Posted on October 13, 2008, by Charles Washington – Founder of Zeroing in on Health
I know, that appears to be quite a statement, but it’s true. Refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease, and diabetes. They are the most likely causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.
Carbohydrates affect insulin secretion by the pancreas and the more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the more chronic the effect on the hormonal regulation of homeostasis, the entire ensemble of the human body. This has an adverse affect on health, weight and well-being.
If this sounds familiar to you, it probably is. Science writer Gary Taubes raised these points in his powerful book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. The problem as I see it, is that this book was taken to be more of a diet book than anything else. If one bothered to read the book from cover to cover, they couldn’t help but notice the strong argument that chronically high insulin was the cause of premature aging and all the associated maladies, the so-called “diseases of civilization” as the Frenchman Tanchou used the term. Yet, all we hear from the diet police are one of two messages: Eat less and exercise more, or cut consumption of carbohydrates and exercise more. Both of these recommendations fall very short in my opinion.
By the first prescription, people try varying degrees of semi-starvation to no avail. For a time they are able to endure this condition and make smaller versions of themselves, although they often look quite frail and anemic as a result of this exercise. However, it is well known that once the body has enough of this torture, the person will decrease their physical activity and begin to replace the lost calories.
With the second method, we find a different mechanism at work. Whenever we talk about fat metabolism, there is one question that we fail to ask. What exactly regulates fat tissue? The answer is insulin. Carbohydrates increase insulin secretion, which increases hunger and decreases the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity. Theodore Van Itallie of Columbia University testified to McGovern’s Select Committee in 1973 that “There is an increased need for vitamins when more carbohydrate in the diet is consumed.” Moreover, researchers have known since the 1930s that B vitamins are depleted from the body by the consumption of carbohydrates.
In fact, up until the 1970s, carbohydrates were widely considered to be fattening. In the 1800s, the Englishman William Banting went on a carbohydrate-restricted diet and lost considerable weight and started the Banting diet revolution. He went on to write a book called, On Corpulence which he distributed for free.
In 1957, diabetologist George Campbell suggested an incubation period for diabetes. He found that amongst Zulu populations who worked in the physically demanding sugar cane industry that once sugar consumption reached 70 pounds per person, per year, the diseases of civilization would begin to appear. This same conclusion was drawn by missionary and colonial physicians who worked with isolated populations such as Schweitzer with African nations of the sub-Sahara, Hutton with the Eskimos of Laborador, or Hrdlicka with the Native American of the Great Plain. Once the people abandoned their native fat-rich diets and adopted the European dietary of refined and easily digestible carbohydrates, they could look forward to all the diseases of civilization, starting with dental caries all the way to dementia.
By the 1960s, biochemists and physiologists elucidated the hormonal enzymatic regulation of fat tissue and this research implied that carbohydrate-rich diets should be fattening because of their ability to drive insulin secretion which drives fat accumulation. Yalow and Berson won the Nobel prize for their work in discovering insulin’s role as the regulator of fat metabolism.
However, our health authorities suggested on the slimmest evidence that the hormonal regulation of fat tissue was irrelevant to the disorder of obesity and the conventional wisdom of the prior century was simply wrong. By the 1970s they recommended that we make carbohydrate-rich foods the staple of our diets.
Of course, here we are, fatter and sicker than ever. There is a much higher chance that one will get sick with cancer than getting obese. If these two conditions share the same cause, this demonstrates that obesity and cancer are both symptoms of the same disorder of metabolism which is chronically high insulin brought about by over consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods.
The low-carb diet practitioners of today have merely figured out what William Banting discovered in the 1800s. He knew that if he reduced the number of carbohydrates, this would cause him to lower his weight. Banting had an excuse for his simple explanation: Insulin had not yet been discovered and it would be another 50 years. There were even another 40 years before people began to understand just how important a role insulin plays. Today’s low-carb physicians do not have this excuse. They still insist that low-carb diets are merely a low-fat diet in disguise. Because of the diet’s ability to control cravings and hunger, the subject eats less and thereby loses weight, totally ignoring insulin’s ability to drive fat accumulation.
Now that Gary Taubes had his book out for a while and was able to read it from cover to cover as a layperson, he realized that the central message of his book was not emphasized enough. In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Taubes invokes Occum’s razor, Newton”s argument that “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” In more simple language, if a simple explanation can explain the observations do not search for a more complex explanation. All chronic disease is not exempt from this rule.
It’s a fact that isolated populations which do not eat easily digestible and refined carbohydrates do not suffer from these diseases. A counterargument would be that there are also largely vegetarian groups that also do not suffer from the diseases of civilization and this is true. However, when searching for the prescription, one has to take into account insulin and its effect on fat metabolism. Long before we developed symptoms of the metabolic disorder, many of our cells were already tuning out to insulin. They decided that they would not accept any more glucose and this led the pancreas to secrete higher and higher amounts of insulin in circulation. This led to the condition known as insulin resistance.
Therefore, the only way to properly treat the symptoms created by chronically-high insulin is to lower insulin by removing or restricting carbohydrate-rich foods from the diet. Indeed, prior to the discovery of insulin, this was precisely the way to treat diabetes. Low-carb diet practitioners seized upon this idea and many doctors enjoyed great success with their patients. However, we see that there are still a great many people whom differing levels of carbohydrate restriction still does not work.
Where did the low-carb diet practitioners go wrong? They were more focused on weight loss and not on health. They failed to “zero-in” on the cause, which is chronically-high insulin. Any diet that does not control cravings and hunger is not a proper diet.
The first low-carb doctor was not Dr. Robert Atkins. The first, was Dr. Blake Donaldson. Donaldson consulted with the arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who performed the all-meat, year-long trial with his colleague Karsten Anderson at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Through Stefansson, Donaldson learned of a post-white influenced Inuit district (typically meat-eaters) who adopted a small amount of vegetables to their diet. Therefore, Donaldson came up with a high-fat diet that was mostly fatty meat, yet contained a “hotel potion” of raw fruit and a potato to substitute for the occasional roots and berries of the particular Inuit he looked at.
Over the course of four decades, he treated some seven thousand patients for weight problems. Most of them lost about three pounds per week on this diet without experiencing hunger. Those who were unable to lose had, what he termed, a “sugar addiction.” He was very frank when he advised his patients that “No breadstuff means any kind of bread. You are out of your mind when you take insulin in order to eat a Danish pastry.” Unfortunately, he didn’t publish his diet and its efficacy through the 1920s and 1930s. This might have caused others to consider the possibility that the quality of nutrients matters more than the quantity.
Today’s experts are still too focused on weight which is a symptom of the disorder rather than focusing on the effect on insulin which produces all the diseases. As a matter of fact, those who become obese are really the lucky ones. Many people go straight to diabetes without weight gain, yet the cause is the same.
It’s high time that we stop focusing on the symptoms and go immediately after the cause. Once the damage to insulin receptors has been done, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that it can be reversed. When insulin resistance sets in, we cannot go back to eating the amount of carbohydrates we used to eat even after substantial weight loss. The message needs to go forth loud and clear that carbohydrates not only make us fat, they have the power to kill prematurely and they cause all the diseases of civilization due to their effect on insulin secretion.