Low-Carb Diets Make You Dumber and Slower

by Paul Rogers on October 1, 2008

Photo courtesy Anosmia

Photo courtesy Anosmia

Low-carb diets have had their share of weight loss success; and most of it can be attributed to dietary restriction of food choice. That’s how most restrictive diets work, from low-fat to low-carb and vegan: tell people they can’t eat something that’s clearly identifiable, and they will lose weight because choice is curtailed and they find it easier to eat fewer calories.

The trouble starts when they find they can’t maintain such a restrictive regimen — and then they get discouraged, guilty, and the relapse occurs.

But what if low-carb dieting helped you lose weight for the time being, but actually inhibited your personal performance in day-to-day living? Would you continue with it as a lifestyle choice?

What I’m about to discuss does not necessarily apply to moderately low-carb diets, but mostly to ketogenic diets, in which carbohydrate intake is usually less than 20 percent. Even so, there is a possibility that the effects apply across a continuum of low-carb eating from very low to low.

And those adverse effects? Low-carb makes you think slower and move slower.

Low Carb Makes You Dumber

In a study in 2007 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the cognitive abilities of dieters on a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet with another group of dieters on a high-carb, low-fat diet (HCLF) . Here is what they found:

However, the IT test score (a measure of the speed of visual information processing) was affected by diet composition. The results showed that participants consuming the LCHF had significantly less improvement in the minimum stimulus time required to make a correct response than did those consuming the HCLF diet . . . Our findings are consistent with those of an earlier study in obese women showing that performance of a complex, cognitively demanding task assessing mental flexibility was significantly worse after the consumption of a very-low-energy, low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet than after the consumption of an isocaloric, nonketogenic diet with higher carbohydrate and lower fat content. Similarly, the treatment of young rats with a ketogenic LCHF diet for 1 month resulted in severe cognitive impairment, and a series of rat studies showed that the chronic ingestion of a high-fat diet, in particular a high-saturated-fat diet, can adversely affect cognitive performance.

Low Carb Makes You Slower

In a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2007, a team of investigators measured the fatigue and perceived effort of one group of dieters on a ketogenic low-carb diet and another group on a diet with much higher quantities of carbohydrate. Here’s what they concluded:

These pilot data indicate that ketogenic, low-carbohydrate diets enhance fatigability and can reduce the desire to exercise in free-living individuals.

This is not surprising because athletes know that glucose (and phosphocreatine) supply energy at a rate that supports fast, high-powered activities, whereas fat and ketones can only supply energy at a rate biochemically rapid enough for mostly slower activities.

Evidence from the Paleolithic

Now, you might think that would be a good place to leave this discussion — the evidence is reasonably clear — but just for speculative fun, let’s take a look at our evolutionary pre-history and the diets of emerging Homo sapiens — modern humans — in the Paleolithic period of evolution.

About 800,000 years ago, primates moved out of Africa to the north and into Europe to colder climates. This early pre-human form was called Homo erectus, and this species probably evolved into Homo neanderthalis, the Neanderthals, while erectus lived on as a parallel species.

The curious thing is that a second migration of early humans north from Africa started about 50,000 years ago and spread throughout Europe and beyond. It seems that this smart new species, Homo sapiens or ‘intelligent human’, was much more intelligent than earlier species such as erectus and neanderthalis. As far as evolutionary science can establish, Homo sapiens swept all before it and replaced the Neanderthals and erectus with modern humans throughout the world. The other species were out-competed and did not survive.

Paleo Diets and the Evolution of Power and Intelligence

Enthusiasts of Paleo dieting like to contend that early humans were very healthy on a diet mostly of meat, vegetables and some fruit, but virtually no grains or tubers — that is, a low-carbohydrate diet. However, it’s pretty clear that early humans started to eat grains about 20,000 years ago, perhaps earlier, and, according to Richard Wrangham, Elizabeth Pennisi and others, probably ate tubers well before then. See Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains?

Paleontologists have speculated as to why Homo sapiens so dominated the other species in Europe and beyond as they moved into their territory from 50,000 years ago.

Here’s where I speculate that the burgeoning consumption of carbohydrate foods in the form of tubers and grains in East Africa, the cradle of early humans, fed a growing brain that thrives on glucose. Glucose from carbohydrates supplied abundant energy substrate for the evolving brain to build those complex neural networks that we know provides the complex reasoning capabilities of modern humans.

Carbohydrate foods were abundant in the East African savannah. As Wrangham points out: “Today, there are 40,000 kilograms of tubers per square kilometer in Tanzania’s savanna woodlands.” The book The Lost Crops of Africa, documents the prolific grain resources in this region. It would be unlikely if the evolving Homo sapiens did not take advantage of these abundant food resources at some time.

The Neanderthals, by comparison, most likely had a more limited food supply, relying mostly on meat and some vegetables and fruits in season, and eggs but fewer carbohydrate resources, especially in the cold north.

I think it’s a fair bet that Homo sapiens, as they moved north out of Africa from 50,000 years ago, armed with complex brains fueled by rapidly accessible glucose from carbohydrate food resources, simply out-competed the slower moving and thinking Neanderthals and the remaining Homo erectus. Not only were modern humans smarter, they probably moved faster as well.

The thing is, we can still simulate the best qualities of the diets of our ancestors, which were most likely characterised by being low in saturated fat, high in plant foods and fibre, and with sufficient carbohydrate to keep us out of ketosis and to fuel the powerful movement and activity required for good health and fitness.

High carb. Simply smarter, faster.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 86, No. 3, 580-587, 2007
J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Oct;107(10):1792-6.

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