Low Carb Lessons from Aboriginal Cultures

My journey in learning about myself has meant endless hours of reading everything and then, reading some more. It has given me many “aha” moments and helped me understand so much more about what a low carb life really means.

Here is an excerpt from book THE ART AND SCIENCE OF LOW CARBOHYDRATE LIVING, co-authored by Jeff S. Volek, PhD, RD, and Stephen D. Phinney, MD, PhD, discussing what we have learned today from our past.

The last few decades have yielded a lot of scientific knowledge about low carbohydrate diets, but in the few thousand millennia preceding the development of modern science, our hunting and herding ancestors solved the practical problems needed to live and function well with a minimal carbohydrate intake. They didn’t need to know how it worked, just that it did. Successful dietary practices were integrated into their cultures and passed along across generations.

But as these traditional cultures were overwhelmed and replaced by agriculture, much of this hard-won knowledge has been lost. This is unfortunate, given the potential value that low carbohydrate diets offer us, particularly in the management of diseases associated with insulin resistance. So let us summarize three lessons plucked from a few of those cultures.

1. First, a well formulated low carbohydrate diet is moderate in protein and higher in fat. People attempting to follow a low carbohydrate diet that is also low in fat will find it unpleasant if not unhealthy and difficult to sustain. Aboriginal cultures knew that the body prefers fat over protein as fuel.

2. Second, the type of fat eaten when most of your energy comes from fat is important. If you are a hunter getting 70-80% of your energy from fat, your dietary fat composition needs to be different from what you would consume if you were a subsistence farmer eating mostly carbohydrates with just 15% of your energy as fat. When fat is used for fuel, the body prefers that the majority of it be provided as mono-unsaturates and saturates. On a low carbohydrate diet appropriately rich in fat, even if only a small proportion of your fat is polyunsaturated, this small fraction times the total amount will still provide enough grams of the essential fatty acids. Because they function like vitamins rather than fuel, for the essential fatty acids, it’s all about dose, not percent. And for omega-6 fats in particular, more is not necessarily better.

3. Third, the body’s metabolism of salt is uniquely different when one is adapted on a low carbohydrate diet. Salt and water are more efficiently excreted, which is a good thing as long as you maintain an adequate minimum sodium intake. Ignore this lesson and you are likely to suffer the completely avoidable problems of headache, fatigue, weakness, and constipation – maladies that any Inuit healer would have promptly resolved by giving you a bowl or meat broth.


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