REALITY CHECK
Or, the U.S. government's gingerbread house or The Emperor's New Diet

Note: This writeup is primarily a distillation of reference [1] below. Quotes found herein are from this article unless otherwise noted. Most of the really vicious jabs at the food industry are mine.

THE FAT OF THE LAND

The really amazing thing about the Atkins Diet, and other low-carb diets, is the recognition they've gained in recent years. The AMA once called this diet a "Bizarre regimen". People have been pushing diets which include a minimum of sugar and refined flour for many years now, and been written off as hippies or charlatans, but the overwhelming evidence has been bringing them from the obscurity of disrespect into the limelight of the dieting world. The foods at the base of the dietary pyramid, which is to say the starches, turn out to be our worst enemies.

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of statistical analysis ever performed on behalf of fat people everywhere tells us that "we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic that started around the early 1980's, and that this was coincident with the rise of the low-fat dogma. (Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, also rose significantly through this period.)" While correlation does not in itself imply causation, it can point fingers handily, and modern research backs it up neatly. Obesity in America climbed sharply in the eighties; from around fourteen percent to approximately twenty-two.

Another oddity is that until recently, fat and cholesterol were emphatically proscribed. Forty years ago, novices and physicians alike were noting that Italians were among the heaviest people studied, and their diets are traditionally rich in pasta. Even in the 1970s, the same effect was observed in Africa and the Caribbean. As far back as 1825, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in "The Physiology of Taste" that "floury and feculent substances which man makes the prime ingredients of his daily nourishment" were responsible for obesity -- A conclusion he came to after listening to various "stout parties" wax lyrical on the subjects of bread, rice, and potatoes. Ancel Keys, a University of Minnesota physician will back Jean up on this. In a study of Neapolitans it was found that they ate a little lean meat once or twice a week, and subsisted mainly on bread and pasta. He wrote that "There was no evidence of nutritional deficiency, but the working-class women were fat."

SETTING THE STAGE

The run up on fat began in earnest in 1977, as a Senate committee led by George McGovern declared that Americans should reduce their fat intake to curb disease, in the report "Dietary Goals for the United States". The National Institutes for Health summarily spent several hundred million dollars trying to prove a link between being fat and contracting heart disease -- which failed. On their sixth try, though, they found something they could use to prove that the previous money had not gone to waste; a study showing reducing cholesterol via drug therapy reduced the risk of some kinds of heart disease.

REVELATION

"For a large percentage of the population, perhaps 30 to 40 percent, low-fat diets are counterproductive," says Eleftheria Maratos-Flier, director of obesity research at Harvard's prestigious Joslin Diabetes Center. "They have the paradoxical effect of making people gain weight."

What we now know would seem to turn the pyramid, if not upside down, at least through a significant rotation and subsequent reordering. Unsaturated fats tend to raise the levels of "good" cholesterol -- high-density lipoprotein, or HDL -- while lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. Olive oil is not only not just not so bad for you, it's actually healthy. Of course, it contains saturated fat as well, so as all other foods, it's possible that it should be taken in moderation. However, even saturated fats increase HDL while increasing LDL. In other words, butter your bread with... butter. This is even true of lard. "If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease."

The following excerpt from the article is really what gets me: "...the major trends in American diets since the late 70's, according to the U.S.D.A. agricultural economist Judith Putnam, have been a decrease in the percentage of fat calories and a ``greatly increased consumption of carbohydrates.'' To be precise, annual grain consumption has increased almost 60 pounds per person, and caloric sweeteners (primarily high-fructose corn syrup) by 30 pounds. At the same time, we suddenly began consuming more total calories: now up to 400 more each day since the government started recommending low-fat diets."

Now, to be fair, the food pyramid doesn't say you're supposed to eat like the proverbial pig, and increase our caloric intake so dramatically, but on the other hand we've been told to eat until we're full all of our lives. Fattening carbohydrate-laden snack foods are pushed at us throughout our day via every possible advertising medium. And the government has told us in no uncertain terms that fat is what makes you fat. So we should be able to eat low-fat cookies and crackers all day by that logic, which turns out not to be the case. On the other hand, if you put yourself into ketosis and ate low-to-no carbohydrate foods exclusively, watching only your carbohydrate intake, you could literally eat as much as you wanted and never become obese.

INSULIN

Wow. It's almost as if the government wanted us to be fat. Of course, that's an unfair comment if you're anything less than a complete paranoiac. The AMA really does seem to want what's best for us, though their way of expressing it can be disillusioning at times. Still, it's hard not to feel betrayed. We've fallen into a downward spiral of endocrinology. Look at the picture as it's known today; insulin's main job is the regulation of blood sugar levels. It also regulates the part of the metabolic process which controls fat, which is what the Atkins Diet and other low-carbohydrate diets are predicated upon. When insulin levels are high, or at least over a certain threshold, we burn carbohydrates for energy and store the unused portion as fat. When it's below the line, we burn fat for our fuel.

Now comes the really scary part of the picture: the more fat you have on your body, the more insulin is produced by your pancreas. If you're fat enough for long enough, your brain may actually build up a tolerance to insulin, and you need more of it to control your blood sugar levels. This ensures that as you become fatter, you will tend to store more and more carbohydrates as fat, assuming you're not burning them off with some kind of gainful exercise, as athletes often do.

Furthermore, insulin is also responsible for controlling feelings of hunger. Ever notice how eating starchy snacks can frequently do nothing but make you hungry for more? Bet you can't eat just one! Insulin decreases blood sugar levels as it stores the free carbs as fat, which makes you feel hungry. Eating starches causes a marked increase in insulin levels. This is especially true of the most readily consumed starches, like processed flour and sugar, or other white starches like those found in potatoes. Put in other terms, all of these starches, once consumed, are indistinguishable from simple sugars. You'd never know any of this from a carton of sugar, though -- C&H will be more than happy to inform you on every package of sugar that sugar contains no fat.

On the other hand, digesting fat is a lengthier process than digesting sugar. Carbohydrates often seem as if they were intended for nothing so much as rapid uptake into the bloodstream. The relative difficulty of digesting fat means that you feel full longer.

One hopes that the companies that sell packaged prepared foods have not been long-aware of these issues, as the tobacco companies were aware of the fact that cigarettes were killing people, but you would scarcely think that they could be unaware of the connection between sugar and obesity. All companies of any size do market research beyond simple tabulation of their sales figures, so presumably these companies know that their best customers are obese, and they are able to correlate obesity with ingredients, if such a pattern in fact does exist. Certainly there is evidence to suggest it. Perhaps in twenty years, there will be lawsuits against these corporations. Approximately 30.5 percent of Americans are obese, meaning they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more.

BMI is calculated by dividing a person's body weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared (weight kg height m2) or by using the conversion with pounds (lbs) and inches (in) squared as shown below, This number can be misleading, however, for very muscular people, or for pregnant or lactating women.
from AOA Fact Sheets: What is Obesity?

TIMED RELEASE

The gist is that the longer it takes sugar to break down, the more slowly insulin is produced, and the less the effect on your system is. This is why so-called 'empty calories', or ready carbohydrates, are so insidious. Every little bit of carbs increases insulin production, and when too much of this occurs, your system is thrown farther off its center. At the other end of the spectrum we have dietary fiber, which is a carbohydrate, but is actually nondigestible. This is why the Atkins Diet (and again, other similar diets) counts fiber against the total tally of carbohydrates.

Protein and fat, of course, do not spark off the insulin reaction. As such, replacing the mass of carbohydrates with either one will have a beneficial effect on fat storage, assuming you're trying to avoid it. This benefit vanishes when you're getting too many carbohydrates, however. Simply eating more fat and protein on top of your daily twinkie regimen is not going to save you. A readjustment of your dietary priorities is in order, though perhaps not as drastic as that proposed by Dr. Atkins.

Maybe the hippies were right all along, at least about this diet stuff. Brown rice and stir-fry seems to make a lot more sense these days. The part they missed, though, was the fat. It seems today that far from being harmful, fat is actually an ideal component of a balanced diet which includes a minimum of carbohydrates, especially those readily processed like sugar and white flour.


References:

  1. Gary Taubes, What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?. New York Times online, July 7, 2002. (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/07FAT.html?pagewanted=1)
  2. AOA Fact Sheets: Obesity in the U.S. American Obesity Association, 2002.(http://www.obesity.org/subs/fastfacts/obesity_US.shtml)
  3. AOA Fact Sheets: What is Obesity? American Obesity Association, 2002.(http://www.obesity.org/subs/fastfacts/obesity_what2.shtml)

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