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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