American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

It was carbs all the time

Posted by Josh Friedlander | 11 Comments

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?
- Brother Can You Spare a Dime. Yip Harburg. 1931.

Back in 1931, people knew that carbs, eaten to excess, would make you fat. It’s common sense. Who thinks they can eat sweets and potatoes and the kind of meal used to fatten up farm animals and that, somehow, this food would make a person lose fat?

The problem came in the 1970s when Harvard researchers, chief among them Jean Mayer (funded by General Mills), ignored all scientific evidence and went with the theory, never fully explored, that dietary fat somehow turned into adipose tissue on the body. This is actually impossible, as I’ve learned reading the exceptional Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book so rigorously researched by science writer Gary Taubes that it kills a number of myths about diet and fat.

I think everyone should read this book and realize that the food pyramid is bunk; that people are sedentary because they are obese, not the other way around, and that overeating can only make you fat when it is overeating of a particular type, because the body seeks to maintain stasis and is a complex mechanism and not a “food bank” in which excess calories are simply deposited into fat cells. Fat accumulation is regulated by insulin which is, in turn, affected dramatically by refined carbohydrates. This book is not meant as a diet book, and reaches no conclusions, except to debunk the notion that “fat in, fat out” is a settled scientific hypothesis, when it has never been accurately tested. The book calls for tests on carbohydrate intake to further establish the more logical conclusion: that some people’s insulin response to carbohydrates is more severe than for others.

If you don’t want to read the book, here’s an excellent presentation by Taubes debunking the myths. Unfortunately, I fear it will be many years before an improperly-trained medical establishment accepts these truths as, if not self evident, than at least correct. The willingness of otherwise intelligent people to believe illogical pap is startling.


11 Responses to “It was carbs all the time”

  1. Jason Ihle
    November 2nd, 2008 @

    Anything eaten to excess will make you fat. Okay, overeating broccoli, spinach and green beans won’t make you obese. I think your stomach would burst first.

    A sensible portion of carbs in your diet is essential as it provides you with necessary energy to do things like, say, move. And I’m not talking about sweets and refined sugars. Eating carbs also has to be accompanied by physical activity to burn off the energy – otherwise it gets stored as fat.

    Sorry, I don’t accept your premise that a sedentary life is the result of obesity and not the other way around. Certainly once overweight or obese levels are reached people become more sedentary. But do you think it’s a coincidence that the wealthier a country gets (meaning the people are working harder and exercising less) the fatter it gets? I posit that it also has a lot to do with people having less time to prepare home-cooked meals which are always less fattening than frozen prepared meals or restaurant meals.

    More than 2 billion people in Asia survive on a diet that consists primarily of white rice. See many obese Asians, do you?

    The Irish survived on a primarily potato diet for a very very long time and didn’t start pushing the overweight and obese limits until the last 15 years – a time frame that coincides with Ireland becoming one of the strongest economies in Europe, surprise surprise!

  2. Josh Friedlander
    November 2nd, 2008 @

    I think you can force feed yourself into obesity, but it wouldn’t be a natural occurrence over a large population, so something else has to be creating the surge in obesity in the united states. Watch the video.

    The Chinese phenomenon is interesting. Since agriculture, human societies have existed off of a few staple crops: wheat, rice, potatoes, corn. Jared Diamond, he of Guns, Germs and Steel, has actually posited that the peoples lucky enough to be born in geographic areas that were best able to sustain the growth of these crops, combined with domesticated animals (and especially large beast of burden, of which there have only ever been 14 used with any permanence), were the societies that have so far dominated recorded history. He also, though not in that book, argues that the carb-centric growth of human population has been sustained by food of greater quantity, but not greater quality, in terms of health. The notion that we need a “balanced diet” is pretty amusing when you consider how humans lived before agriculture. Of course, lifespans were different, but that’s arguably a result of sanitation and medicine, not diet. Diet appears to become much more important to health the longer we live.

  3. Josh Friedlander
    November 2nd, 2008 @

    Also, about exercise, there are no studies showing that exercise will help you lose fat. It burns an insignificant number of calories and causes hunger. Correlation does imply causation, but it’s the reverse of what one would think: thin people who are not storing energy as fat have to expend it somehow and tend to be more active.

    The law of thermodynamics is simplistic if applied to caloric consumption, otherwise starvation would result in fat loss. Starvation actually results in weight loss but the weight is from muscles and organs before adipose tissue is affected: the body fights hard to keep its protective coating of fat. There are also studies showing that force feeding of certain foods won’t result in weight gain equal to the increased number of calories. The body self regulates, either slowing cell metabolism or speeding it up.

    Ultimately, fat gain has to to with hormones, the way that a child doesn’t get taller because he eats more, but is driven to eat more to support a hormonal signal to grow taller. The hormonal signal for weight gain comes from insulin and in some people is especially acute from ingestion of carbohydrates and, in particular, refined sugars. The curse of modern civilization is the proliferation of this crap and it also correlates highly with rates of obesity and make more sense than blaming obesity on cars or television viewing or human behavior when obesity has increased at a far higher rate than any increase in sedentary lifestyles. Then there are the numerous examples of extremely active populations of obese people where the key to their obesity was diet.

  4. The class clown
    November 2nd, 2008 @

    This guy sucks at giving lectures, very boring.

  5. Josh
    November 2nd, 2008 @
  6. Josh Friedlander
    November 2nd, 2008 @

    It took me a while to find this, but it was worth it. The Chinese are growing more obese. Our scientists are blaming fats, less exercise, the usual suspects. The main correlative that the data show is an increase in calories from wheat.

    The post and linked chart doesn’t examine this, but my guess would be that the rice most Northern Chinese grow and consume actually has a low glycemic index, leading to less severe spikes in insulin levels than would result from eating the type of high glycemic sticky rice served in American Chinese restaurants. Moreover, the Chinese recently began growing genetically modified rice, which requires fewer pesticides. This rice may also have a higher GI. Combined with increased consumption of wheat, and increased obesity is not surprising.

    One comment from that post (referencing this data):

    The total amount of carbohydrate didn’t change that much between quintiles of the veg-rich diet, just over 10%. What did change massively was wheat flour consumption: 5-fold between the 1st and 4th quintile! Between the 1st and 4th quintile, the ratio of rice to wheat flour changes from 7.3 to 0.8! It’s replacing rice as their primary source of carbohydrate.

    I think that probably explains the obesity. The veg-rich food pattern had the strongest link with wheat consumption. It’s amazing how obesity seems to follow on the heels of wheat consumption on a cultural level, throughout the world. I believe there’s something unique about wheat that messes up the feedback loops that regulate the bodyweight set-point.

    There’s also the genetic argument, that the Chinese have been eating rice for a long enough time to be used to it, while they have not adapted to wheat, the same way they can’t handle dairy.

  7. Jason Ihle
    November 3rd, 2008 @

    Obviously you’ve read a lot more about this than I ever will because I just don’t care enough about it. And I don’t doubt the science that you note.

    But a couple of things: of course exercise helps weight loss. The calorie burning that occurs during exercise is not the only factor. As you exercise more you build muscle. Muscle burns more calories than fat. Take 2 people each weighing 200 pounds. One is 6′ 4″ and all muscle, the other is 5′ 6″ and mostly fat. The tall muscular guy is going to burn more calories while he’s sleeping, watching TV, sitting in his car than the short fat guy. Tall muscular guy is going to consume more calories daily as well, but chances are his body is going to crave foods that support his healthy body.

    I notice this when I’m training for a marathon – I almost never have the urge to go out for an ice cream or buy a chocolate bar. I attribute this to two things: my body is naturally craving healthier foods; I’m eating more sensibly, i.e., regular meals at normal times of day so I don’t find myself suddenly starving because I skipped breakfast and lunch and the quick fix is McDonald’s (which I tend to do occasionally when I’m not training).

    Moreover, I would argue that while the balanced diet didn’t exist for human beings 10,000 years ago they also didn’t (as you pointed out) live as long, grow as tall, develop truly healthy bodies.

    I don’t doubt there’s a whole lot more to healthy eating than simply saying we need to eat X servings of carbs, X servings of proteins, etc. The key is to identify the right carbs and proteins and vegetables.

    But making blanket statements like “carbs are bad” and “it was carbs all the time” is a load of rubbish. Seriously, no one’s going to get fat eating a lot of raw fruit.

  8. Amy
    November 3rd, 2008 @

    So the big question is – will you (Josh) return to eating hamburger patties with a fork and no bun? You seem to be at a healthy weight from whatever photos you’ve posted this year on Facebook. Why the worry?

  9. Josh
    November 3rd, 2008 @

    No worries, Amy, but I am in weight loss mode now, because I’m pretty heavy. I know I’m heavy, but other people tell me I’m not. Part of that is that with a fattening society, most people feel they are only slightly overweight. There’s a hysterical post on it here.

    I should be about 170. I’m a wee bit (a lot) fatter than that right now. I can blame late night binging and beer.

  10. Josh Friedlander
    November 3rd, 2008 @

    Jason: I think I can make a blanket statement like that. It’s carbs that cause the excess adipose, not fat from steaks or extra vegetables or more lean meat in the diet or just plain ol’ extra calories. Extra calories are not just stored as fat unless the body says to store them. I know you don’t have that much interest, but the video says it all.

  11. Josh Friedlander
    November 3rd, 2008 @

    Awesome short article for those unwilling to watch the “boring” video:

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