Was Atkins Right? Scientists Say Carbs -- Not Fat -- Are the Biggest Problem with America's Diet

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Niccolo and Donkey
Was Atkins Right? Scientists Say Carbs -- Not Fat -- Are the Biggest Problem with America's Diet


Ed Grist

December 22, 2010


Just in time for the holiday-season blizzard of baked goods comes the news that carbohydrates -- not fat -- are more likely to be responsible for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and the other ills of modern civilization.

The Los Angeles Times has a detailed report on the growing body of scientific evidence that until now has been treated as nutritional poison: Fat is good, carbs are bad.

"The country’s big low-fat message backfired," Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Times . "The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today."

Remember Robert Atkins? He's the guy who was nearly drummed out of the medical profession for proposing that the way to get slim and stay healthy was to eat lots of meat and fat, and abstain from bread and potatoes.

The Atkins diet struck many as pure craziness. But study after study has shown Atkins more right than wrong. Carbohydrates -- meaning plant-derived foods -- have been directly linked with elevated triglycerides (fat) in the blood; suppression of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol; increased production of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) that damage arteries; weight gain and high blood pressure.

Eating carbs triggers insulin, the fat storage hormone. Over-consumption can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.

Put all of these carb-related problems together and you have what medical researchers dub "metabolic syndrome." According to the Times , 25 percent of Americans now exhibit at least three of the major symptoms of the syndrome, which include elevated triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, fat bellies, and high blood pressure.

Now, oversimplification runs both ways. Not all fat is "good": the fat from feedlot beef and factory-farm pork and chicken, which are fed loads of carbohydrates, has a different nutritional profile, higher in heart-disease-linked Omega-6 fatty acids, than those that eat their natural diets and forage on pasture, which are rich in Omega-3s. (The Eat Wild website collects the scientific literature on the differences.) And not all carbs are "bad": complex carbohydrates from whole-plant-based foods cause less of a spike in blood sugar than do refined carbohydrates, i.e. processed foods.

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

I should know: I've lost a ton of weight in my middle age and turned my cholesterol readings around by giving up carbs and embracing a diet heavy in pastured meat, eggs, and cheese. I still enjoy salads and green vegetables out of our garden. But I blow up like a balloon if I try even a little dessert. I can't eat bread. Beer is strictly taboo.

I know it sounds looney, but fat keeps me slim -- or what passes for slim in my universe.

Turns out the only two macro-nutrients essential for human survival are protein and fat. Carbs in the form of grains and sugar are a very recent innovation in evolutionary terms, yet Americans may be consuming twice as much of them as they should, thanks in part to decades of medical advice and food marketing urging us to cut back on fat.

Meanwhile, a growing movement says we should abstain from meat to save the environment. Does this latest science not create a real dilemma for those advocating a more plant-based diet?
What does it mean for our Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which place carbohydrates at the foundation of healthful eating? And what about the orange juice, chocolate milk, and sugary cereals that most schools feed kids for breakfast every morning?

The L.A. Times avoids the question vegetarians everywhere must be asking: what about whole grains and legumes, the bedrock of a thrifty, non-meat diet?

I predict that in 2011, the nutritious-diet wars will shift to implicate spelt and lentils.
"If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes , white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases."

You keep the potatoes out of this!

American's are fairly informed that they must eat healthier and they must exercise more but they just don't care. Carbs will burn if you get off your ass, which in many cases doesn't happen. As long as they have their job which is 40 minutes away and is in a plush chair, and their little gadgets they are happy. The Atkins diet did have some truths to it, but the founder of that diet craze died of a heart attack so obviously it's more than just a meat based thing. Probably would want to limit your red meat weekly.
Its an autistic view of the human body and its metabolic processes. There aren't ''bad'' macronutrients. The fact that people lose weight on ketogenic diets doesn't demonstrate anything really. People who are starving also lose weight, but nobody claims ''food is bad''.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd

When I switched to a low-carb diet, I felt so much better almost immediately (like within ten days or so ie., before I'd lost any weight). I'm not saying its the right choice for everyone, but its a fucking outstanding choice for some people.

My wife has lost 94 pounds since April on a low-carb diet (whereas I've lost about 60 pounds since February). During that time, she's probably been in at least the top five percent among Americans for consumption of bacon and butter. Thus not only does this diet work in terms of letting you lose weight, but you still get to eat things that taste good, and aren't hungry 24/7. You just consume a lot less carbs, which basically means a lot less sugar. I don't know what percentage of the population can benefit from such a diet, but my wife and I are definitely getting healthier this way. Before I went on a low-carb diet, I literally felt like I was dying. And I almost immediately stopped feeling that way, as soon as I cut out the carbs. I would have cut them out a decade ago, if only I'd known the benefits.


I think Thomas has this correct -- I would also go on to say that Americans don't have a 'diet' problem, they have in impulse control problem. Anyone who has actually followed a low carb diet will have noticed a very simple fact -- it completely suppresses your 'normal' appetite. I suspect that the secret of the Atkin's diet wasn't that it was 'healthier' but rather that it was a cheap way of emulating appetite suppressing drugs through diet, in a culture that has a hang up about drugs but not dieting. In other words, it was a culturally acceptable way to achieve a cheap, quackish objective -- make people eat less by inducing a state of unfamiliar appetite cues. I'm not surprised the Jew press picked up on it, and pimped it for all it was worth.

Now, taking a random ignorant fool and suppressing his appetites as a 'medical intervention' is going to have a random effect. Appetite with regard to macronutrients is there for a reason -- to remind you that you need to eat, and what you need to eat. It is screwed up instincts and appetite function that is problematic (what Christians call 'The Fall'), not some failure to follow the latest dieting fad, Atkin's or any other. There is a similar problem with thirst signals (as Ludovici notes in his book on 'care and feeding of your White peasants' or whatever he called it).

In all likelihood, more people didn't die due to the Atkin's diet because it takes a minimal amount of discipline to follow any 'diet' at all, which automatically selects people who might at least be somewhat aware if they start harming themselves, and stop. In an involuntary setting, such as a prison, I would suspect an 'Atkin's trial' would kill off some fraction of the treatment population in short order.

Correct traditional diet for all major ethnic populations was worked out, of course, centuries and even thousands of years ago. All major' religions and all the indegenous ones recommend the same thing -- variety, local adaptation to human needs, and periodic controlled fasting under clerical supervision, with regard to quality and quantity -- not the mono-diets recommended in bookstore best sellers.

Traditional food-ways and fasting practices are designed to be ideal for the vast mass of the population. It is folly and hubris to think modern society has in any way improved on them. In many cases, Science has figured out some connection, and the suggestion is to 'exploit it'. Likely enough, the connection is true and there -- Science is good at that -- but the overall choice is untested and bad. Certainly, it is bad for the mass of humans.

Ascetic training of course requires different dieting practices for the warrior-monk involved in the 'Greater Jihad' or Podvig or whatever his tradition calls it -- controlling diet is indeed a gateway practice to controlling other aspects of normal body/soul complex functioning (including natural appetites). There is no competent praxis in the world that doesn't include dietary discipline in its regimen.

But these popular diets recommended for the masses are pure quakery, and provide an instant diagnosis that the 'elite' hawking them poseurs and fakes.