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Maybe We Just Ain’t Got It Right Yet

July 4, 2009

I am currently reading the book called Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Taubes is an award-winning science journalist who was interested in nutrition. He is not a dietician, not a doctor, nor a professional with a PhD, MS or MD after his name, which may upset a few registered dieticians. However, any reader of his work cannot ignore the many points that he repeatedly makes that revolves around this question: Is there truly a simple answer to a majority of Western society’s health pathologies – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gastritis and the like? The answer is: Eliminate flour, white rice and sugar (and its many forms, such as high-fructose corn syrup).  Why? Because our bodies have difficulty controlling insulin’s metabolism of flour, white rice and sugar.

We hear repeatedly in the media that grains and starch are a part of a healthy diet. They are the base of the Food Pyramid for this country and we are supposed to get the greatest amount of this food group per day. Where did this grain-and-starch recommendation come from and based on what evidence?  Were there other studies that said the opposite and they were simply ignored? We know that protein, fat and carbohydrates all create a different hormonal response. Could they have a more dominant role than we admit? Taubes says, “Yes!”

It is his hypothesis that it is the type and amount of carbohydrate consumption that is the root cause for a number of Western society’s disease. Taubes makes it clear that his book is merely a hypothesis. It is not accepted as “fact”, but he makes it clear a lot of research was ignored.  I have not completed the book, but already, I am certainly scratching my head and thinking: Somebody done messed up!

The following are a few quotes of Good Calories Bad Calories that illustrate some research that should not be passed, but pursued.
1.    “Until the 1970s and the beginning of the obesity epidemic, carbohydrates were widely, if not universally, considered fattening. The dietary cause of obesity, as Billat Savarin suggested in 1825, appeared to be ‘the floury and feculent [i.e., starchy] substances which man makes the prime ingredients of his daily nourishment’ and the ‘fecula produces its effects sooner and more surely in conjunction with sugar.’ By the 1960s,…research implied that carbohydrate-rich foods SHOULD be fattening because these are the foods that drive insulin secretion and insulin drives fat accumulation.’
2.    In the book The Natural History of Cancer, with Special Reference to Its Causation and Prevention, published in 1908 by W. Roger Williams, Williams “marched from continent to continent, region to region. In Fiji, for instance, in 1900, among 120,00 aborigines, Melanesians, Polynesians, and ‘Indian coolies,’ there were only two recorded deaths from malignant tumors.” These were meat-and-vegetable populations.
3.    “By the 1950s, malignancies among the Inuit [an indigenous people of the Arctic who eat primarily fat, protein and the available vegetation the Arctic provides] were still considered sufficiently uncommon that local physicians…would publish single case reports when they did appear…..In 1975, a team of Canadian physicians published an analysis of a quarter-century of cancer incidence among Inuit in the western and central Arctic. Though lung and cervical cancer had ‘dramatically increased’ since 1949, they reported, the incidence of breast cancer was still ‘surprisingly low.’ They could not find a single case in an Inuit patient before 1966; they could only find two cases between 1967 and 1974.”
4.    Prior to white flour, there was wholemeal, which contained all of the nutrients and fiber that were removed during the refining process. Eventually, Sir Stanley Davidson and Reginald Passmore praised white flour in their book Human Nutrition and Dietetics (1963) for being “more attractive to the eye”. “It was preferred by bakers for its baking properties, and because it contains less fat than wholemeal flour it is less likely to go rancid and is more easily preserved. Millers preferred it because the leftover bran from refining rice and wheat (as with the molasses left over from refining sugar) could be sold profitably for livestock feed and industrial uses. Nutritionists also argued that white flour had better “digestibility” than whole-meal, because the presence of fiber in the latter prevented the complete digestion of any protein or carbohydrates that were attached. White flour’s low protein, vitamin, and mineral content also made it ‘less liable than whole meal flour to infestation by beetles and the depredation of rodents,’ as Davidson and Passmore wrote.”
5.    “Diabetes seemed very much to be a disease of civilization, absent in isolation populations eating their traditional diets and comparatively common among the privileged classes in those nations in which the rich ate European diets: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, and the Portuguese island of Madeira, among others. “ From 1980 through 2006, the number of Americans with diabetes tripled (from 5.6 million to 16.8 million) – the era of the “low-fat craze”. People aged 65 years or older account for approximately 37% of the population with diabetes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

I have listed a very few number of the examples that Taubes provides in this his book; I am barely scratching the surface of evidence he covers.

However, it appears that in a land of technological advancement as the United States possesses that we need to ask, why are we still dealing with the same problems of over a century ago?

For example, are diabetics living as well as the average American? According to a study out in 2007, men and women with diabetes at age 50 and older appear not to live as long overall, or have as many years without cardiovascular disease, than individuals without diabetes. Individuals with diabetes have an increased risk of illness and death, including double the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Know what? The risks of disease associated with diabetes were true in 1921 when insulin was discovered, and they are true today. But still, the American Diabetics Association still promotes starches and bread for living a heart-healthy lifestyle. So, why do we stay in this rut? Are we helping each other with such recommendations?

Many of the recommendations of today are based on studies that were performed looking at general descriptions of food: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Not which type of protein (animal or plant) versus which type of carbohydrate (maltodextrin, sugar, fructose, or fiber) versus fat (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated or trans fat)…and even some of these sub-categories have more sub-categories.  Wouldn’t it make more sense that with an increase in technology we should review the old data, including specifics within research that seemed to be ignored in the past? Perhaps my questions are already answered, but they seem difficult to find.

Also, many of the old studies use the term “high-fat” while including a relatively high-carbohydrate content (50% carbohydrates, greater than 35% fat). These are the studies that result in signs of disease. However, low-carbohydrate diets continuously show improved blood profiles and improvements in body composition that are superior to high-carbohydrate diets. Taubes suggests, there may be an added benefit of avoiding a number of health-related diseases.

Why did it appear research was ignored? Taubes suggests politics, the press and timing are primary suspects. To a certain level, perhaps it is simply a stubborn refusal to have to change the Food Pyramid. The Food Pyramid was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. It would seem weird if the Department of Agriculture would not endorse its own product – wheat, grain and flour. Imagine if Microsoft endorsed Mac. Paint the picture?

Anyway, I would highly recommend that anybody interested in nutrition should read Good Calories Bad Calories. It questions conventional wisdom that perhaps all we need to do as a society is limit the amount of starch and sugar in our lifestyle and we will be able to achieve a much more healthy physique. Too simple, isn’t it?


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