Last month, former editor Gretchen Goswitz tried out a ketogenic diet. After just two weeks of restricting carbohydrates, she dealt with hormonal imbalance. Dr. Kelly Brogan, a holistic women’s health psychiatrist, had a similar experience and now believes healthy carbs are essential to the long-term health of most people, especially women.
I have yet to meet a woman on a long-term, low-carb diet who is loving life. I’m here to explain why I think this may be the case.
While we have, collectively, reacted to the low-fat brainwashing of the past half-century, with a defiant, “Fat rules!” attitude, this zeal may be taking us too far astray. I am passionate about the ancestral diet and everything implied by “going back to our roots”, but I also raise a brow at more rigid interpretations, assumptions, and academic flourishes about true replication of a Paleolithic diet. We’ve relinquished Darwin and redeemed Lamarck, so the truth is that we can evolve (or devolve) within one generation. Adaptations to stress and environmental exposures can change our biology and impact our grandchildren.
Thanks to the work of Weston Price, we may not have to go back as far as the Paleolithic to send the body a signal of safety. As recently as the early 1900s, he found traditional cultures flourishing, many with incorporation of agricultural foods like grains and legumes. That said, we also know that the microbiome plays a powerful role in adaptation to these foods, and that some of our guts may not be up for the challenge.
Back in my self-experimentation days, I spent two months on a carb-restricted diet, kicking starchy veggies, fruit, and grains to the curb. I felt great for two weeks, and not a day after. I felt cloudy, tired, and started obsessing about moisturizer and conditioner. Perhaps this is most relevant for those with a history of compromised thyroid function, but I believe it’s relevant to many women.
I look to the Hadza whose women foster gender-distinct microbial profiles, ostensibly related to their consumption of honey and tubers.
I look to the work of my mentor, Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, who used 10 dietary types, each with dozens of variations, none of which were ketogenic (restrictive of carbs below 100 grams daily to produce ketones as a source of energy). In case after case of long-term survival with metastatic cancers, none of his patients hopped on this integrative oncology bandwagon.
In an effort to better understand our perceived leap into the conscious realm, researchers have posed many theories about the pivotal role of fire and of increased meat consumption. Dr. Karen Hardy posits that, based on archaeological, anthropological, genetic, and physiologic data, it was actually the coevolution of cultural use of fire, cooked starch, and salivary/pancreatic amylase that afforded the brain the capacity for a quantum leap in evolution.
For the past eight years, I have used a moderate-carb ancestral diet in the treatment of depression with astounding results. This diet focuses on tubers as a source of carbohydrate, and, after one month of slate-clearing (microbial shifting), re-incorporates gluten-free grains, white potatoes, and even soaked beans. In addition to providing a form of usable energy, these “cellular starches” (as opposed to flour-based starches which are acellular) may play an important gut-rehabilitating role as microbiota accessible carbohydrates or prebiotics.
More than a prescription, this collective body of research raises awareness around the power of inherited epigenetic adaptation as a concert of our environment, physiology, and cultural practice. There cannot be one diet for everyone, beyond the clear benefits of a transition to a whole food diet. Excluding traditional foods such as fruit, root vegetables, and even grains and beans, can serve an important purpose as an acute therapeutic intervention but is unlikely to result in long-term gut-brain optimization and balance.
Dr. Brogan is a Manhattan-based holistic women’s health psychiatrist and author of the NY Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your Own. Learn more at kellybroganmd.com.