Why Pointing the Finger at Carbs is Missing the Point – Part 2

Filed under: General Health, Nutrition

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

The Story of the Kitavans

I want to highlight one more culture that I think disproves once and for all the notion that somehow carbohydrates in and of themselves are causing all of our health problems today – The Kitavans.

The Kitavans are an isolated people in the Melanesian islands, and they were studied in multiple ways by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg and company.

Their diet consists primarily of starchy tubers (yam, sweet potato, taro and cassava), fruit, vegetables, coconut and fish, in descending order of calories. This provides them an estimated 69% of their 2,200 daily calories from carbohydrates, 21% from fat (17% of total cals are from saturated fat, mostly from coconut), and 10% from protein.

Due to their high fish consumption and no industrial vegetable oils, they have an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1:2. Compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD), their intake is high in carbs, and definitely high in saturated fat, though low in total fat and protein.

Other interesting facts about the Kitavans: as a whole they have a moderately high activity level, 75% of them smoke, and life expectancy at birth is estimated to be 45 years (including infant mortality), with life expectancy once you reach age 50 to be another 25 years! This is remarkable considering their almost complete lack of access to modern medicine.

Interviewing the Kitavans, and performing electrocardiograms, Dr. Lindeberg found that heart disease and stroke are absent or exceedingly rare in this population. They are completely unfamiliar with the signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and the lack of these diseases was confirmed with their excellent ECG’s.

The same goes for dementia and cancer as they are completely unaware of the signs and symptoms of these diseases.

Due to these findings, the researchers analyzed other cardiovascular risk factors – overweight, hypertension, blood lipids and fasting insulin.

Here is what they found:

  • Adult male Kitavans have a BMI of 22 that decreases with age. The average American has a BMI of 28!
  • Kitavan men had serum total cholesterol of about 174 mg/dL that does not change with age.
  • The women on the other hand had serum total cholesterol of 247 mg/dL, yet they did not have any heart disease.
  • Kitavans also have low blood pressure that rises modestly with age.
  • Young Kitavan men had a fasting serum insulin level of 3.9 uIU/mL and young Kitavan women had a fasting level of 3.5 uIU/mL. These numbers stayed relatively stable with age, with men and women aged 60-74 having an average fasting insulin of 3.5 uIU/mL.
  • The average fasting insulin level in the US? 8.8 uIU/mL for men and 8.4 uIU/mL for women!

Does it look like their high-carbohydrate (and high saturated fat) diet is killing them? It certainly isn’t giving them heart disease or diabetes.

In Summary

These cultures subsisted on large amounts of carbohydrates without any of the diseases of civilization. I feel this clearly shows that even a life-long high-carbohydrate diet does not necessarily lead to elevated fasting glucose or insulin, overweight, diabetes, cancer or heart disease. So please tell me again how carbohydrates in general are the problem?


Having said of all that, and while I firmly believe that carbohydrates as a whole are not a problem, I do think that the influx of sugar and refined carbohydrates from processed food into the SAD (and the resulting displacement of real, whole, minimally processed foods) has been a main cause of the drastic increase in the “diseases of civilization.” However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Unless you already have metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, or diabetes, carbohydrates from real, whole, minimally processed foods in reasonable amounts will not be a detriment to your health. While I wouldn’t get 74% of your calories from potatoes (or any one food for that matter), quality carbohydrates can certainly be a healthful part of just about anyone’s diet. So go ahead and enjoy that sweet potato with your salmon or some sprouted-grain toast with your eggs and know that you are actually improving your health, not destroying it.

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Posted on October 12th, 2011 by Brian St. Pierre


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