Thursday, January 24, 2008

Obesity & carbohydrates - Atkins was right

Gary Taubes has an article in NewScientist discrediting current theories of obesity (eat less, exercise more) and (again) endorsing the ideas of Robert Atkins. These ideas I have strongly supported in the face of opposition for many years.

There is considerable evidence that the obesity epidemic is caused by a hormonal phenomenon, specifically by the consumption of refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars, all of which prompt (sooner or later) excessive insulin secretion. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated, fat accumulates in our body tissue; when they fall, fat is released and we use it for fuel. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat; by driving us to accumulate fat, they increase hunger and decrease the energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity. In short, obesity is caused not by overeating or sedentary behaviour, but by hormonal malfunctioning triggered by the consumption of particular types of carbohydrate-containing foods.

Obesity researchers, nutritionists and health authorities have refused to contemplate this scenario, partly because it would imply that diet-book doctors advocating carbohydrate-restricted diets - Robert Atkins et al - were right all along. Instead, these alleged experts and guardians of our health have wasted a good part of a century on research based on a high-school misconception, watching their compatriots grow ever fatter while blaming everyone but themselves. In the process, they have created a field of clinical medicine that functions more like a religion than a science. It is time to put science back in charge. (my bold).

The rise in the consumption of high GI carbohydrates globally while people have continued to carefully watch their fat intakes suggests that the obesity-diabetes epidemics the world has experienced is in the main due primarily to excess sugar consumption not to the fact that we are getting lazier and/or eating too much. Moreover, replacing bread and pasta will likely reduce your blood pressure.

Atkins favours a diet with meat, fish, nuts, olives, lots of the bright-coloured vegetables but getting rid of the cakes, bread, potatoes, biscuits, doughnuts, pizzas, pasta, soft-drinks and fruit juices. He also recommends cutting back on high-sugar fruits.

It’s hard to avoid high sugar, starchy foods when you are travelling or when you are buying a quick pre-prepared meal. At a pinch you can buy a MacDonald’s hamburger and dice the bun or get some grilled fish without the batter or a pre-prepared salad minus the sugar-laden dressing. But it is hard. I notice that mainstream food for most university students these days is often pizza, pasta or fried chips.

It is also difficult to stick to the sort of nutritional program Atkins suggests when the food pyramid mafia tells you that your diet should be dominated by simple carbohydrates.

For all the ridicule Atkins has received even the new CSIRO diet (vigorously attacked by the pro-carbohydrates nutritional mafia) broadly endorses his approach although it is high protein-low fat-complex carbohydrate orientation rather than being aggressively anti-simple carbohydrates as with the Atkins approach. But in practise the approaches are similar.

We need to re-educate the community away from the stupid notion that fats alone are bad and that nutritionally-barren, simple carbohydrates are good. This wrong notion is causing a global obesity epidemic – now spreading to developing countries as they endorse western diets – and causing related epidemics of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.


conrad said...

As as I can tell, eating large amounts of simple carbohydrates has nothing to do with the Atkin's diet, and nor has the CSIRO diet. There's also a big difference between eating mainly simply carbohydrates and eating carbohydrates in a balanced diet.

Here's an experiment you can do on yourself. Eat the same amount of energy either in a high carbohydrate/low fat ratio and compare that with a low carbohydrate/high fat ratio. My bet is that your weight will do exactly the same thing. Now eat half the amount of energy in a balanced diet. My bet is that you will lose weight. Now eat twice the amount of energy, in only fats, as Atkins suggests. My bet is you will increase in weight. Note that the data is on my side, as the USCDC has looked at the Atkin's diet and found no long term weight loss from it.

Its all pretty simple really and you can make up all the excuses you want. But in the end its an extremely easy to experiment to do on yourself and find out for real what works. You'll also learn that energy intake is rather important, and not just the composition of the energy.

Spiros said...

Here's how to lose weight.

Take what's on your plate. Push half the back side of the plate. Eat only what is on the front half.

Repeat at every meal.

Don't eat between meals.

whyisitso said...

Atkins has been vilified for many, many years. Now Harry claims he is right. He may well be.

I look forward to the day when Harry headlines a post "Anthropgenic climate change - the skeptics were right".

derrida derider said...

Harry, the Atkins diet is designed to push people into ketosis - using their protein intake for energy rather than for cell-building. As this is an inefficient way to make energy it works really well in the short term. But ketosis is really bad for the kidneys and is unsustainable - which is why full-on Atkins diets have such poor long-run results.

But Atkins' diet is not simply a low-carbohydrate diet, and so its problems don't disprove the virtues of a low carbohydrate diet. But even within that you have to make a distinction between simple and complex carbohydrates - the former are much more damaging as they cause an insulin rush; the "glycaemic index" people have a point. And so too do the "eat less and exercise" people; a low-kilojoule low-carbohydrate diet is more effective than a high-kilojoule low-carbohydrate diet.

On dieting and weight control, I'm reminded of the aphorism "for every complex problem there is a simple solution - and it's always wrong".

I say all this as someone whose favourite food is pasta - which I'm constantly battling to avoid.

Spiros said...

I look forward to the day when Harry headlines a post "The hoax moon landings - the skeptics were right".

I look forward to the day when Harry headlines a post "Elvis found alive - the skeptics were right".

I look forward to the day when Harry headlines a post "Diana and Dodi were murdered - the skeptics were right".

And so on.

Steve said...

One point I am never sure of in this debate: how does rice fit in? Would the West be better off consuming large amounts of rice as their preferred carbohydrate? Are increasing levels of obesity in Asian countries due to their substituting rice with more wheat based carbos?

hc said...

Spiros, If you will author such a post I'll publish (and comment on) it.

DD, Atkins believes stores of fat will be drawn on not protein. He addresses concerns about ketosis in everything he writes.

A large part of the Atkins literature is based on the distinction between simple and complex carbs. Of course you do need to input carbs - Atkins is opposed to simple carbs.

The food pyramid people suggest your diet should be dominated by simple carb rich foods such as bread and pasta. Even if you don't agree with Atkins, sense dictates that you should reject this absurd view with its exclusive emphasis on fats and its disregard for excessive sugar/carb consumption.

Mark said...

I'm sympathetic to what you say, Harry (though I'm more of a Zone man myself). However I must call you out on your references to simple and complex carbs in your last comment.

Simple carbohydrates are composed of one (eg. glucose) or two (eg. sucrose) saccharide units. Complex carbohydrates (eg starches) are composed of many more such units. Bread and pasta may be simple foods but they contain starches, ie complex carbs.

People used to think that complex carbs are better because they are broken down more slowly during digestion. It turns out that this is not necessarily so. These days many nutritional experts (not sure about Atkins) recommend eating high-carb foods in unrefined form rather than refined form, eg whole-grain vs white bread. However, refined or not, the starches in bread and pasta are complex carbs, not simple.

FXH said...

I can't share your enthusiasm for Atkins. It has effects on kidneys that aren't good.

I am however convinced that elimination of soft drinks and fruit drinks would work wonders in most households.

I always had a rule that soft drinks were a treat - something bought at the corner shop or such but never part of the grocery shopping and rarely - except in high summer on stock in the fridge.

I am still amazed at shopping trolleys in front of me that looked stacked up for a party - chips, snacks, softdrinks and yet on cloer examination are clearly the weekly shopping. I even knwo of families that have a carbonated drink with every meal - including breakfast and them some in between.

I speak as one who has never had to "battle" with weight. I'm lucky in that I don't have a sweet tooth at all. Although my stomach is more a result of six packs than six pack abs - so to speak.

It just doesn't seem hard to me to stick to a good balanced diet without obsessing too much about its content .

I've never seen anyone who is very overweight who hasn't had a shit diet full of fats and sugar in bucket fulls.

conrad said...

Thats a good point FXH,

you should add alcohol to fruit juice and especially soft drinks (now oddly marketed as sports drinks -- and bigger -- 600 mls).

Steve: Most of the increase in Asia is an increase off a very low base. The only place I can think of where that is the exception is Singapore -- but they have the most Western style diet of any of the Asian countries (including soft drinks and the like). The main difference I find is not so much food composition (excluding Japan), its the amount (people also eat much less of the really shitty stuff, like take-away burgers). Funnily enough, where I work, there is a place selling Indonesian food, but they give you Indonesian-sized serves. Funnily enough the (often fat) white kids don't go there much because many they think the serves are too small.

mr c said...

The majority of the food that obese people eat is carbohydrates.

When i eat more carbs based meals my appetite for carbs increases and so does my waist size.

If you want to be the correct weight you do this...

Reduce carbs to sensible amounts (ie ONLY ONE carb dominated meal a day).

Stop eating processed trash full of chemicals.

Eat food the way nature made it - ie unhomogenized milk - raw cane sugar - foods with their natural fat levels.

Create meals from the base ingredients.

Drink glasses of water (maybe 4) every day.

It all seems obvious when you read this doesnt it.

So flamin well do it !

Cathy said...

The Atkins diet works quite simply because it is hard for us to eat a lot of animal protien in one go, it leaves us feeling full for longer, as does fat thereby automatically leading to us consuming less calories but feeling satisfied. Boredom comes in to play as well. It is easier to overeat if there are a variety of foods available at one time. Just think about how much you eat at a buffet! If you have one great hunk of flesh in front of you, you quickly lose your enthusiasm for it.

It is very easy to say eat twice the amount of energy and my bet is that you will put on weight as Conrad said, after all we know that there is a direct correlation between eating too much and putting on weight but the point is that on this diet, as long as they stick to it, people don't overeat. What they do however is crave and desire carbohydrates! We always crave what we can't have or have told ourselves we shouldn't have. This is a psychological thing which can actually make ANY diet hard to stick to.

As a weight loss specialist it is my belief that there is a direct link between refined carbohydrate consumption and obesity. It is refined carbohydrate, sweets, breads pastries that we crave when we comfort eat. It is highly refined carbohydrate that is also used to pad out reduced fat foods,which people are consuming in even greater quantities to help them lose weight.

I have read Gary Taubes excellent book "The Diet Deception" and it confirmed a lot of what I already believed and gave me lots of information on research that backed his arguments up. He deals not only with the carbohydrate weight gain issue but also chloesterol and low fat diet issue that now forms the basis of dietary advice given accross the world. Unfortunately as he shows, a lot of the advice that is given is based on very shaky foundations. I suggest that anyone with an interest in health and nutrition reads it.

So, as a weight loss specialist what exactly is my take on all this? Here is my advice for health and stable weight:

1 Treat any information that originates either from the food industry or from the Government with a pinch, no make that a bucket full of salt.

2 Eat your food as close to as possible as nature intended. As much raw stuff (veggies, nuts seeds etc) as possible.

3 Avoid refined carbohydrates.

4 Moderate unrefined carbohydrates, ie completely ignore the Government guideline food pyramid.

5 Ignore low fat hype, a bit of fat on your meat won't kill you but the low fat cookies will if eaten in enough quantity!

6 Resolve any issues that you may have that cause you to reach for the unhealthy foods and comfort eat, eg stress, old childhood habits etc. Seek professional help for this, psychotherapy or NLP.

A diet that is high in protiens, vegetables, nuts, seeds etc with moderate un-refined carbohydrate and a very tiny amount of refined carbohydtare is fairly optimal for us as humans and it is what we would have lived on thousands of years ago when we would have had to be extremely fit and healthy in order to survive.