If you look at articles about East Asian countries in issues of National Geographic from the early 20th century, you will notice two things. One is that many of the people in East Asia were eating a lot of white rice. The other is that only the rich people and the sumo wrestlers were overweight. That’s because the rich people and the sumo wrestlers were eating something besides rice and vegetables.
Lately, many people have been claiming that fish is health food. The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association urge people to eat fish. Yet if people follow that advice, they’ll still be at risk for heart disease and diabetes and they might increase their risk for cancer. The omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil can end up in the fatty deposits that clog people’s arteries. Like other fats, they promote insulin resistance. Also, eating too much omega 3 fatty acid could promote cancer by suppressing the immune system.
Why do the people of the United States keep getting fatter and sicker? One reason is that our federal government is using our tax dollars to make bad food cheap, instead of making good food affordable. It doesn’t have to be that way. Congress could decide to stop subsidizing the production of meat, dairy products, and refined sugars and instead subsidize the production and distribution of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. On July 28, 2011, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine issued a report explaining how Congress could go about doing that.
On a recent trip to Ohio, I saw the effects of our current agricultural subsidies personally. I saw field after field of corn and soybeans and alfalfa that were being grown to feed farm animals. I saw hardly any agricultural land dedicated to growing plant-based food for human beings to eat. I saw hundreds of fast food outlets, but only the occasional produce stand. So it should come as no surprise that more than a quarter of the adults in Ohio are obese.
Lately, many nutrition gurus have been trying to tell me that eating a diet with a low glycemic index is the secret to losing weight. But if that were true, then carrots would be more fattening than fudge is.
Unfortunately, the glycemic index is being used to steer people away from the sort of food that can really help them lose weight and control their blood sugar: unrefined starches and vegetables. If you survey the world’s populations, you’ll find that the people who are eating diets based on unrefined starches and vegetables have low risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer—even though the glycemic index of their diet is high. In contrast, the people who are eating the most fat and protein—both of which tend to decrease the glycemic index of a meal—are the ones who are getting fat and sick.
The glycemic index was originally developed to fine-tune the system of carbohydrate exchanges that people with type 1 diabetes use to calculate how much insulin they will need to inject after a meal . The glycemic index measures the effect that 50 grams of carbs from any given food has on your blood sugar. For example, if you ate 50 grams of carbohydrate from beans, your blood sugar wouldn’t go as high as if you ate 50 grams of carbohydrate from potatoes instead. In other words, beans have a lower glycemic index than potatoes do.
Like potatoes, carrots have a high glycemic index. However, you’d have to eat about 4 cups of shredded carrot to get 50 grams of carbohydrate. Thus, if you ate just one carrot, it would have only a small effect on your blood sugar. To correct for this problem, some people use the glycemic load, which is the glycemic index multiplied by the total amount of carbohydrate in the food.
The glycemic index and glycemic load are of surprisingly little value to dieters. One reason is that the glycemic index of any given food is so hard to predict. For example, you could increase the glycemic index of a potato by mashing it. Then, you could decrease the glycemic index of the mashed potato by adding milk and butter. Fats and proteins tend to decrease the glycemic index of a food. Although adding butter to a food decreases the food’s glycemic index, the butter does not make the food less fattening!
Even if you eat a meal that has a high glycemic load, that doesn’t mean that your blood sugar is going to go dangerously high. It all depends on your insulin sensitivity. People who habitually eat a low-fat, starchy diet tend to have much smaller blood sugar swings than people who eat a high-fat, low-carb diet. Scientists have known that fact since the 1930s! In fact, a diet based on high-glycemic-load vegetables and unrefined starches can restore the body’s insulin sensitivity, thus curing type 2 diabetes, within a matter of weeks.
- Jenkins DJ, Wolever TM, Taylor RH et al. Glycemic index of foods: a physiological basis for carbohydrate exchange. Am J Clin Nutr 1981;34:362-366. http://www.ajcn.org/content/34/3/362.long
Note: For more information about the control of weight and blood sugar, see my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2.
Here’s an interesting article about the Pima Indians of Arizona.
For about 2000 years, the Pima had been growing corn, beans, and squash on irrigated land in Arizona. As a result, their traditional diet was high in starch and fiber and low in fat (~15% by calorie). After white settlers diverted the Pima’s irrigation water, the Pima had to fall back on the lard, sugar, and white flour supplied to them by the U.S. government. After World War II, the Pima adopted a diet that closely resembles the standard American diet. It is low in fiber and gets about 40% of its calories from fat. As a result, they have horrifically high rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. In contrast, their blood relatives in Mexico who have kept more or less to their traditional diet have relatively low rates of obesity and diabetes.
Some low-carb gurus have tried to twist the Pima’s story into a justification for eating less carbohydrate and more fat. In reality, it provides strong encouragement for people to eat more starch and fiber and a lot less fat.
The Hidden Danger of the “Fat Acceptance” Movement
You know the old saying, “If something is too good to be true….” Well, the “fat acceptance” movement is telling people something that sounds too good to be true. They are insisting that people can be “healthy at any size” and sometimes even that being overweight is healthier than being slim. They’re wrong, and the smarter and more educated people among the “fat acceptance” movement should know better. They “cherry pick” misleading findings from a few studies and ignore a vast scientific literature on the effects of diet on health. Such behavior is sickening, and the advice they give is dangerous.
Here’s the simple truth: excess body fat is only one of the possible bad effects of eating the wrong kind of food. Eating too much fat and too much animal protein can send you to an early grave even if you are thin and exercise a lot. The classic example is Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, a 1977 bestseller that launched the running boom. Fixx had claimed that his grueling exercise regimen, which had enabled him to lose 60 pounds, allowed him to eat as much as he wanted of whatever he wanted. When I read that in his book, I thought, “But what about cholesterol?” So I was saddened, but not surprised, when Fixx dropped dead at age 52 of a heart attack while running. To my disgust, the media reacted to his death by asking whether running was good or bad for you, ignoring the obvious dietary angle to the story.
The simple truth is that eating the wrong kind of food can kill you, even if it doesn’t make you fat. Another simple truth is that you can’t outrun cholesterol. As a member of the high-IQ club Mensa, Fixx should have been smart enough to figure that out before it was too late. Unfortunately, he believed what he wanted to believe, and ate whatever he wanted to eat, and in the end it killed him.
As I mentioned, obesity is only one of the bad effects that is likely to result from eating the standard American diet–not just the heavily processed “junk food” that everyone knows is bad for you, but the meat and dairy products and eggs and fish that the US Department of Agriculture has been encouraging us to eat.
Collectively, the bad effects of eating the standard American diet are called “Western diseases.” This is because medical doctors who had been trained in Europe and the United States were stunned to find that these health problems, which were common back home, were rare to nonexistent in Asia and Africa. Besides overweight and obesity, they include heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, arthritis, varicose veins, multiple sclerosis, etc. etc. etc. Western diseases were (and still are) the major causes of death and disability in the United States and Europe because people there eat too much animal protein and too much fat. These diseases were rare in Asia and Africa because the populations were eating a low-fat, largely plant-based diet. A monumental study of nutritional epidemiology in China (http://www.thechinastudy.com/) showed in detail how closely the consumption of animal protein and fat were linked to many of these diseases. The less animal-based food and fat people ate, the healthier they could be.
The good news is that if you eat the diet that will protect you against the other “Western diseases,” your weight problem will solve itself. People who eat a low-fat (<10% of calories) diet based on unrefined plant foods rapidly become heart-attack-proof (total cholesterol, <150 mg/dL) and can prevent and even reverse many of the other Western diseases. It’s hard to stay fat when you are eating a truly healthy diet. When overweight Americans switch to a low-fat, purely plant-based diet, they lose weight easily without having to count calories or limit their portions. They can eat to their hearts’ content and still stay slim. The “fat acceptance” advocates overlook that obvious fact.
The “fat acceptance” advocates are right that thin does not equal healthy. But they are wrong when they say that you can be healthy at any size. Rather than wasting their time trying to make people feel better about being fat, they should work toward educating people about a truly healthy diet, which will enable people to improve their own health and maintain a desirable weight without feeling hungry. The activists should also use their political clout to improve the nutrition curriculum at medical schools, which has been shown repeatedly over the past 40 years to be inadequate.
On one point, I do agree with the fat acceptance advocates. I think that people should be treated with respect regardless of their size and state of health. However, I feel that overweight people deserve to be told the truth about how their weight affects their health and about how their food choices affect both their health and their weight.