Why Pointing the Finger at Carbs is Missing the Point – Part 1

Filed under: General Health, Nutrition

In the past 10-15 years or so there has been an ever increasing focus on carbohydrates and the possibility that they are causing so many of the metabolic problems we face today. Problems such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, overweight, obesity, cardiovascular disease and more.

First there was the Atkins craze, which while effective was certainly not an enjoyable diet for the majority of the people on it. This was soon followed by South Beach, which was slightly more enjoyable but still did not provide a sustainable lifestyle. Then came the Paleo movement, eschewing grains, legumes and more, which still seems to be gaining steam and has zealots extolling its virtues to the point of being more like a religion than a diet.

Fueling this fire was Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. While I feel this book was excellent at dispelling the diet-heart hypothesis as the cause of heart disease, its simplistic focus on carbs and insulin as the actual cause of our health problems is short-sighted and incomplete.

This switch from pointing all of the blame at fat, to now pointing all of the blame at carbohydrates is making the same mistake as the diet-heart hypothesis. You are taking health outcomes, which are highly complex issues affected by a huge array of factors, and trying to pin the problem on one element. It just isn’t that simple.

In my mind people need to stop pointing their finger at carbohydrates in general, and definitely stop lumping in real food sources with sugar and refined flour. They are not one and the same. A Puegot and a Maserati are both cars, but no one would classify them as equal.

More often than not these days carbs are being blamed for our health woes. In fact here are some direct quotes from some really smart people that I think are missing the mark, and are simply creating more confusion:

“If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all of the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases,” says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Since when did potatoes get lumped in with refined flour, soda and sugar? Potatoes are real food that have sustained many cultures for thousands of years with nary a problem at all.

One example would be a group of people native to Peru, called the Quechua. They were studied back in the 1960’s, when it was popular to examine traditionally-living cultures. This study found that 74% of their caloric intake came from potatoes, with a total intake of 3,174 calories per day. That is 2,349 calories per day from potatoes alone!

In 2001 they were studied again, and it was found that the average body fat percentage of the men was 16.4%. The women were also found to have average fasting glucose of 68.4 mg/dL. That is a phenomenal number.

Another example of a potato-dependent people are the Aymara. A 2001 study of them found that the prevalence of diabetes in their population was only 1.5%, and prediabetes was only 3.6%. In the US diabetes in people over 20 is 10.7% of the population, with prediabetics making up 25.9% of the population!

Clearly potatoes are not the problem, as these people are not suffering from poor blood sugar control or elevated fasting insulin, despite their high intake of potatoes and carbohydrates. In fact pasta and white rice are not true “problems” either. Italians and Asians both eat plenty of these foods and do not have the same problems as America. In fact Okinawans, some of the healthiest and longest-lived people on the planet consume an average of 2.5 cups of white rice per day. Obviously it is not killing them.

Here is another miss:

“Whether corn is the culprit or not, high fructose corn syrup and corn are the number one calorie providers in the American diet,” says Mike Boyle. If you want to keep your kids healthy a simple thing to do is avoid any item that has high fructose corn syrup in it. Whether high fructose corn syrup is inherently more dangerous than sugar is not the point.”

Ah if only he had stopped there I think he would be mostly spot on, but then Mike makes a critical error in logic.

“Corn is a grain, not a vegetable and, it can now also run your car? Do you really want most of your calories coming from something that can also be a substitute for gasoline?”

I think this is where a lot of confusion comes from. People mistake corn the food for corn the commodity. Corn the food is definitely a cereal grain more than a vegetable, but so what? It is a fine cereal grain and was a dietary staple of Native Americans for thousands of years. Without it the first Pilgrims never would have survived!

Corn the commodity is a different animal entirely. While a ton of processed foods are made from corn substrates, that does not make corn itself a bad food. It simply means that we grow a ton of it, it has a versatile structure and it can be made into a lot of different things. Those commodity corn by-products are not healthful in large quantities, but shouldn’t reflect poorly on corn the food. Again, they are not one and the same.

A lot of things can be converted into substrates to fuel your car: flax oil, palm oil, coconut oil, hemp oil, tallow, lard and more can all be converted into biodiesel. Does that mean that none of these are suitable for human consumption? I think not.

Mike and Walt are two brilliant guys at the top of their respective fields, however they are both making fundamental errors in their assessments of the situation.

To be continued!

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Posted on October 10th, 2011 by Brian St. Pierre

24 Comments

  1. Glenn Says:

    A fine post, sir! ;)

  2. Tim enfield Says:

    A very refreshing post Brian.

  3. I.J. Says:

    Some very good points, and a useful defense of the potato, but I think your objection to Willett’s comment might be a bit tempered by considering (as he surely was) the dominant type of potato dish that the average white bread-eating and sugary beverage-swilling American is eating. Comparing the health effects of the industrial McPotatoes of the largely sedentary American population to traditionally prepared staples in marginal, highly physically active populations is a complex pursuit, and one that an anthropologist would hesistate to undertake without considerable attention to context as well as logic ….

    Looking forward to the next part.

  4. Ryan Andrews Says:

    Solid points. I like it.

  5. Ray Says:

    Brian,

    I agree with what you saying to an extent. Gary Taubes books are great reads and he makes excellent points backed my research. With that being said do I think eating some rice a few days a week post workout is going to make me gain 5 pounds of fat? No. I think the point Taubes was trying to make is that eating white rice is not an issue, eating 4 cups of white rice 7 days a week is. Post-workout is an important time for people to provoke insulin, hence a good time for white rice. As far as Corn is concerned I think Boyle was right too to an extent. Eating an ear of corn a couple days a week with dinner prob isn’t a problem but we consume WAY too much corn. Cornmeal, Corn-starch, canned, creamed, whatever. The corn nowadays is nowhere near what it was when the pilgrims arrived btw. Just like Wheat, it is far from what ancient civilizations consumed…Great post though I emjoy hearing your opinion on this stuff. Keep it coming!

  6. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Glenn, Tim & Ryan,

    Thanks!

    I.J.,

    I agree that context is a huge part of the discussion when it comes to potatoes (and corn for that matter). However it is not like Walt added context by pointing out that it is not the potato itself that is the issue. He simply said potatoes. It is eating it as part of potato skins loaded with bacon and cheese and providing hundreds upon hundreds of calories, or as french fries or potato chips that is the issue sure. But you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Ray,

    Excessive consumption of anything is a problem. The idea that you can only have carbs around training is simply not true. In addition protein stimulates insulin secretion, and some proteins like whey do so to quite a significant degree, which is something that I think a lot of people forget. As for corn, yes we do consume way too much corn, in the form of corn byproducts, but I don’t think people eat too much canned corn, not in my experience anyway. In addition many people then mistakenly believe that they shouldn’t eat any corn because they read information like that and believe that corn is evil. It’s not, it’s a fine food that we just grow too much of and use in too many capacities, but again don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Brian

  7. Ray Says:

    I agree that you can consume carbs at other points of the day I was just making a point that these types of carbs are IDEAL around workouts. Depends on person, goals, etc.

  8. Henry Says:

    Ray,

    I use to think the same thing that carbs should be eaten around workouts or else the insulin spike will shuttle more of it to fat storage than as muscle glycogen. But as Brian said, that is simply not true. It’s more of a concern if a surplus of calories are eaten than time frame of when they are eaten. Also, 4 cups of white rice a week is fine. What is wrong with that exactly if you are maintaining caloric balance?

    But the only ideal thing I can carbs being eaten post workout is refilling glycogen storage asap. But if you are not a long distance athlete competing again in 24 hours, I don’t think it is THAT important.

  9. The Home of BSP Training & Nutrition » Blog Archive » Why Pointing the Finger at Carbs is Missing the Point – Part 2 Says:

    [...] case you missed it, check out Part 1 of this series. Go ahead, I’ll [...]

  10. Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 10/13/11 | Eric Cressey | High Performance Training, Personal Training Says:

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  11. Lisa Says:

    Although I have never had the need to be on a “diet”, I remember the Atkins and South Beach diets clearly. I have also been doing some research on the Paleo diet, which I think has a lot of valid points to it. The only exceptions to it I make for some of my clients who are interested in it, are to add some sort of potato (sweet potato, yam, russet etc) to at least one meal of the day. Its not the potatoes that contributed to their weight gain, but rather their eating of chips, chocolate bars and fast food.

  12. chuck Says:

    i have been doing paleo for almost 5 years now. i have seen recommendations in the paleo world go from carb phobic to accepting of healthy carbs. a lot of it is indivdual based on body comp. and activity. white rice and different potatoes are not shunned like the used to be. i typically maul corn when it is freshly available in the summer with no adverse effects.

  13. Andrew Says:

    Hi,

    Great article overall but I think we should clarify a few points:

    The Potato was probably first developed in Peru where there are over 4000 known varieties. As when talking about wheat, corn, or even meat, we need to acknowledge that food has changed.

    Just as most meat in America has much less in the way of CLA, DHA, EPA, our crops are very different from what our great grand parents ate.

    Certainly, the nutritional profile of a purple Peruvian fingerling potato is not the same as a Russet Burbank.

    When we point to the traditional diets of other culture, let’s be sure we’re comparing the same foods.

  14. Lars Says:

    Brian, a big “thank you” from Norway. In the last couple of weeks, Norway’s two biggest tabloid newspapers have been in a “carb war”, and EVERY day, the front page of one of the two papers have been loaded with something regarding the low carb diet approach. One day there is this guy who stopped eating carbs alltoghether, and magically dropped 60 lbs. Then the other day, there is a story about some woman who supposedly got seriously ill from the low carb diet. The next day: “Carbs are killing your heart!”. The day after that: ” Low-carb will kill your family!”

    Whats especially bad, is that both newspapers are on BOTH sides of the argument!

    People have really lost their mind, and they figure that if they just ditch the food that have been staple in the Norwegian diet since the dawn of time, like whole grain homemade bread, and Norwegian grown potatoes, all their weight and health issues will go away. Funny though, rising obesity did NOT happen because we started eating carbs; we always have. It started when high speed internet, HD-tv, online gaming, fast food, and daily sweets and treats became staple in every persons life.

    Good to read that some people like yourself have kept your sanity. Keep up the good work!

  15. Great Minds Think Alike « Momentum Performance Training Says:

    [...] how carbs, just like fat, are not ALL bad and most importantly not equal in quality. Read Why Pointing The Finger At Carbs Is Missing The Point Part 1 and Part 2 to further reinforce the principles of healthy and performance based nutrition that we [...]

  16. Great Minds Think Alike « Kyle Arsenault Says:

    [...] discusses how carbs, just like fat, are not ALL bad and most importantly not equal in quality. Read Why Pointing The Finger At Carbs Is Missing The Point Part 1 and Part 2 to further reinforce the principles of healthy and performance based nutrition that I [...]

  17. Michael Says:

    Everything has to be in context. Agree with other poster than comparing highly physically active people eating a lot of potatoes to sedentary Americans is not a good compare.

    Also, corn, the one we eat, was the world’s first genetically engineered food. The natives of the Southwest tribes spent hundreds of years developing it. And, oh by the way, Native American’s have one of the highest diabetic rates, so, also probably not a good compare.

    Are white rice and white pasta bad? Are there cultures that eat it in large quantities, but are healthy? sure. But, again, it’s contextual.

    That doesn’t mean it is the same as eating brown rice and whole wheat pasta, nor does it have the same effects on insulin.

    As an insulin resistant person, the amount of misinformation about nutrition is alarming, and its no wonder so many diabetics continue to be challenged by it. Diabetes in children in the US is the fastest growing disease in the US, and was once only a genetic issue, now its a diet issue.

    Is white rice and white flour and potatoes the culprits? No. But they sure are part of the equation and don’t “help.”

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  23. 12.11.13 | Phenomenal CrossFit Says:

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