Is it really the carbohydrates?

If you listen to Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat, and Good Calories, Bad Calories), you would believe that the reason we are fat is because we eat too much carbohydrate, and that the way to solve the problem is to stop eating carbohydrates.

I’m not sure that the facts exist to support Taubes’ thesis. One hole, is that we in North America are fatter than virtually everyone else in the world (32% of men and 35% of women in the US are obese), but we eat less bread than they do. In fact North Americans ate an average of 60 lbs of bread per capita in 2000, which is less than half of what the skinnier Spaniards (15% of men and 21% of women are obese), Danes (no data found), and Germans (20% of men and 21% of women are obese) ate.1,2

So we eat fewer carbohydrates than Europeans do, we are fatter, but it is carbohydrates that are making us fat?

Mr. Taubes takes his theory a step further and suggests that it is the low-fat diet fad that began in the last 30 years that has caused this alleged increase in carbohydrate consumption. But if you look at the data, Americans have actually increased their fat intake more than they have increased their carbohydrate intake. Wait, what? Mr. Taubes, how can this be? You told us we are getting fatter because we are eating too many carbohydrates and not enough fat. But as our girth increases, so does our fat intake.

A report from the Food and Agriculature Organization (FAO) of the United Nations shows that over the past 10 years, American’s have3:
- increased their fat intake by 7%;
- increased their overall calories by 2%; and
- their protein intake has remained the same.

The report does not identify carbohydrate intake, but we can infer from the total calorie, fat and protein intake that the portion of calories from carbohydrates has dropped by 1.5%. This was calculated using the 9/4/4 calories/gram factors for fat, carbohydrate and protein.

I kept looking because I didn’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly, and came across the Statistics Canada publication, Food Statistics 20054. The following table shows changes over time in energy consumption, macronutrients, and types of fat. The percentage column is calculated from the 1976 and 2005 values.

Per capita: 1976 2005 Percent Change
Energy (kcal) 2,316 2,581 11%
Carbohydrate (g) 289 320 11%
Protein (g) 71 74 5%
Fat (g) 86 102 18%
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (g) 40 49 23%
Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (g) 13 20 56%
Saturated fatty acids (g) 28 27 -2%

I will point that Statistics Canada notes that the values in the table should be used with caution because “The data have been adjusted for retail, household, cooking and plate loss”. So we should not jump the gun and drive major policy decisions based on these values. But since the trend is similar to that shown by the FAO, maybe it deserves consideration.

Both the FAO and Statistics Canada show trends of:
- Increase in calories consumed.
- Proportional increase in carbohydrate intake.
- Disproportionately large increase in fat intake.
- Disproportionately small increase in protein intake.

In other words, we are eating more food; and relatively speaking, we are eating more fat, less protein, and about the same amount of carbohydrate as we were 35 years ago. And we are a lot fatter than we were 35 years ago.

That just doesn’t add up to “it’s the carbohydrates”.

How is it that Mr. Taubes’ thesis misses the mark? Because he bases it on outliers. He uses a series of exceptional examples as proof for his approach. But designing a system or validating a thesis with exceptions is not sound science. There exist exceptional circumstances to every working system and every truth. Exceptions are interesting, and their impact should be assessed; but it is incorrect to make them the basis of proof. Not only does Mr. taubes’ thesis miss the mark by defining a nutritional system based on outliers, but he encourages us to repeat the “fat is evil” mistake of the 80s with his “carbohydrates are evil” movement.

That’s right, I think “it’s the fat” is also a flawed approach to nutrition. Just as flawed as “it’s the carbohydrates”. But unlike Mr. Taubes, I don’t believe there is any conspiracy behind it. In fact, I think it was actually a good plan gone wrong. In fact I’m going to share my theory about how low-fat went wrong, but please note that this is merely an idea:

I believe that the non-fat movement may have started as a sound nutritional approach, with the idea being that if you are going to eat junk food, it is best to limit the amount that you eat. Low-fat junk food alternatives can mean that someone who would have eaten 1 cup of chocolate ice cream (500 calories) can instead eat 1 cup of chocolate frozen yogurt (250 calories). This means the overall junk food portion of their energy intake will be 12.5% instead of 25% (based on 2000 calories a day). I think most would agree that that is a good tradeoff (not eating the junk food would be better, of course). Unfortunately this concept was later applied beyond junk food to all foods, where healthy fats were replaced with empty carbohydrates. That is no longer a good trade. I certainly agree that reducing the empty carbohydrates in our diet and increasing the healthy fats and proteins should be part of a healthy nutrition plan.

If the problem is not the carbohydrates, then what is it?

A much simpler answer to the obesity question is that we eat more because we are served more.

National Geographic published a great article on this topic in 2004 called “Why Are We So Fat?”. Serving sizes everywhere from movie theatres to McDonalds have grown exponentially. Everyone over 30 can attest to the truth in that statement.

In addition to serving size, the change in the type of fat we consume is very interesting. We are eating 56% more polyunsatured fat, 23% more monounsaturated fat, and 2% less saturated fat than we used to.

Gary Taubes does talks about the reduction in saturated fat in our diet as a problem. Interestingly, Dr. Andrew Weil proposed this as a problem in his book, Eating Well For Optimum Health. He suggests that our increase in mono and poly unsaturated fats relative to unsaturated fats is causing an imbalance in omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is throwing our system out of balance and leading to our increase in girth. I remember reading this book about 10 years ago (his big white beard on the cover is hard to forget) and thinking that made a lot of sense. Seeing these numbers in the table above is making me think about that again. If you haven’t read that book, you should consider picking it up. It is a good read, although Dr. Weil also points to a series of exceptions to support his theses.

The idea of fat type is also addressed by Dr. John Berardi. Ensuring a relative balance of all of the 3 main fat types is #5 of the Precision Nutrition “10 Habits”.

So what are we to do? What is the one true diet? Is it low fat? Is it low carbohydrate? Is it low calorie? Paleo? Zone? Frequent feedings? Intermittent fasting? Yes, is the answer. And by that, I mean, the One True Diet is the one that you will follow. The truth is that they all work if you follow them. And they all fail if you don’t.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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References:
1. . Maple Leaf foods annual report for 2003, http://library.corporate-ir.net/library/18/189/189491/items/146682/InvestorPresentationApril2003.pdf
2. 2008 data from the International Association for the Study of Obesity, http://www.iaso.org/iotf/obesity/
3. http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-publications/ess-yearbook/ess-yearbook2010/yearbook2010-consumption/en/
4. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/21-020-x/21-020-x2005002-eng.pdf

19 thoughts on “Is it really the carbohydrates?”

  1. Wow! Four references and sheer hypothesis from a personal trainer. Yeah, that’s fantastic reporting. You should have simply stopped writing after, “I’m not sure…”.

    Take a few classes in Biochemistry, read the literature that Gary references extensively at the end of his book. After that, assuming you’re science-minded and accept factual data, you will have a different view of the real facts. In addition, do an honest N=1 experiment yourself with blood work. Blood work results tell the truth.

  2. Again… this study shows that insulin suppression caused weight loss … by (among other things) leading to the subjects craving less food! See:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1490021/

    So you are right – fat is caused by over-eating – which is caused by over-insulin-production – which in turn is caused by the ingestion of simple carbohydrates!

  3. Hi Elsbeth
    You can’t equate the consumption of carbohydrates with the consumption of bread. All American bread is much sweeter (sugar added) than European bread, as are the American versions of soft drinks (Sodas), sauces (like ketchup), fruit yogurts, processed ready meals etc etc. Did you actually see the statistics quoted on the amount of fructose consumed per year by Americans? Also carbohydrates include pasta, rice, noodles, cookies, candies, beer …

    Coming from Europe, and now living in the US, I find that I have to stick to home-cooked food and avoid American breads (except for artisanal, without sugar), processed foods and of course fast foods to avoid putting on weight. There is sugar/HFCS everywhere in American food, and it really messes up insulin and makes people fat.

  4. The question is “outlier” and “mainstream” of what? If you are talking about the all people, then I would agree with you, and judging by Taubes books, so would he.

    The issue is the significantly overweight though. People with impaired insulin function as well as other problems we don’t even fully understand yet are the mainstream of that. Look at the number of people with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome or “pre-diabetes”. Those are just the most extreme forms of this.

    Some people overeat. Some of them get fat, some of them don’t. So you can’t really consider that to be the main issue.

    Taubes does provide quite a lot of evidence for the various points he makes. In “Good Calorie, Bad Calorie” There are more than 40 pages just listing references.

    “carbs cause obesity” is really a simplified version of what he says. He goes into detail about how that happens. If you notice, when he gets into specific foods, it’s mainly all the junk. Most carbs that people eat tend to be white flour and sugars in recent years. The effects he talks about are most extreme with that sort of food.

    Yes I do agree a lot of people broad brush carbs. However I also find fault with people who seem to think you can eat grains with reckless abandon. A lot of people lack the intelligence and background knowledge to fully understand these things.

    People have been trying the “just eat less” approach for years, and that hasn’t worked. Usually they meet with little success and give up out of frustration. But perhaps you don’t mean that.

    If it hadn’t been for the “Americans eat less bread, therefore they eat less carbs” bit at the beginning of your article, I would have been much more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt in many cases. That causes one to read the article expecting a great deal of deception and intellectual dishonesty. It’s usually the sign of someone with an agenda.

    Based on what I know about metabolism and personal experience, myself as well as many other people, I would say this. If someone has so much trouble losing weight that they are going to read books about it, they probably either need to see a psychologist, do some variation of low carb for some period of time, or both.

    Some people can lose weight just not eating processed food. The low quality food with little to no nutrient value. That has a lot to do with the rise in obesity. Taubes doesn’t deny that. His books seem more aimed at debunking the people who want to reduce a shelf of biochemistry books down to a basic math problem.

    What I see you doing is taking the very basic summary of his, and taking it to mean something other than what he explains. He goes into detail explaining what he means by that and how it works. Then you take that crude summary, and act like he never explained what sort of carbs people were eating or anything like that. Your article seems to portray him as stating that all carbs are bad, and the same. You even use the phrase “stop eating carbs” at the beginning. So maybe you weren’t trying to put words in his mouth, but it does kind of look like that.

    For example, if someone made an article about you, based on this article. In it they summarize what you are saying as, “all calories are the same”, and “eat a high carb diet, feel free to eat doughnuts, just eat less calories”, “overeating is the sole cause of obesity”, “the fatter someone is, the less will power they have”.
    So they don’t say those are direct quotes, but that those things are consistent with your point of view. That is the equivalent of what you are doing with Taubes here.

    So when I read your article, those bits of rhetoric, and fallacies you use are big red flags. That causes me to over-analyze what you are saying. So I assume deception and an agenda. It has me viewing your position in the most cynical way possible. So I’m getting “see, all food is the same” out of this, where as your reply to me indicates that’s not what you are saying.

    Honestly though “Why We Get Fat” is just a very much dumbed down version of “Good Calorie, Bad Calorie”. So the latter is meant for people with more knowledge and intelligence, where as the former is marketed to your average idiot, who are by far the majority of the market, which is a very unfortunate fact.

  5. Hi Sonny, I am not sure we will ever get to the point of agreeing about this (which is fine!), but just to clarify a few things:
    - My intention was not actually to have a point-by-point assessment of Taubes’ book, but to address one underlying principle that it is carbohydrates that make us fat. I chose not to address the causation issue that you mentioned, but I also disagree with that. His point that we eat because we are fat is one of the outlier points I’m talking about. This is true for a percentage of the population who have hormonal problems. But the main reason this is faulty is that it assumes people only do what their body tells them to do. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant will tell you that people continue to eat well past the point of being full – and then they order dessert because it looks so good. They overeat because they want to and because it’s readily available; not because their fat cells are begging for more nutrients.
    - I did not mean to oversimplify obesity by suggesting that the size of food we are served is the cause of obesity – my apologies if that is how it came across. Obesity is a very complex problem; and overeating is one contributor. Serving sizes is a contributor to overeating. Now I do actually agree that the situation Taubes notes does exist in the portion of the population who have hormonal/pancreatic malfunction. But I don’t see that as the lion’s share of obesity in North America. In my opinion this is a case where Taubes takes an outlier and applies it as though it was mainstream. I don’t have proof of that, but I will note that neither does he.
    - I also disagree with your straw man statement – Taubes absolutely holds the premise that carbs cause obesity. In fact he repeats it over and over and over, almost making it a mantra. I am arguing that carbs are not the culprit. Not a straw man – but the opposite sides of a coin.
    - You are right, I did not address the microbiology of fat cells. That’s a bit beyond the scope of a simple blog article.
    - To clear something up – I have no issue with carbs. But I do have issue with low-quality foods with minimal nutrient value. Nowhere am I suggesting that all foods are created equal. Those on the anti-carb bandwagon tend to paint whole grains and fruit with the same brush as potato chips and pop tarts. Not true.
    - Honestly, I don’t buy your statement that many people will need the low carb approach. That’s truly the nature of what I’m saying here.

    If you want another, more in-depth, assessment of Taubes’ book, head over here: http://markyoungtrainingsystems.com/2011/05/should-you-buy-why-we-get-fat/

  6. Thanks for the comment, Andy. To your questions – I am actually using 40 years of data; not 10. Why am I using FAO as a source? Why wouldn’t I? I view them as a reputable source. There are some people who don’t finish their meals, but most do. And most of us do eat at home sometimes, but as a society, we eat out much more often than we ever did. If you are interested in nutrition/exercise/obesity, take a look at this debate between Dr. Robert Ross and Dr. Yoni Freedhoff “forks vs feet” – it is interesting stuff (http://blogs.plos.org/obesitypanacea/2011/05/11/forks-vs-feet-watch-the-debate-live-here-starting-at-1155-est-on-may-12/). And shows many more sources that echo that we are both eating more and moving less than we used to.

  7. Taubes showed data from the last 30 years, where as you only post the last 10 years…. And why are you using the FAO as a source…. That organization is for combating world hunger.

    “A much simpler answer to the obesity question is that we eat more because we are served more.” What about the people who don’t finish thier meal, or eat at home. The type of foods that are served at shopping centres and what not are usually high in processed carbs with processed fat (Trans and poly).

    This article is full of fallacies.

  8. I would echo Ken. I would also say the opening of this article is a straw man argument. Or at the very least a gross oversimplification of just one part of what Taubes said.

    His main idea is that causation is assumed in the relation between food intake and obesity. He then lays out evidence for why it is the opposite of the way people ASSUME it is.

    Then in your conclusion you go on to make the same assumption that the overeating causes one to get fat, PLUS you add in that the cause of the overeating is the portions people are served. So all you have done there is double down with the “causation” or “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy.

    The only evidence you provide, is the statistics you use to debunk a position that Taubes doesn’t hold (the straw man).

    Taubes provides evidence for his premise that people are forced to eat more, or expend less energy, due to preferential shuttling of energy to fat stores. Yet you provide no support to the direction you think the cause goes in. It seems to be a completely presupposed idea on your part.

    When discussing Taubes you treat all fats and carbs as equal when presenting your statistics, yet at the bottom, you clearly seem to understand that fat and carbs are not all the same. This is evidenced by your apparent understanding of Dr. Weil and Dr. Berardi.

    So if you wanted to criticize Taubes for not going into much detail on that, that would be perfectly valid. However the impact of that criticism is greatly diminished when you do the same thing yourself, especially as part of a misrepresentation of the aforementioned Mr. Taubes.

    Finally at the end, you make a conclusion that really isn’t supported by your article. They are not all going to work for all people. Many people will actually need the low carb approach, particularly those with impaired insulin function. Where as other people may be able to make just about any of them work. The closest you could come to a blanket conclusion, is simply to say people need to stop eating processed food made almost entirely of sugars and vegetable oil. If you want to look at statistics, you will see there is a strong correlation between eating these two things, and obesity and other diseases of civilization.

  9. Wow – congratulations! I actually think you and I have a similar belief, although it may not seem so. I do think that low-carb is a great option for some people, but not for everyone. Beyond that, I just don’t think that the problem is carbs, and I don’t think the numbers suggest that. You have a great point about the low-fat foods. There’s nothing wrong with fat – in fact, it is essential. And often low-fat foods replace great nutrients with empty carbs. Not good. It’s great to hear that you kept on trying until you found the approach that worked for you – and then stuck to it. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I’ve lost 184 pounds through diet and exercise. I’ve had a bit of success over the years with counting calories, but my greatest success has been the low carb game. After several plateaus, I started Atkins and lost weight easily. Now I’m a fledgling follower of Primal/Paleo, and this ancestral diet makes me feel better than ever. Before I began Primal/Paleo, I did some research on the eating plans, and I learned it’s not carbs in general, but simple carbs.

    It may be true that US citizens consume less bread, but as a nation, we make up for it with sugars. More carbohydrates leads to greater insulin response in the body, which leads to obesity, and then insulin resistance, and then diabetes down the road. People who try to avoid fat end up consuming more carbohydrates. Walk into a super market and go to the dairy section. Pick up a full fat yogurt and look at the nutrional info. Note the carbs and fat. Repeat with a non-fat yogurt. I will also add that I eat less, because my high fat food satisfies me more, which means my food budget goes further.

  11. Love it when people really make sense… and this is it – they will all work, if you follow them!
    Thanks for the read :-)

  12. Hi Ken, my main point of contention with Taubes is that he claims the issue is more carbohydrates stemming from the popularity of low-fat diets, yet we are actually increasing our fat intake at a higher rate than we are increasing our carbohydrate intake. And we are increasing our caloric intake. That doesn’t add up to “it’s the carbs”. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that. It is true that I didn’t provide the examples of his use of outliers for proof. I accept that criticism, although I will say it was more out of desire to limit the length of the article. I did start a review of the book with examples but opted for this article instead. I may still post that review, and I will be sure to include examples. Thanks. I also agree that using quantity of bread as a representative variable for quantity of carb would not cut it were this a peer-reviewed journal. If I were submitting this to a peer-reviewed journal, I assure you I would have done a more in-depth data and literature review. But are you suggesting that is not an interesting comparison? Seeing that, would you think that Europeans eat fewer carbohydrates? I’m going to guess that you agree it’s something that makes you go question the validity of Taubes’ thesis. If not, I’d be curious as to your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  13. Sort of a weakly defended idea in this post. You infer Americans eat less carbohydrates than Europeans from the fact that we eat less bread than the Europeans. That wouldn’t pass any academic review. You also mention Taubes used outliers – but don’t list any. That being your main point of contention with Taubes, you do not back it up with any facts. Your ‘group hug’ in your last paragraph could have come out of a woman’s health magazine.

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