Low Fat, High Carb

I’m sure that this is just a coincidence:

It’s an interesting coincidence that this increase in obesity started roughly at the same time that the U.S. government started to advocate low-fat, high-carb diets. I remember that period pretty clearly, because I thought it was wonderful. Entenmann’s came out with no-fat pastries — the no-fat cherry coffeecake was one of my favorites — I could eat as much rice as I wanted, pasta was good and more pasta was better, as long as you didn’t use butter because of the evil saturated fat and cholesterol. But margarine, rich in transfats made by hydrogenating corn oil, was much better.

I remember that period clearly, too. It was during that time, after my father’s first heart attack at age 44, that the health gurus told him to go low-fat and eat more grains. Ten years later, he had another one, from which he died a month later. I blame the FDA/nutrition-industrial complex for his death (though it didn’t help that he smoked and had grown up on bagels, knishes and potatoes). And I find it particularly galling when idiots think that it’s anti-science to not buy the health-destroying junk science of the conventional wisdom, when the actual science indicates that it’s killing us.

[Update a couple minutes later]

In reading the Yglesias piece, it’s worth pointing out the flaw in the logic. No one is claiming that humans aren’t capable of rapidly evolving to accommodate dietary changes. That’s a straw man.

The issue is whether or not there is any evolutionary pressure for us to evolve to be healthy with a modern big-agro diet. In short, there is not. If you’re lactose intolerant in a dairy-based society, you’re unlikely to thrive or reproduce. But when it comes to grains, people do just fine on such diets when young, in terms of reaching reproductive age and rearing kids. The bad effects hit us generally later in life, when our genes no longer care (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing, but you know what I mean) whether we live or die, or are healthy or ill. So we go on, generation after generation, continuing to eat crap that’s bad for us, and our bodies not bothering to adapt.

31 thoughts on “Low Fat, High Carb”

  1. I have an ancillary question that’s been on my mind for a while:

    If you have a substance that contains sugar – say BBQ sauce – and you subject that to flame, are the sugars broken down to less harmful molecules?

    I got rid of complex carbos like bread and spaghetti*
    a ling time ago though I do have a bowl of oatmeal from time to time.

    * I absolutely REFUSE to call it Pasta because that’s the metro-upscale-word for it now – I confess to being somewhat inconsistent because Pasta Fagiole is still Pasta Fagiole.

      1. So the dietary negatives of sugar are negated by the flames.

        Where I came we used spaghetti and macaroni for what people, today, call pasta. I’ll use macaroni too. And we are Italian.

        1. So the dietary negatives of sugar are negated by the flames.

          Yeah, except then it’s probably carcinogenic.

          Where I came we used spaghetti and macaroni for what people, today, call pasta.

          I don’t know which people you’re referring to. I say “spaghetti” for spaghetti, “macaroni” for macaroni, “fettucini” for fettucini, “linguini” for linguini, “rigatoni” for rigatoni…they’re all pasta. And all bad for you.

          1. I’ve read that back prior to the 1950’s Americans lumped all pasta as “spaghetti” and treated it as some Italian ethnic thing.

          2. “I don’t know which people you’re referring to.”

            The ones I referred to in my original statement above:


            As George said….my extended family lumped it all under “spaghetti” or “macaroni” we never ever used the word “pasta? unless it was for, as I say, pasta fagiole. Also back then there weren’t 1700 different shapes either. Not that it’s a problem that there are…it’s just that we were only talking about a very few shapes back in those days.

      2. Burnt sugar will produce carbon that won’t be digested. Some of which is probably carcinogenic.

  2. The bad effects attributed to our modern diet don’t show up until later in life, after adulthood and childrearing have run their course, so there wouldn’t be effects on the gene pool.

    If all of mankind had been smoking two packs-a-day since the last ice age, it wouldn’t have produced any evolutionary changes because the mortality effects don’t kick in soon enough. So it is with dietary effects that show up as post-adulthood heart disease and other problems, whereas lactose tolerance in herding cultures is beneficial to everyone old enough to be weened.

  3. There was a recent study in rats which may have found the mechanism by which carbs cause obesity and diabetes. It’s enteric bacteria. They had two sets of rats, one of which had been colonized by certain enteric bacteria, one that had not. When fed the exact same diet, the rats with the enteric bacteria gained weight and developed diabetes. The enterics were messing with the rats’ hormone and regulatory systems.

  4. The godforsakengoodfornothing food pyramid was my downfall after college; imagine, it was officially healthy to eat spaghetti and bread!!! I’ve only recently discovered Taubes and Attia, and my doctor is telling me “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it..”

    1. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it..”

      You will hear that a lot from the medical profession, from blood pressure to cholesterol and cancer; it is the stock answer replacing “I don’t know exactly what the f**k you are doing to get better (but I can guess as have heard all this before) and I am afraid you are going to tell me, but I don’t want to know because that will put me in the awkward position of having to respond according to the dictates of my profession and you won’t like the answer because it contradicts the reality your healing and thus you will get pissed off and probably never visit my medical office again.”

  5. Yup. Carbohydrates – and even more carbohydrates with some protein attached, as in potatoes – when heated produce some really nasty compounds like acrolein.

    Fries a la McDonald’s are probably the worst offenders. Very high in unsaturated fat, much of it trans which has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and the food underneath all that fat has been subjected to high heat producing some really nasty carcinogens. And for what it’s worth, very high in calories also. Although calorie content is very far indeed from the whole story, the last can’t help.

  6. It seems like a no brainer, have kids when you’re 60, if you survive that long. Voila, instant evolutionary pressure. Now sit back a few centuries and we’ll have *progress*. Or, we could just choose a different path.

  7. Diet advice from Matt Yglesias? I’m all ears.

    I quit eating wheat about 18 months ago. Since then I’ve gradually dropped sugar and most dairy. I’ve dropped 50 pounds, haven’t been sick a day, and I don’t miss any of the stuff I used to eat. Well, not most of it…

  8. I keep wondering if koumis might be useful to the paleo types. There’s a void in the realm of “something palatable where the non-alcoholic bits aren’t carbs.”

    And a soda-replacement that’s not carb based. I find that I like carbonated distilled water more than distilled water, but (a) it’s more work than it needs to be, and (b) finding something to spike it with for a smidge of flavor that isn’t a carb is tricky.

    1. “finding something to spike it with for a smidge of flavor that isn’t a carb is tricky.”

      What about lemons, limes, oranges or grapefruit? A bit of fresh juice squeezed into the carbonated water is delicious.

  9. Eating a Paleo diet is more optimal now than it was 100 years ago. The Paleo diet has been proven to speed up resting metabolism. The is the opposite of what most of my non-aristocratic grain eating Anglo-Saxon ancestors wanted. They wanted a slow resting metabolism and a ‘high enough’ active metabolism in order to survive famine cycles. A diet of mostly whole grains and vegetables (with little or no sugar) is ideal for that. Societies with mostly plant based diets (where meat is only used for flavoring) have much lower rates of heart disease as well as lower rates of many kinds of cancers than countries with Western diets. Okinawan’s certainly don’t subscribe to the Paleo diet and they are historically long lived. In other words, while there is certainly something to the Paleo diet that seems better than the traditional western diet of refined carbs and meat, it’s not a simple as ‘Carbs are bad for as you age’.

  10. Grain diets turn on a fattening response because they were intrinsically seasonal. Fat was stored when grain was available and plentiful because there would be times when the grain was scarce. Our modern life makes grain available year round. Some of us, me included, get fat from too many carbs and thinner as we greatly reduce our carbohydrate intake.

    The low carb diets are scientifically supported while the low calorie diets are not. But the author would not know that as she is not trained in diet and metabolism and has evidently not read the literature.


  11. Populations evolve, not individuals. Perhaps some subset of our population can be reproductively successful on a diet of macaroni, burnt sugar, dairy, and soy beans. In a thousand years they will rule the earth and worship their great god Matt Iglesias. In the mean time, the rest of us will live our shallow anti-scientific lives trying to stay healthy.

  12. Natural evolution is rather slow, so I don’t expect humans (that is, US) to evolve to such a diet soon, at least not naturally. That’s where Genetically Modified Humans comes in! We permit some very smart person to genetically modify us to use carbs properly, and the problem vanishes. This is actually a simply solution.

  13. The Paleo movement is not some fringe group of weirdo health nuts. This movement is a movement being pushed by doctors who know the science and the biochemistry behind the problems. I was introduced to the movement by a doctor. I am a medical student now and my biochemistry teacher is a supporter of it. The High Carb, anti-meat movement was not based on science. It was a government movement begun by, and extended by bureaucrats.

  14. Well, if you are Anglo-Saxon or Nordic in general a paleo may be just right. Anthropomorphic data is critical. Over eons all of us were hunter-gatherers, with some mutations those rascally “farmers” thrived, proliferated and shoved the hunter-gatherers mainly to the upper extremes of Europe. Genetically it is now being shown that there is a difference in “hunter-gatherer” genomes (and hence heredity) compared to “farmers”. Perhaps we should run our genomes and see which type diet may work best for us. With the realization that neither our paleo “hunter-gatherer” and “farmer” ancestors tended to live long lives as we all wish to.

  15. “In one astonishing case, a type of cricket Zuk studied, when transplanted from its original habitat to Hawaii, became almost entirely silent in the course of a mere five years.”

    This makes perfect sense, and there is NO DOUBT AT ALL that this data point is applicable to humans. Because, you know, Jiminy Cricket was almost human. Never mind that crickets & fruit flies reproduce by the thousands and have a life-span measured in weeks.

  16. The evolutionary adaptations are completely different when comparing lactose persistence (simply keeping a gene active rather than turning it off) with gluten and gliaden adaptation (tolerating proteins that attack the lining of the intestine).

    Yes it is possible to evolve to tolerate wheat, but that kind of evolutionary change could not have happened across the human race in the period of a few thousand years.

  17. Two things

    First, about evolutionary pressure, you assume that older humans have no contribution to make to the success of their offspring or their grandchildren after their direct genetic contribution. This is patently, and obviously false !! Humans use the extended family and tribe to increase the role of elders in the success of their group, thereby increasing the success of their posterity both culturally (education) and directly (money & possessions passed down).

    Secondly, evolution NOT SLOW; it is quite rapid in reality taking less than 25 generations to spread a SNP throughout a small to mid size population and while it may take 500 years (25 x 20)for humans, it takes only a few years for some insects or a few hours for bacteria.

    1. Sure, BioBob. Grandparents do in fact make a contribution to the survival of grandchildren. But two things about that; first, that effect is much stronger in societies more primitive than the modern West, and second the difference between grandparents who live to 60 and those living to 80 is negligible in those terms. (Once grandkids are old enough to be starting to have kids of their own, any effect such as this disappears.)

      The question is whether an adaptation that only makes any difference at all to survival at ages 50+ is a strong enough effect to discriminate between populations. I doubt it.

      Note that many biologists think the very existence of menopause, and the anomalously long lifespan of humans, is indeed due to the fact that if Granny is still around to look after the kids (and isn’t having more kids of her own) then it’s easier for those kids to survive, because Mum is then free to go out looking for nuts and berries. Of course, all this applies to hunter-gatherers, but as humankind has been that for 90+% of its existence as a species…

    2. you assume that older humans have no contribution to make to the success of their offspring or their grandchildren after their direct genetic contribution.

      I make no such assumption. I simply assume that it’s an insufficient evolutionary driver compared to others (e.g. having cheap abundant food when young).

  18. Don’t be absurd, Rand. If there were insufficient selective pressure, there would be no widespread survival of such traits. Instead they are pervasive in many species and in a wide variety of taxa. Evolution grinds exceedingly fine and thoroughly and there is nothing new under the sun. If we commonly observe something, it is BECAUSE there IS selective pressure.

    There are entire fields of evolutionary study in Biology & Genetics called “group selection” and “Eusociality” where societies with members having absolutely NO direct genetic contribution to offspring nevertheless have effects on the success of their “relations” eg sisters, extended families.

    If there were no selective advantage, such systems would not be so widespread across taxa as varied as birds, ants, termites, spiders, wolves and any organism with what we call societies or family structure.

    You would do well to stick with whatever field of endeavor you know about instead of venturing baseless opinions about that which you apparently know so little.

    Sorry. You are just wrong and we are all allowed such since we are only human and to be human is to err.

    do your homework – it’s not rocket science:

    BTW, this has absolutely no direct bearing on paleo-diet type things. Humans are generalists but 2,000+ years is plenty of time for evolution to act on humans and adaptation to dietary changes in some aspects. But everything in population genetics is about clines and gaussian distributions. (look em up).

    1. If there were insufficient selective pressure, there would be no widespread survival of such traits. Instead they are pervasive in many species and in a wide variety of taxa. Evolution grinds exceedingly fine and thoroughly and there is nothing new under the sun. If we commonly observe something, it is BECAUSE there IS selective pressure.

      What does this have to do with anything that I wrote? Because it certainly doesn’t rebut it.

  19. @BioBob-you are right on sir. People latch on to a small slice of information without the full picture. All of this is evolving quickly on us *and yes, pun intended also to lighten it up a bit* and it may be that additional info in the next year or two will change how we see things, but for now, BioBob as much as I know (scientist, but not directly in this field) is spot on.

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