Random Thoughts On The Alternative Hypothesis, Etc.

A few random thoughts that occurred to me after my previous post on the “alternative hypothesis”:

1. Too many carbs as an explanation for the rise in obesity and diabetes is still largely correct.

If we were Kitavans and got our carbs from sweet potatoes and other unprocessed foods, maybe the increase in carb intake since the 1970s wouldn’t have been such a problem.  But we’re westerners, and a disproportionate share of our carbs come from processed grains.  They spike blood sugar (which probably leads to insulin resistance over time) and they provoke inflammation (which probably leads to insulin resistance over time).

In Denise Minger’s book Death by Food Pyramid, she recounts the story of Luise Light, a government scientist who was given the task of writing new nutrition guidelines in the 1970s.

Unlike previous food guides, Light’s version cracked down ruthlessly on empty calories and health-depleting junk food.  The new guide’s base was a safari through the produce department – five to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day.  “Protein foods” like meats, eggs, nuts and beans came in at five to seven ounces daily; for dairy, two to three servings were advised.

The guide kept sugar well below 10 percent of total calories and strictly limited refined carbohydrates, with white-flour products like crackers, bagels, and bread rolls shoved into the guide’s no-bueno zone alongside candy and junk food.  And the kicker:  grains were pruned down to a maximum of two to three servings per day, always in whole form.

The USDA, of course, took her guidelines and mutated them into a pyramid that suggested 6 to 11 servings per day of grains.  Light later commented that “no one needs that much bread and cereal in a day unless they are longshoremen or football players” and warned that the six-to-eleven servings of grain per day could spark epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

And so they did.  We can blame it on hormonal disruption instead of too much insulin per se, and we can argue about whether or not eating more sweet potatoes and green bananas would have been good or bad.  But we were told to eat more breads and cereals, and those foods are a big part of the problem

2. Many of the people currently beating up on Atkins, Taubes, etc., owe them a huge thanks, whether they’ll admit it or not.

Yeah, you can say it’s not all about the carbs.  You can say it’s not about the temporary insulin spike after a meal.  You can say it’s more about food quality than macronutrients.  Heck, I’ll even agree with you.  But I suspect if there were no Dr. Atkins and no Good Calories, Bad Calories, a lot of current whole-foodies and paleo types who slam low-carb diets would still be afraid of saturated fats and cholesterol and trying to live on low-fat diets.

Honestly, how many of you out there were aware of all the bad nutrition “science” before Taubes starting writing about it?  I certainly wasn’t.  When I worked for a small health magazine in the 1980s, I quoted the USDA and the American Heart Association as reliable sources in my articles – because I assumed they were reliable sources.

3.  Mixing it up is probably the way to go.

Based on glowing reviews from readers, I recently read three books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Great reads, all three of them.  In Antifragile, he makes the point that biological systems are often made stronger by doses of randomness.  If you do the same repetitive motion every day, you’ll likely injure yourself.  But if you lift weights now and then – a random stressor – you get stronger.  Taleb eats meat, but goes vegan for several days now and then.  He fasts now and then.  I recently heard legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin say (on a Tim Ferriss podcast) that he loves nuts, but he’s careful not to eat the same ones day in and day out.  The reason?  You can develop an intolerance if you eat the same foods over and over.  You need to mix it up.

So I like the approach Rob Faigin suggests in Natural Hormone Enhancement: eat a low-carb/high-fat diet for a few days to promote weight loss, then mix in a day with higher carbs and lower fat.  Or maybe a few days now and then.

Tim “Tatertot” Steele wrote an interesting book called The Potato Hack.  The “hack” is eating nothing but potatoes for a period of several days.  Salt and liquids like vinegar or chicken broth are allowed for flavor, but no fat.  Some people have reported losing a pound per day on the diet.  I tried it for three days in May and lost … nothing.  No change.  But the interesting part is that my blood sugar didn’t go through the roof like I feared it might.  I usually peaked at around 140 briefly, then dropped well below 100 by an hour after eating.  I boiled the potatoes and let them cool in the fridge overnight before reheating them for meals, so perhaps the resistant starch helped keep the glucose level down.

Kudos to Tim, by the way, for not letting his enthusiasm for the potato hack blind him to the danger for diabetics.  He tells readers trying the diet for the first time that they absolutely must check their glucose response.  He shows what normal responses should look like.  He also shows what a diabetic response would look like and says “If your numbers look like this, DON’T DO THIS DIET.  You are a diabetic and need to see a doctor.”

Anyway, if you decide to try Faigin’s mix-it-up approach, Steele’s potato-hack meals fit the “higher carb, low-fat day” prescription.

4. Never-ending low-carbing can cause problems for some people, but that doesn’t mean everyone should carb up.

Like I said in my previous post, I would never tell type II diabetics to run out and eat potatoes just because they seem to benefit me.  We’re all different.  Jimmy Moore interviewed Chris Kresser about diet and thyroid back in 2012, and Kresser made exactly that point.  Some people go VLC and they’re fine.  They feel great.  They don’t develop thyroid issues.  But some people do.  They stop converting as much T4 (the inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (the active hormone) and their metabolisms slow down.  They’re surprised when Kresser has them eat more carbs and they begin losing weight again.

Too little glucose in the diet can clearly cause problems for some people, but so can too much glucose.  In my previous post, I linked to a study demonstrating that going VLC can cause some men to produce less testosterone – not a happy result if you want more muscle and less fat on your body.  But I should mention that other studies demonstrate that too much glucose in the system also reduces testosterone.

Here’s the conclusion from one study:

Glucose ingestion induces a significant reduction in total and free T levels in men, which is similar across the spectrum of glucose tolerance.

And from another study:

Oral glucose administration acutely lowers LH and total T concentrations by suppressing pulsatile LH secretion and basal T secretion commensurately.

Too little glucose, your testosterone drops.  Too much glucose, your testosterone drops.  Paul Jaminet got it right.  There’s an ideal range for glucose.  For most of us, it’s not zero … but it’s also nothing close to 300 grams per day.

While digging those studies out of my database, I also came across two that demonstrate the importance of the right fats.  Here’s the conclusion from this study:

Our results indicate that in men a decrease in dietary fat content and an increase in the degree of unsaturation of fatty acids reduces the serum concentrations of androstenedione, testosterone and free testosterone.

And from this study:

Production rates for T showed a downward trend while on low-fat diet modulation. We conclude that reduction in dietary fat intake (and increase in fiber) results in 12% consistent lowering of circulating androgen levels.

Studies have shown that men today have lower average testosterone levels than men in previous generations.  We’ve been jacking up our glucose levels with junk carbs and eating less saturated fat since the 1970s.  Could be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

So regardless of whether you stick with VLC or decide to mix it up with higher-carb days, here’s the take-home message for guys:  skip the cereals and eat your damned bacon and eggs.


53 thoughts on “Random Thoughts On The Alternative Hypothesis, Etc.

  1. Firebird

    “Everyone is worried about saturated and unsaturated fats and cholesterol these days.

    Well cholesterol is really nothing to be worried about by a man who is a bodybuilder because he is usually on a low carbohydrate, low sugar diet.

    And sugar is the culprit here. It isn’t fat at all.

    Because fat actually is one of the many lipotrophic factors. Fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, vitamin F which is taken from safflower oil, choline, betaine, methionine, inositol, lipase, lecithin, vitamin C, B12 and bioflavanoids are all fat emulsifiers.”

    – Vince Gironda, c. 1969

    I was reading his writings back in the early 80s at a time when “Eat to Win” was on the NY Times best seller list. I followed Robert Haas’ advice and starved. I read Gironda and thought he was nuts. Who knew how right he was and it has taken me 25 years to figure that out.

    The phrase, “Tell a lie long enough and it becomes truth” is right on the button where the low-fat high carb people were concerned.

      1. BobM

        Oh yeah, “Eat to Win” was garbage. Talk about hunger.

        What’s vitamin F? I just recently heard about vitamin K and have taken steps to add that to my diet, but I’ve not heard about vitamin F.

          1. Bob Niland

            According to Wiki, “Vitamin F” used to refer to the EFAs (and of them DHA & EPA are surely critical, and most people need to supplement them).

            But without digging into the context, it could also be mere metaphor. The majority of supplements, including almost all multi-vitamin products, are Vitamin F (Fail).

            A similar metaphor I often use is that most processed foods provide your RDA of Vitamin J (Junk).

            1. Firebird

              Or perhaps, seeing as how the quote was made nearly 50 years ago, little was known about the ALA at the time. and “F” was merely a placeholder until more could be learned.

              By your logic then, the B-Vitamins would be a metaphor for “bulls***” and Vitamin C would be a metaphore for “crap.”

          2. Firebird

            Vitamins F, an essential fatty acid, is composed of two fatty acids—linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linoleic acid (LNA)—with linoleic acid being the most complete fatty acid. There are two basic categories of EFA’s (essential fatty acids)—omega-3 and omega-6—which include linoleic acid and gamma-linoleic acid.

  2. Mike

    Tom – great article. You mentioned mixing it up. There is a program called AltShift, which is very real food/primal/paleo like, except you alternate “shifts”. 5 days of VLC/High Fat followed by 3 days of very low fat. It’s a little regimented, which I’m not a particular fan of, but the general notion makes a lot of sense.

  3. Angel

    I started a low carb diet in 2007 (thanks to Protein Power by the Drs. Eades) and then slowly morphed from there to an interest in traditional diet (Weston A. Price Foundation) and then to paleo. My diet now is a moderate-carb paleo diet (and maybe I would have found it eventually independently) but low-carb was definitely my “gateway diet” into a radically different diet than the Standard American diet, which was slowly killing me (I was obese and pre-diabetic). Low carb significantly improved my health at the time and helped me realize that I do have some control over my health and future.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I suspect the Atkins diet was a stepping stone to a better diet for millions of people, even if they eat more carbs now.

  4. BobM

    Very interesting article. I’ve been trying this with intermittent fasting (IF), mixing it up to do some longer fasts and some shorter fasts, depending on the week. I’m about to go on vacation, where I’ll attempt to stick to a low carb diet, but will have ice cream, pizza, and chocolate. When I get back, I’m going to fast a while to get back on track.

    Then…I’m going to try at least several weeks of eating primarily meat and meat fats.

    After that? The Potato Hack, which you reference above. I’ve tried resistant starch and probiotics, and that’s been inconclusive. So, I think I’ll go “hardcore” with the Potato Hack (although, like you, I’ll cook, cool, then reheat the potatoes and also use vinegar to blunt the sugar response).

    During this time, I’m going to take my blood sugar and ketones (if applicable). I also want to get a relatively complete workup (cholesterol, NMR, HbA1c, etc.) and hopefully boime testing done before the meat diet, after the meat diet, and at one other point. Unfortunately, I have to pay for these tests, so we’ll have to see how many of these I can do.

    1. JillOz

      Very interesting, in England/Australia it’s very common to have French fries and potatoes with salt and vinegar, but nobody would have said it’s to blunt the sugar response, it’s just a habit!

      How does vinegar blunt the sugar response?

        1. Tom

          VERY interesting. We eat a lot of pickled vegetables and use a lot of different vinegars in almost every meal. I wonder how much thats helping with blood sugar?

          I’m also reminded of the standard italian restaurant bread basket with a dish of balsamic, olive oil and a grind of black pepper.

            1. Tom

              Their default life style pressed on them by need sure helped. Eat stem to stern, preserve/ferment/culture what you couldn’t eat before it spoiled. No processed foods. Plenty of exercise.

              On the downside, unclean water, no antibiotics, eating off of lead plates and inhaling a lot of wood/oil smoke negated a lot of the dietary goodness.

  5. tony

    Tom, Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps consumes, when in training, 10,000 calories a day – mostly junk food carbs – yet maintains a slim figure. East African distance runners consume 900 grams of carbs per day. Tour De France cyclists consume 5,000 calories a day, 70% carbs.

    Based on your extensive research and knowledge, do you believe everyone has a sweet spot of exercise volume that would eliminate the weight gain effects of carbohydrates?

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      If you exercise enough to prevent your glycogen stores from filling up completely, you can probably get away with all those carbs. Phelps spends much of his day in cool water, which means his body also burns through the carbs to produce body heat.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          There’s no test that I’m aware of. Intense exercise (as opposed to aerobic exercise) burns up glycogen. If you starve or restrict carbs, you also burn up glycogen. The idea behind a cyclical ketogenic diet is to empty the glycogen stores, then refill them.

      1. Thomas E.

        Probably for a while, depending on the person, but you can get to some of the famous examples such as Prof. Tim Noakes, Dr. Peter Attia and a few more I am sure.

        I think listening/reading Dr. Peter Attia, Prof Tim Noakes and in the latest podcast from Jimmy http://livinlavidalowcarb.com/blog/the-llvlc-show-episode-1113-dr-stephen-phinney-2015-cape-town-south-africa-lchf-convention-lecture/26310 there is a lot behind the performance possibilities with a low card diet.

        For Phelps, his races might be short enough that it might be advantageous to be powered very well solely on glycogen, but overall his body might be better off becoming fat adapted, and then hybrid. Just listening to Dr. Phinney and the recovery periods, or lack thereof, from the distance runners suggest, that it is possible LCHF could still translate to a higher level of performance for the middle and long distances for the swimmer who is willing to give it 6 months to try.

        There is only so much the liver, pancreas, well the whole body can handle. I fully believe that tolerances are going to very. And it may very well be possible the Phelps can play the very high carb game for his entire life, and do it healthily. If so, my guess is he would truly be 1 in a million, or 1 in 10 million.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I certainly wouldn’t want to assume that the diet an Olympic athlete can handle is a diet I can handle.

      2. Mike

        If I recall, Tim Noakes suggests that efficient use of carbs is one of the genetic blessings that make world-class athletes, particularly in events with a relatively short duration, but he also points out that a large number of very successful athletes become insulin resistant fairly young.

    2. BobM

      When I was younger, I had a very high carb, low fat diet, but I was biking 60+ miles per week, lifting weights, walking a ton, playing tennis, etc. It wasn’t until I got injured and couldn’t exercise for a while that this diet caught up with me. I began feeling depressed, hungry, etc. I didn’t realize it was the diet, though, as I was convinced fat (and particularly fat from animals) killed.

      I’m personally convinced also that extreme exercise of this type affects insulin somehow. When I was riding my bike a few years ago 100+ miles per week, I lost weight, mainly because I had a decrease in hunger. I simply wasn’t hungry, and I theorize this was an insulin effect (probably lowered insulin due to biking that much). Of course, as soon as the season was over, and I stopped riding, I gained everything back basically immediately. And I got hungrier. It wasn’t until I permanently switched to low carb (then added intermittent fasting) that my hunger became what I’d call “natural” (instead of the constant “I know I just ate, but I’m still hungry” drive of the low fat diet).

      1. Jennifer Snow

        I have excessive insulin production so it’s VERY easy for me to observe just through physical symptoms what my insulin levels are doing, and when I exercise even just a little they normalize very quickly even if I’m not eating so well. If I sit around my insulin tends to get out of whack.

    3. The Older Brother

      Let’s not confuse fit and low body fat with healthy.

      Granted, if you’re a genetic beast like Phelps you’ve probably got a metabolism that will burn anything you toss in the furnace, but there are all sorts of world-class athletes who maintain high level of fitness right up to the day they stroke out to the 2-meter dirt pool. Just because you’re burning the calories doesn’t mean they’re not burning you back.

      I’d be interested in seeing lipid panels and various inflammation markers in some of these folks when they hit 45 or so.


  6. Lori Miller

    Traditionally, people observed periods of feasts and periods of fasts. And the Kitavans, I’m told, ate one big meal and day and the vast majority of them smoked, helping keep their weight and overall insulin down.

        1. Tom

          Don’t forget the low tar and ‘light’ cigarettes.

          Or the ones they made in the 50’s and 60’s to help out people with asthma.

          I think our modern day version is the squirt bottle of liquid trans fat ‘I can totally believe its not butter’.

  7. Walter Bushell

    That was covered in the light comment. Above ‘Light later commented that “no one needs that much bread and cereal in a day unless they are longshoremen or football players . . .’

    You can get away with a lot if your a pro in an endurance sport. Durian Rider comes to mind too, if you bicycle for twelve hours a day, you may be able to be a fruitarian. However, holding down a job or even having a life under those conditions is difficult, to say the least.

    When you have to give up the sport, you have to learn to eat again, as I believe many football players don’t.

      1. Bob Niland

        “Upon retirement from the league and cessation of intense physical training, linemen were at almost double the risk of MS than their teammates with lower BMIs. Similar patterns have been observed for Sumo wrestlers… Upon retirement, Sumo wrestlers are at risk for rapid onset of MS, CVD and T2D if the regimen of exercise is not maintained.”

        That’s Metabolic Syndrome, CardioVascular Disease and Type 2 Diabetes.

        A lot of people are surprised to learn that Sumo wrestlers actually have pretty decent markers while in training, despite their ample morphology.

  8. Heather Dreith

    Do you not think Atkins and other low carb diets are good for jump-starting weight loss? I lost a lot of weight on Atkins a few years ago and got my A1c down to 5.3. (I’m a Type 2 diabetic, and my doctor was so pleased about bringing the A1c down.)

    I followed the induction phase (20g of carbs) for several weeks rather than the suggested 2 weeks. Then I gradually added more carbs from things like blueberries and some of the higher carb veggies like winter squash. I did great for 6 months and lost 30+ pounds. Then I went to a seminar where the organizers had fiendishly placed a pile of mini candy bars at each participant’s spot. I had one, then more, then the whole pile. From that moment I fell off the wagon.

    I’m trying again, just started the induction phase a week ago. It always amazes me how satisfied I feel. I guess my point is, I’m not sure I could switch it up without triggering some crazed craving for carbs, although the concept sure makes sense. Sounds normal, and I guess I’m not normal.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yes, they’re great for jump-starting weight loss. But if people stay in the induction phase (< 30 carbs) for months on end, some of them are going to experience hormonal disruptions.

  9. Sonya B

    Hi Tom, on those days when you have higher carbs/potato, do you go without, use low fat or stick with high fat dairy products?

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      For the Saturday-night high-carb meal, I don’t worry about fat at all. When I have a potato with dinner, I still use butter and sour cream, but don’t go crazy on either. Now and then I have a cooked and cooled potato with malt vinegar and salt, in which case I don’t add any fat.

  10. Michael

    Tom: “If we were Kitavans and got our carbs from sweet potatoes and other unprocessed foods, maybe the increase in carb intake since the 1970s wouldn’t have been such a problem. ”

    Also don’t forget that Kitavans eat a little or no breakfast at all and then eat one big meal at the end of the day. They’ve been doing intermittent fasting every day, generation after generation, for who knows how many thousands of years.

    It makes me chuckle when supposedly smart people skip that part of the story and then point at the Kitavans and say they eat a 80% carbs diet so that means carbs in the north american diet can’t be a problem.

    1. Walter Bushell

      The Kitavans were genetically selected to live well and reproduce on that diet. As were the Eskimos etcetera who developed defenses against high levels of essential fatty acids.

      One should be skeptical of native peoples on extreme diets for Americans. And you have an ancestry whose diet involved a lot of seafood one much be wary of Vitamin A deficiency as you may not be able to make vitamin A effectively or at all. Japanese have genes for digesting seaweed and so on.

        1. Bob Niland

          The so-called Blue Zoners have something to tell us, probably multiple somethings, but #context; or as I often put it:

          You can expect BZ results if you are genetically a BZer, actually living in the ancestral BZ, eating the ancestral BZ diet, and living the ancestral BZ lifestyle (which covers the non-dietary stuff, like circadian matters, dental hygiene, and maybe even obscure issues like footwear). Change anything, and your smileage may vary.

          I don’t think all the BZ’s have unique significant genetics, but they likely all have key confounders of one kind or another.

            1. Walter

              Social connection and stress relieving ritual among others. Cortisol also can make anyone fat.

  11. Mike B.

    When people talk about Atkins, they’re usually talking about just the induction phase in the early chapters of the book.

    It has been several years since I’ve read the Atkins book, but I seem to recall that the full Atkins diet involves slowly incorporating more carbs into the diet after weight loss — essentially experimenting to find out the right level of carbs for each person as well as observing how the body responds to re-incorporated foods.

    This post is a good reminder that Atkins and low-carb aren’t no-carb.


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