested in saving Germany’s nuclear scientists, not its medical ones. The mainstream thinking was now based around the earlier Energy Balance model which treated all calories the same as if the human body was a problem of physics rather than biology.

Industrial Agriculture

Bread and porridge could feed more people and be stored for longer. Throughout the post war period US industrial cereal farming gained greater power in political lobbying. They funded the scientific research they wanted to see and helped hide the studies that didn’t fit with their business model. Heart disease appeared in the 1920s and soared with the post WW1 popularity of smoking, the cereal industry was complicit in promoting the high carbohydrate and vegetable seed oil food fad through manufacturing the fear of saturated fat.

Bad Science

In 1953 Ancel Keys published his famous study purporting to show a relationship between dietary fat, cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. Of 22 countries in the study he cherry picked just 7 that supported his theory, in actual fact there was no correlation at all, nor did he factor in the huge rise in cigarette smoking that coincided with the sudden rise in heart disease. He never actually treated a patient for heart disease and failed to prove causality through randomized clinical trials.

Despite the unproven assertions, criticisms and warnings from respected professionals the 1977 US Senate under Nixon based its dietary recommendations on the discredited science of Ancel Keys, it also boosted the market for US cereal growers.

Around the world people took the American guidelines as the truth without looking critically enough at the evidence. The corresponding high carb, low fat diet with cereal consumption at the base of the nutritional food pyramid has coincided with the dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes since 1980.


Around the same time in 1972 the nutritionist Dr Robert Atkins published his book ‘Diet Revolution’ promoting the idea that carbohydrates, not fats are the cause of obesity. But this clashed with the politics driving dietary advice and he was largely ignored and discredited at the time. But Atkins inspired 3 decades of scientific research through Drs Volek, Phinny and Westman who wrote ‘The new Atkins’, ‘The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate living’ and ‘The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance’ aimed at athletes performing at the highest levels of competition.

A competitive edge leads to success and sports nutrition is often way ahead of the general public, partly due to research but also because many endurance athletes on high carb loading diets, energy gels etc are often the first and most unlikely victims for weight gain, diabetes and ill health.

Today no.1 tennis star Novak Djokovic follows a Paleo diet, the All Blacks NZ Rugby World Champions eat healthy fats and no sugar and the Australian Cricket team also eat low carb, high fat for health and performance reasons. Dr Phil Maffetone is a rare genius sports trainer having used low carbs and fat adaption since the 1970s including coaching Mark Allen to become the greatest triathlete of all time winning 6 Hawaiian Ironman World Championships in the 1990s.


“The diet-heart idea [the notion that saturated fats and cholesterol cause heart disease] is the greatest scientific deception of our times. This idea has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”
George Mann, M.D. co-director of the Framingham Heart Study and one of the greatest nutritionists of the century.

Today important thinkers such as science writer Gary Taubes have investigated and helped us understand the role of calories in the diet and the wrong hypothesis of total cholesterol being bad for us through extensive studies in ‘Good calories, bad calories’ and ‘Why we get fat’.

After developing type 2 diabetes, sports science Professor Tim Noakes the definitive author of carbohydrate loading in his classic book ‘Lore of running’ came to the realisation of the error of his ways. Today Tim Noakes is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the world raising awareness of the dangers of too much carbohydrates in the diet.

Food consists of three macro-nutrients, protein, fats and carbohydrates, two are essential for survival, the third is completely unnecessary as glucose can be made in the liver. Every gram of carb must be burnt immediately as fuel or stored as fat or glycogen, insulin is created in the pancreas to store blood sugar as fat in order to reduce harmful blood sugar levels. Fats and proteins on other hand are essential for building, developing and maintaining the body’s structures and in addition can be used as energy sources by the body.

Due to our genetic make-up all humans have a different degree of insulin resistance or carb intolerance and the more severe the more difficulty the body has in processing carbs. The role of Carbs do not satisfy hunger they stimulate it so an insulin resistant person is always hungry and carbs become a food addiction. A high carb diet eaten for decades by those with insulin resistance inevitably leads to ill health.

It should be noted that many people eat pasta and bread on a daily basis without suffering from runaway obesity, so it’s likely for many of us a certain amount of cereal is ok in our diet. It all depends on how insulin resistant the individual has become. Pasta is traditionally one dish in a several course menu and rarely a meal based on one large bowl of pasta as has become common in the West.

Cholesterol itself is not bad for you, it serves many vital functions in the body and total high cholesterol has no correlation with death, in fact for over 50s there is a correlation between high total cholesterol and a longer life. Studies show small types of LDL cholesterol are getting lodged in inflamed arteries causing arterial damage and so it makes sense to both target the cause of the inflammation in the first place and reduce the amount of smaller LDL particles. It is thought that the high levels of blood sugar and unnatural vegetable seed oils are the cause of this inflammation in the body. A high carbohydrate diet increases the dangerous small LDL cholesterol where as a high fat diet will increase the total cholesterol, but this is not necessarily bad as long as the increase is in HDL and the larger fluffy LDL particles as opposed to the smaller LDL particles.


It’s often said that genetics holds the gun but environment pulls the trigger. Processed food is designed to hook you with a calculated bliss point of sugar, fat and salt. Today with industrial farming and genetically modified high yield cereals the average American eats about 60 kg of wheat per year. The cereal and sugar food industry like the tobacco industry before has grown rich and powerful on the illness of humanity and statins are now a tens of billions dollar industry supporting the failed science of high carb health. Relatively speaking we only started to eat farmed cereals yesterday, yet today we base our nutritional guidelines on them.

To lose weight the body needs to burn its own fat stores and it will only do that when there is no carbohydrate source available. Eating too many refined carbs makes the blood sugar levels rise and fall sharply resulting in hunger soon after and more food consumption, a cycle of carb dependency that makes it impossible to lose weight long term without experiencing strong feelings of hunger. Restricting carbs to low levels and eating fats as the main source of calories means the body adapts to run on fats and will easily switch to burning its own excess fat stores in between meals, particularly for example while sleeping. Thus on a low carb, high fat diet a person is easily able to return to their ideal weight without pangs of hunger or feelings of low energy.

Other animals get sick if given the wrong food and we are no different, we are omnivores and can eat vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds, but should limit cereals, sugar and processed foods. It’s a long delayed return to the way humans are supposed to eat informed by how our ancestors ate, the way most of us eat today is the diet fad invented by industrial food producers.

In short you won’t go amiss cutting down on cereals, particularly wheat. It’s not the same as it was due to modern refining and faster dough fermentation. Wheat acts like sugar in the bloodstream, so if you are struggling with a belly it’s a good one to miss. Rye is less harmful for both gluten and blood sugar, but not ideal either. Traditional bread making using stone-ground & sour-dough are healthier alternatives.

Today there is a great deal of research in relation to carbohydrate and gluten and how the root of many modern diseases stem from obesity, inflammation and the mismatch with our Paleolithic genes. Warning signs are appearing from leading intellectuals about what might be discovered in relation to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, allergies, alzheimer’s, dementia, ADHD and cancer.

In a warming world with ever limited resources the implications are profound and difficult to predict. How do we afford the health care for a population living longer but suffering more from morbid illness originating from diet and lifestyle and how do we fix a modern medicine that treats symptoms over prevention. The countries that solve these problems are the ones that will most likely prosper.

More information

‘The story of the Human body: Evolution, Health and Disease’ by Daniel E. Lieberman

Dr Michael Eades: Obesity in Ancient Egypt

Collection of best talks from around the internet on LCHF curated by Professor Tim Noakes

‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre

The Art and Science of low carbohydrates

‘Grain Brain’ by David Perlmutter

Fat Head documentary

Doctor Aseem Malhotra, Honorary Consultant Cardiologist

Dr Wolfson: The Paleo Cardiologist

Mark’s daily apple, Primal living in the Modern World

Chris Kresser: Ancestral health and paleo nutrition

Robb Wolf: The paleo solution

Dr John Briffa, natural medicine

Dr Mercola, natural medicine

Phil Maffetone sports trainer

Cereal Killers movie

Run on fat movie