The Inconvenient Truth About Carbohydrates

The history of science is filled with brilliant discoveries that were not warmly welcomed. In fact, it’s almost a truism that it takes about 50 years before a revolutionary concept is truly accepted by the mainstream, particularly when that concept challenges prevailing dogma.

Take vitamin C and scurvy. Although the first documented experiment showing that fresh fruit or lemon juice could prevent scurvy took place in 1746, it wasn’t until 1795 (almost a half century later) that lemon juice was officially made part of the rations of the British navy. In our own times, Kilmer McCully, MD of Harvard University put forth the theory the revolutionary theory that homocysteine- a toxic inflammatory compound in the blood- predicts heart disease and stroke better than cholesterol does. McCully was lucky. He was only ostracized from the medical community for a mere 25 years. McCully is back at Harvard, his theory has been vindicated and homocysteine is now routinely measured in blood tests and accepted as the risk factor that it is.

Now the notion that carbohydrates are a major culprit in obesity may be turning the corner on its road to eventual vindication. Evidence continues to mount that Dr. Atkins was right when he suggested that carbohydrates- and the hormonal response to them- is a huge factor in weight gain. Yet the notion that carbs are linked to obesity continues to meet with almost religious resistance to this day.

Here’s how carbohydrates figure in the weight gain equation: When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar goes up- sometimes very quickly (when you eat processed carbs, refined cereals, sugar, sodas and the like) sometimes much slower (when you eat, for example, beans or berries). When your blood sugar rises, the pancreas responds by secreting insulin, a hormone whose job it is to remove that sugar from the blood stream and take it into the muscle cells where it can be used for energy. The problem with eating a high-carb diet- especially combined with a sedentary lifestyle- is that both blood sugar and insulin become continually elevated past the point of good health. To make matters worse, the muscle cells aren’t interested in accepting that excess sugar because they’re not being asked to do anything but move keys on a computer and a remote control!

With nowhere else to go, Insulin- also known as the “fat storage” hormone- escorts the excess sugar from your bloodstream into your fat cells. And because high blood sugar has created a disproportionately high insulin response, all that insulin eventually causes blood sugar to drop way below the point where you’re feeling good. You experience cravings (for more carbs) mood swings, and low energy. You overeat. And the rest- as they say- is history.

The reason for the success of a low-carb program is that it gets people off this “blood sugar roller coaster”. By normalizing levels of both blood sugar and insulin, your energy levels are restored, your cravings diminish, you stop storing fat and you can begin actually losing weight. It is almost impossible to “burn” fat in the presence of high levels of insulin, one of the many reasons why a high-carbohydrate diet is so difficult for many people to lose weight on.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that carbs are always bad, nor that calories don’t count. But it is hard to ignore the evidence that some people are far more sensitive to this “roller coaster” effect than others, and that for these individuals a high-carb diet is precisely the wrong prescription for weight loss.

These days, one of the champions of the low-carb approach to weight loss and good health is Gary Taubes, an award winning science writer and a Harvard graduate who studied physics and aerospace engineering and holds a masters degree in journalism from Columbia. Taubes is an expert on scientific controversies (he previously chronicled “bad science” in a book on cold fusion), and has recently turned his laser-sharp focus to the “science” behind the high-carb low-fat dogma of the last several decades in a ground-breaking book called “Good Calories Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease”. In over 500 pages– densely notated with hundreds of references on dietary research dating back to the 1800’s and continuing through the present- he documented how the medical community and the federal government have consistently misinterpreted scientific data allowing a bad hypothesis (“high-carb low-fat diets keep you healthy and thin”) to turn into uncontested dogma. “Good Calories Bad Calories” (aptly titled “The Diet Delusion” when it was published in England) has deservedly become a best-seller and Taubes been invited to speak before medical societies.

We at Atkins continue to believe that no one diet is perfect for all people at all times in all situations, but that virtually everyone would benefit from a diet low in sugar, with minimal processed carbs, plenty of protein, no trans-fats and as much fiber and antioxidants as possible. And we can’t help pointing out that while the percentage of fat in the American diet has steadily decreased over the past decades, the percentage of Americans who are obese or overweight has steadily risen– along with our increased intake of sugar and processed carbs. Fat- as Dr. Atkins pointed out decades ago- is not the problem here.

To ignore the influence of processed carbohydrates on the obesity epidemic is sheer folly. Dr. Atkins may yet be fully vindicated in our lifetime!

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