Speaking personally, I find it simply amazing that I live in a country that is capable of flying to the moon, but incapable of feeding ourselves properly. Growing up in the 1980′s, I was raised to believe that fat is bad for you– it makes you fat, causes heart disease, and left unchecked, will kill us all. And of course, those delicious carbohydrates, especially simple sugars, will also make us fat, give us diabetes, and left unchecked, kill us all. And just in case you are tempted- eating nothing but protein would cause kidney problems, a higher rate of cancer, and left unchecked, kill us all. The solution is simple: we must learn to eat and digest rocks.
The premise of Why We Get Fat (and what to do about it) by Gary Taubes can be summarized thusly: “Carbs are poison. Stop eating them, fatty.” Of course, this is already old news to those familiar with the Atkins diet or the paleo lifestyle, or any of the dozens of low-carb diets already on the market. But is there any truth to this? Are carbohydrate-restricted diets a fad? Do they work? Are they healthy? Should we all just give up and go order some Taco Bell instead?
I’m certainly no expert, but here’s what I’ve got so far:
1. This is extremely controversial stuff
No matter what I write in this article, some of your reading will be sure to think I’m a moron for having whatever opinion I have. This is the state of nutritional “science” today. Every opinion has an equal yet opposite opinion, resulting in a confusing mess for those of us just trying to drop 20 pounds without gaining a masters degree in the process.
The “classic” science of weight is actually pretty simple: we ingest calories via food, and expend them via exercise, movement and other metabolic activity (staying alive, etc). If we eat too much, and move too little, we net positive calories which are then stored in our expanding fat cells. If we eat too little, and move too much, we net negative calories, and must use the calories we have stored in our fat in order to get this energy. Too skinny? Eat more, move less. Too fat? Eat less, move more. Pretty simple stuff.
Not true, claims Gary Taubes.
How do we explain the spike in obesity? The popular narrative is this: fifty years ago, one spouse worked, and the other maintained the home– which normally included cooking. Today, both spouses work, and as a result, the family must eat fast food or quickly-prepared processed foods. Instead of playing baseball, Little Johnny prefers his PS3 and tablet. We drive more, we sit more, we work more; we burn way less calories in our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, while simultaneously ingesting a bunch more “junk calories” via the convenience diet.
Gary Taubes claims: calories have nothing to do with anything– the issue is that we are eating carbs, when we should be eating fats and proteins instead. Gorge yourself on fats and proteins, and you will lose weight, calorie counting be damned. Critics of this theory argue that we cannot escape the calorie-in, calorie-out paradigm, however, protein and fat is more satiating, and so, it is harder to overeat these items (as compared to a salty or sweet carb-based snack).
I do not claim to have the “truth”, certainly not in a single article about a single book. That said, be mindful of the controversy, because I’m not sure anyone is 100% sure yet.
2. Not all carbs are created equal
Back in the 1980′s, our televisions were filled with stuff just like this:
At the time, scientists had noticed a prominent correlation between the amount of cholesterol ingested, and the rate of heart disease. Since fat is high in cholesterol, this became the driving logic behind the “low fat” craze; if you eat fatty foods you ingest cholesterol, and if you ingest excessive cholesterol your heart will explode. The solution: stop eating fat, fatty. And this is right around the point where “red meat” went from being the cornerstone of the American diet, to the prodigal son, destined to kill us all.
Never underestimate the genius of American marketers, nor the gullibility of American consumers. Both groups quickly discovered that carbohydrates, specifically sugar, could be marketed as a “fat free” food. You can still see the vestiges of this today, via a wide assortment of “fat free” cookies, chips and other junk foods still found throughout the grocery store.
As shocking as this may sound: eating pound after pound of pure sugar is not especially good for you, and the ironic result of this low fat craze was a population that had gotten fatter, and in the process, even less healthy. But does this mean that all carbs are terrible? Hardly.
There is a world of difference between a “simple” carbohydrate, like sugar, flour or other processed food (especially anything containing high-fructose corn syrup) and that of a “complex” carb, found in vegetables and whole-grain foods. To simplify an obscenely complicated subject: all carbohydrates break down into sugars, which are eventually stored as fat or burned as energy. The more “complex” the carb, the longer this process takes; more is used as energy, less stored in fat.
Or so the logic goes…
3. Meat is actually pretty healthy for you
Despite the fact that science has marched on past the assumptions of the 1980s, many of those misunderstandings are still with us today. Any way you slice it, we have a dilemma. We can avoid fats, and eat more carbs, or we can avoid carbs, and eat more fats, but unless you want to starve to death, you need to “pick a side” on this issue.
Any rational person knows that eating junk food is a bad idea. But which foods qualify as “junk”? Is meat a disgusting, immoral, unhealthy fiasco? Or is it a natural and healthy way to fill our bodies with the good nutrition it has evolved to utilize? I have enough vegetarian friends to know that I could not possibly answer this question, especially not in the space allowed here.
Here’s what I can say about meat: it contains all the essential fats, and twelve out of the thirteen essential vitamins. It includes large amounts of vitamin A and vitamin E. Meat is the the main food source of the “B” vitamins, and the only reliable source of B12 (chew on that, vegans!). The issues of ethics, animal rights, cruelty, animal processing, will have to wait for another article- but considered purely as a food source, meat is pretty damn great.
But what about the American Heart Association? Were they totally wrong back in the 1980s? Not entirely… but this was before we understood the difference between LDL and HDL, aka “good cholesterol“. Modern science no longer looks at your total cholesterol, but rather, the ratio between your “good” and “bad”. Having too little “good” is just as dangerous as having too much “bad”.
Yes, we’ve certainly come a long way in the last 20+ years.
Then again, not all PSA’s from the 1980′s should be ignored…
Want to read the book? Want to support your friends at 3 Things I Learned? You can do both at once when you order “Why We Get Fat (and what to do about it)” via Amazon.com. Got no money for books? Get it at your local library instead.
Looking for more books on health and fitness? Check out “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know” by Margaret J. Meeker or “Serious Cycling” by Ed Burke. This article included references to carbs, fats, health, Mr. T, obesity, proteins, PSA and hopefully that will impress the nice folks at Google.
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