It is well known that America is experiencing an obesity epidemic, and that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Diabetes is also increasing dramatically, even in kids. There are many theories for why this is happening, ranging from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to TV to the fact that so many Americans stopped smoking.
As scientists probe into the cause of the obesity epidemic more and more, however, they are starting to narrow in on carbohydrates. For example, there is this recent article in Scientific American:
Eat less saturated fat: that has been the take-home message from the U.S. government for the past 30 years. But while Americans have dutifully reduced the percentage of daily calories from saturated fat since 1970, the obesity rate during that time has more than doubled, diabetes has tripled, and heart disease is still the country’s biggest killer. Now a spate of new research, including a meta-analysis of nearly two dozen studies, suggests a reason why: investigators may have picked the wrong culprit. Processed carbohydrates, which many Americans eat today in place of fat, may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease more than fat does—a finding that has serious implications for new dietary guidelines expected this year.
This is the scenario that’s been playing out for decades in the hunt to nail the food responsible for our epidemics of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Nearly all public health officials and cardiologists have had fat on death row since the 1970s with just a few isolated voices seeking a retrial.
But recently pressure for a pardon has been growing and an increasing number of senior figures have been highlighting evidence that exonerates fats and instead puts carbohydrates, particularly refined flour and sugar, in the dock.
The Scientific American article goes on to discuss this experiment, which is fascinating:
In 2008 Stampfer co-authored a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that followed 322 moderately obese individuals for two years as they adopted one of three diets: a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet based on American Heart Association guidelines; a Mediterranean, restricted-calorie diet rich in vegetables and low in red meat; and a low-carbohydrate, nonrestricted-calorie diet. Although the subjects on the low-carb diet ate the most saturated fat, they ended up with the healthiest ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol and lost twice as much weight as their low-fat-eating counterparts.
So what is a “low-carbohydrate, nonrestricted-calorie diet”? If you have non-restricted calories you can eat as much as you want. But if you can’t eat carbs, you are going to be getting all of your calories from either proteins or fats. That is exactly what is happening when you follow the Atkins Diet or the Dukan diet. Atkins allows unlimited proteins and fats, and Dukan allows unlimited protein. These diets actually work if you can stay disciplined and hold the line on carbs. The problem is that carbs – in the form of ice cream, cake, cookies, bread, pasta, pizza, potatoes, rice, Doritos, breakfast cereal, soda, etc. – are incredibly tempting and completely surround us in our everyday lives. The good news is that something like the Dukan diet can help break the carb addiction.
The other problem is that we are conditioned to think that we will die without carbs. Here is one example from a university FAQ page:
Q: I heard a lot about Atkins diet, are there dangers to a low carbohydrate diet?
A: The primary role of carbohydrates is provide energy to the body especially the brain and the nervous system. When glucose is unavailable to the body it will breakdown fat for energy. During this process ketone bodies are produced resulting in abnormal amount of ketones in the blood and urine. This can be dangerous because it can upset the body’s acid base balance, lead to dehydration, increase uric acid production and result in a coma.
A coma would be bad, yes. See also the description in this article:
A six-day carbohydrate-depletion diet, in which he eats little more than chicken and broccoli, leaves his muscles weak and his brain so starved of glycogen, its source of fuel, that he feels dizzy and disorientated when he stands up.
The problem with these descriptions? They don’t seem to be true for the vast majority of people. A chicken and broccoli diet is exactly what Atkins and Dukan prescribe, and there are tens of millions of people using these diets around the world. Yet dieters are somehow avoiding coma, dizziness and disorientation. From personal experience I can say that I have been on the Dukan diet for about three weeks now, eating nothing but protein and vegetables and zero carbohydrates. I have experienced no coma, dizziness or disorientation at all. Personally I feel great. But it would take several years of a concerted media and education effort to teach/convince Americans that they can survive without carbs.
Nonetheless, that is probably what is going to have to happen. Because according to the research, it really does look like carbs – in everything from soda to breakfast cereal to ice cream – is what is causing the obesity problem.
This book is available free online as a Google book. It summarizes the whole low-carb approach and its benefits:
On page 6 they summarize things. You restrict “All carb-containing foods” in the form of pasta, bread, rice, etc., all “sweet fruits” and dried fruits, and everything with sugar in it. You are then allowed to eat 72 grams of carbohydrates per day (about 300 calories) in the form of 6 “bread units”. One slice of white bread is 1 bread unit, and contains about 12 grams of carbohydrates. So you could have 6 slices of bread per day if you wanted to, but no other carbs. An apple is 1 bread unit. A cup (8 ounces) of milk or half a ciup (4 ounces) of fruit juice is a bread unit. And so on. There is a chart on page 7. Even vegetables contain carbs, so a cup of broccoli is a bread unit.
The whole book is interesting, but if nothing else read pages 6 and 7. This looks a lot like Phase 3 of the Dukan diet.