For years, the bestseller lists have been dominated by books urging people to eat plenty of meat and fat but to shun carbohydrates. The Atkins Diet led the parade; but there have been many imitators, such as the Zone, the South Beach Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Dukan Diet. Even some of the vegan-oriented books encourage people to avoid starches. Yet the scientific evidence shows us that human beings are specifically adapted to thrive on a starchy diet. So I was delighted to see that the title of Dr. John McDougall’s latest book is The Starch Solution. He explains something that nutritional epidemiologists and experts on clinical nutrition have known for many years, namely that human beings stay naturally slim and healthy on a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables.
Have you ever seen an obese wild animal? Look at these wildebeests in Krüger National Park in South Africa. There’s no cellulite on their thighs! Wildebeest weigh only 40 pounds at birth, but then they gain weight rapidly. By the time they’re a year old, they weigh about 200 pounds. The females reach a peak weight of about 350 pounds at 4 years of age. The males peak at 500 pounds at 5 years of age. Yet after that, their weight stays remarkably stable. Why do they stop gaining weight? Since they don’t start counting calories or taking step aerobics classes in adulthood, they must have some built-in mechanisms that regulate their weight naturally. Do humans also have in-born weight-control mechanisms? If so, why have so many people been getting so fat lately?
To keep our body weight at a normal level, we are told to engage in unnatural behaviors. We’re told to eat less and move more. Yet wild animals never limit their food portions, and they do only the amount of activity they feel like doing. I think that their secret for staying slim is that they eat the kind of food that is appropriate for their species. If you trapped some wildebeest in a pen and fed them a diet that was much richer in calories than what they ate in the wild, they’d probably get fat. That’s what has happened to human beings in industrialized societies. To cure our weight problems, we need to escape from our cubicles and start eating a more natural diet. Go play outside, and eat low-fat unrefined plant foods instead of eating animals and processed foods.
When you look at populations all over the world, you’ll notice that the people who eat a diet based on unrefined plant foods stay naturally slim and remarkably free of heart disease and diabetes and other chronic diseases. For many generations, most of the world’s population ate like that. Only the rich could afford to eat large servings of rich foods, such as meats and butter and honey, on a regular basis. As a result, only rich people suffered from obesity, gout, and atherosclerosis. Because of agricultural policies, those foods have now become cheap while fresh fruit and vegetables are still relatively expensive. As a result, the “diseases of affluence” are now a particular problem for poor people in the United States.
Photo by h.koppdelaney
Note: In my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2, you can learn more about how a low-fat, high-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet helps people lose weight and reverses their type 2 diabetes.
Most people with type 2 diabetes are at least pleasantly plump, so why do so many severely obese people have no trouble with their blood sugar? I’ve known for decades that unexplained weight loss is a common sign of diabetes. A few years ago, I began to suspect that type 2 diabetes is what happens when one of the body’s natural defenses against further weight gain gets out of control. These suspicions were deepened when I realized that the drugs that are used to treat type 2 diabetes often cause weight gain as a side effect. The drugs are disabling the body’s natural resistance to further weight gain!
This interesting article from Endocrine Reviews argues that in type 2 diabetes, the problems with fat metabolism start long before the person starts having abnormal blood sugar levels. It explains how too much fat in the body and too much fat from the diet could end up causing type 2 diabetes. It explains how eating less and exercising more could solve the underlying problem.
The idea that type 2 diabetes starts off as a problem with fat metabolism makes a lot of sense. It helps to explain something that scientists have known since the 1930s: that you can cause insulin resistance in healthy volunteers by feeding them a high-fat diet for a week. You can restore their insulin sensitivity by feeding them a starchy diet for a week. A switch to a low-fat, high-fiber, high-carbohydrate, purely plant-based diet produces a dramatic improvement in people with type 2 diabetes, even before they have had a chance to lose much weight.
The traditional cure for type 2 diabetes was to eat less and exercise more. A more sensible approach is to start off by eating as much high-fiber, low-fat, plant-based food as you feel like eating. This kind of diet will rapidly correct your insulin resistance. As your insulin resistance improves, you’ll feel more like exercising.
Of course, if you have any major health problem or are taking prescription medications, you need to talk to a registered dietitian and your prescriber before making any major change in diet. You may need to have your dosages adjusted, and you may be able to stop taking some of your prescription medication.
Note: I explain this topic in more detail in my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2
Photo by 95Berlin
Back when I worked at a company that had a cafeteria, I didn’t have to pack my lunch. I could put together a tasty, low-fat salad from the salad bar. If I felt like eating a hot meal, I could get a big plate of food from the “hot” portion of the cafeteria line. The “main dishes” usually included some sort of meat or dairy product, so I’d get the “side dishes” instead.
My usual lunch consisted of “three sides”: usually a starchy side dish such as rice plus two vegetables. I got a big plateful of tasty, zero-cholesterol, low-fat food, and I spent less than the people who ordered the main dish. I can find a satisfying meal at nearly any restaurant, just by ignoring the main dishes and ordering the side dishes instead.
Photo by mack reed (factoid)
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.
Back when I worked in an office, I’d sometimes bring my lunch to work. My lunches were physically much larger than the lunches my coworkers brought, and it took my entire lunch break to eat most of mine. I still had food left over for a snack around 3 pm. So why was I skinnier than most of my coworkers? It’s because my lunch was made of up of low-fat, high-fiber plant foods.
My typical lunch included of a container of rice pilaf or maybe a sandwich with a spicy low-fat bean spread. I’d also have a couple of containers of cut up raw vegetables, such as carrots, cauliflower, celery, or broccoli. Sometimes I’d bring a big container of salad or coleslaw with nonfat dressing. I’d also have a few pieces of fruit, such as some cut-up cantaloupe or some apples or peaches, depending on what was in season. Once in a while, I’d bring a few nuts, in the shell, along with a nutcracker.
My coworkers, on the other hand, usually based their lunch on some sort of meat or fish. Often, there was some sort of greasy dressing. They usually had some sort of dairy food as well. Many of them had been through some sort of commercial weight loss regimen that encourages people to continue eating animal-based food but supposedly teaches them “portion control.”
The fact that people are trying to learn “portion control” tells you that they’re eating an unnatural diet. Wild animals never try to limit their food intake. They never count calories. They never sign up for step aerobics. They eat as much as they like of their natural food, and they do whatever activity they feel like doing. Their weight gets controlled naturally by their appetite. The same thing also works for human beings if they eat a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet.
Lately, I’ve seen many “experts” on nutrition claim that low-fat foods make people fat. As part of the “evidence” to back up this nonsense, they claim that the recent increase in popularity of low-fat foods is an underlying cause of our obesity epidemic. They must think that I’m too lazy or stupid to look up the real data for myself.
I entered the term “fat consumption trends” into Google, and within a second or two I found this article: Trends in Intake of Energy and Macronutrients — United States, 1971–2000. This article reports the trends that the CDC found when they analyzed data from four National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), the first of which was conducted in 1971–1974 and the last of which was conducted in 1999–2000. These surveys revealed that men and women were eating more calories and more fat in 1999–2000 than they had been eating in the early 1970s. However, they were also eating so much more sugar that the percentage of their calories that came from fat went down slightly.
In other words, people are getting fatter because they are eating more calories, including more fat. In contrast, Japanese children have been getting fatter and running a risk of type 2 diabetes even though they have been eating fewer calories. It’s because of a shift from their traditional starchy diet to a more Westernized, higher-fat diet.
As I’ve explained in detail here, it’s easy to fatten on fat but much harder to fatten on starches.
I just read a really disturbing article on Peggy Orenstein’s Web site. In Fear of Fatness, Orenstein talks about the bias that even young children have against fat people, and the troubles that fat girls and their parents face. I was particularly horrified by the plight of one mother, who was so frustrated by her 5-year-old daughter’s fatness that she admits that she “fights the urge just to snatch the food out of the child’s mouth.” This is an unnatural problem.
No mother in nature tries to protect her offspring by snatching food out of its mouth. This unnatural problem results from the unnatural diet that is standard in the United States. Mothers are supposed to feed and nurture their children. Why are American mothers struggling to limit their children’s portions?
If the child were being fed the kinds of food that naturally slim populations eat, then the weight problem and the struggle for portion control would simply vanish. The child would also avoid early puberty and have a low risk of breast cancer in adulthood.
Orenstein mentions that the parents turned to the child’s pediatrician for dietary advice. Unfortunately, medical doctors typically know little about nutrition. Back in 1963, the American Medical Association reported that doctors weren’t learning enough about nutrition and dietetics in medical school. A few years later, their follow-up report showed that nothing had changed. Periodically, some other expert panel studies the problem and comes up with exactly the same conclusions: our doctors are not being adequately trained in nutrition and dietetics. Thus, it’s not surprising that the child’s pediatrician has given the family horrible advice that is corroding the mother-child relationship.
The pediatrician has been working with the family to control the child’s portions. No animal in nature controls its weight by eating less than it wants to eat. Nor does any animal force itself to go to step aerobics class. Wild animals rely on their appetite to regulate their weight. Appetite works well for regulating weight as long as the creature is eating the kind of food that is appropriate for its species. We have an epidemic of obesity in people in the United States because the standard American diet is far too dense in calories. It has too much fat and not enough fiber. It overfeeds us before it satisfies our appetite. When people try to “correct” this problem by limiting their portions, they end up even more unsatisfied. They end up struggling against a primal urge, and the primal urge usually wins in the end. When parents end up needlessly struggling against their children’s primal urges, their relationship with the child will suffer.
How can we tell what kind of diet is appropriate for human beings? We can rely on several kinds of evidence. First, we can use the same approach that scientists use to figure out what kind of diet a dinosaur ate. They figure that out by comparing their teeth to those of modern-day animals. If you look at human teeth, you’ll see that they look almost exactly like the teeth of chimpanzees. Chimps are classified as fruit-eaters, but they also eat a lot of leaves. So our teeth suggest that we should be eating a diet with a heavy emphasis on fruit and vegetables. Although chimpanzees do sometimes hunt and eat meat, they actually eat less meat than practically any human population.
Chimpanzees and human beings are almost completely alike genetically. Some of the key differences involve genes that control brain size and body hair. One interesting difference is in the gene for the enzyme that digests starch. Chimps have one copy, whereas humans have several copies. In other words, our genes tell us that human beings are specially adapted to a starchy diet. It’s one of the reasons why human beings are among the world’s elite long-distance runners.
Several different kinds of scientific studies have shown that human beings thrive on a diet of unrefined starches and vegetables and fruit. People who switch to that kind of diet can solve their weight problems automatically. They can also prevent or cure many of the chronic degenerative diseases that are common in the United States but rare elsewhere.
As I explain in detail here, a high-fiber, low-fat diet works on both sides of the weight equation. People end up eating fewer calories and burning more calories. In other words, a starchy diet is slimming, while a fatty diet is fattening. A low-fat, plant-based diet also helps to delay puberty.
Of course, if a family were to feed a child the low-fat, plant-based diet that would solve her weight problem, they would be bombarded with criticism from people who ask, “But where will she get her protein? Where will she get her calcium?” In response, the parents could ask, “Well, where do you think a gorilla gets its protein and its calcium?”
Gorillas don’t hunt. They don’t fish. They don’t milk cows or gather eggs. They get 99.9% of their food from vegetables, fruit, and a few nuts. Yet those foods provide enough protein and calcium to enable a silverback male gorilla to grow to be 500 pounds and become 10 times as strong as a man.
It makes sense for parents to rely on a pediatrician for medical care for their children. But for nutritional advice, parents should turn to someone who has been trained in nutrition and dietetics. A lot of people claim to be “nutritionists,” but not all of them have real training in the science and practice of nutrition and dietetics. When I had a health problem that was potentially food related, I got advice from a registered dietitian. An RD has at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, has completed a hands-on training program in dietetics, and has passed a national examination. To keep their registration, they have to pursue continuing professional education.
The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada have issued a position paper that argues that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of the life cycle and provides certain advantages. If your child has a weight problem, or any problem that might be diet-related, it makes sense to talk to a registered dietitian about a plant-based diet.
The appetite for food is not the only primal urge that is creating conflicts between American children and their parents. Peggy Orenstein has pointed out in articles and books that girls are being urged to be inappropriately “sexy” at earlier and earlier ages. This trend is bad enough. What’s worse is that girls’ bodies are becoming sexually mature at inappropriately early ages. Thus, girls are being plagued by powerful primal urges long before they are emotionally mature. If you think that the dinner table wars are ugly, just wait for premature puberty. The good news is that the same kind of diet that ends the struggle over food portion size can also postpone the child’s puberty to its natural age.