We’ve all heard it time and time again – of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) , our bodies prefer to burn carbs for energy. You can find that fact in medical textbooks, nutrition articles and just about anywhere else that you look. It’s pretty much accepted by everyone without any controversy.
The only problem is that it isn’t true.
So, if it’s not true, how has this idea managed to gain soooooo much traction? I mean you hear more about carbs being the body’s preferred fuel source than you do about Brangelina adopting little African children. What gives? The reason that this idea has gained momentum is because of some observations that have been made about the way the body handles each macronutrient when the body has all three of them. The observation is this: When all three macronutrients are available, the first thing to get metabolized are carbohydrates. From that, people made a pretty big leap in logic. They assumed that since the body burned the carbs first, it must prefer the carbs over the other macronutrients. But that would be like saying that a parent changes their child’s dirty diaper before dressing them because they prefer changing dirty diapers. When in truth, they change the dirty diaper first because it’s full of… well, you know.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking… How can I be so brazen as to buck the medical establishment like this. The whole army can’t be out of step and all of that, right? Well let’s see if I can get you to walk on the dark-side with me. Picture me, if you would, standing here mixing a martini with the cool calm of James Bond (shaken, not stirred) while I prepare my argument. And while you’re envisioning this, I want you to imagine a somewhat smug look on my face – the look of a man who knows he will win the argument even before it begins. How can I be so sure? Simple, I have a silver bullet.
What’s the silver bullet? Alcohol.
Alcohol has sometimes been called the fourth “macronutrient” as it is metabolized completely differently than carbs, proteins or fats. Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for both protein and carbohydrate and 9 for fat. If you give the body all four substances at once (Alcohol, carbs, protein and fat) it will preferentially burn off the alcohol first, then the carbs, then the fat and protein. Does this mean that the body “prefers” alcohol? While I’m sure that all you party animals are thinking “Yes! Yes!”, as Cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol related fatalities will attest, alcohol is toxic. (Now picture me setting the martini down like it’s radioactive – and my liver cheering.)
Since we can all agree that alcohol is toxic, we can safely assume that the body doesn’t burn it first because it prefers it. Rather, it burns it first because your body knows that it has to handle the most toxic substance first. Now, armed with that information, re-ask the question of whether the body burns carbs before proteins and fat because it’s preferred or because it’s toxic. If you’re unsure, to further help you decide, chew on this – alcohol is often called a “super carb”. Also consider that you NEED protein and fat to survive. But you do NOT need carbs to survive. (Is that a smoking gun I see?)
So, if you don’t need carbs to survive, and in their “super” form they are toxic (even in small amounts), it becomes pretty difficult to believe that the body prefers them. (Now picture me taking the donut out of your hand like it’s radioactive.)
Still need more convincing? Just think about how OBSESSIVELY the body controls the amount of sugar it allows in the bloodstream. The average person has about 1,000 teaspoons of blood in their bodies. And in all that blood, the body will only allow A SINGLE teaspoon of sugar to be dispersed throughout. A mere one tenth of one percent. In fact, if you overload your body with carbs for long enough and end up diabetic, the only difference between you and a non-diabetic person is an additional ¼ of a teaspoon of sugar dispersed in your blood. (read my blog article You’re only 1/4 of a teaspoon of sugar away from being Diabetic. Seriously.) Any more than that and you are in serious trouble. Compare that to the huge amounts of protein and fat in your blood and you begin to see that as far as the body is concerned, not only are carbs NOT the body’s preferred fuel source as is so often stated, but instead potential poisons that have to be carefully handled.
In my opinion, James Bond would have seemed even cooler if he’d been sipping a diet soda rather than killing himself slowly with a glass full of “super carbs”. But that’s just me.