It’s the Carbs, Not the Calories

A new study presented this week at the European Congress on Obesity concludes that Americans have gotten fatter as the result of eating too much, and not from exercising too little.

I expect most people and nearly all of the media will file this under “Duh, do you think?” I can already hear Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel delivering a punchline along the lines of, “So we’re fat because we overeat? Well, thanks for explaining that to us, Doctor Obvious.”

But this is one of those cases where the “obvious” explanation doesn’t actually explain much of anything. Read this statement by Boyd Swinburn, the lead researcher:

“There have been a lot of assumptions that both reduced physical activity and increased energy intake have been major drivers of the obesity epidemic. This study demonstrates that the weight gain in the American population seems to be virtually all explained by eating more calories.”

If that’s true, then it certainly supports Gary Taubes, who raised quite a few academic eyebrows (and some well-toned hackles among fitness gurus) when he said exercise has little effect on weight loss.

But it also raises a hugely important question that the high priests of The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life can’t seem to answer:  Why, after so many generations, did Americans suddenly decide to start eating too much in the 1970s?

Or, asking the same question from another angle, why didn’t our grandparents eat themselves into obesity? The word “leftovers” certainly existed back then, so it’s not as if they didn’t have enough food to make pigs of themselves.  Were they blessed with some kind of Greatest Generation self-discipline that enabled them to leave the dinner table while still hungry? Given what I remember about my grandfather’s smoking and drinking habits, I’m going to guess “no” on that one.

The explanation offered up by people like Morgan Spurlock and Kelly Brownell, author of Food Fight, is that we found ourselves living in a “toxic food environment.” The evil food producers and restaurants started offering us bigger portions and so, mindless sheep that we are, we ate more simply because we could.

But in order to swallow this load of bologna, you have to believe that eating and hunger are only somewhat related.  Sure, people eat when they’re hungry, but they also eat just because the food is available – in other words, because they’re gluttonous.

One of the insights Gary Taubes presented in Good Calories, Bad Calories is that hunger doesn’t begin in the brain or even in the belly – it begins at the cellular level, when our tissues run low on fuel. If you haven’t seen it already, check out this clip from Fat Head:

Now look at where we’re getting all those extra calories the experts are so worried about:

We don’t eat too much because we’re more gluttonous than our grandparents. We eat too much because in the 1970s the McGovern committee convinced us we need to live primarily on low-fat grains and other starches. We eat too much because our insulin levels are too high. We eat too much because we’re storing too many calories as fat.

In other words, we eat too much because we’re too damned hungry.

And we’ll stay hungry as long as we continue living on foods that spike our blood sugar several times per day. But as usual, the experts have the cause and effect confused:

From a public policy perspective, expectations regarding what can be achieved with exercise need to be lowered and emphasis should be shifted toward encouraging people to eat less, Swinburn says.

No, from a public policy perspective, emphasis should be shifted toward encouraging people to drastically reduce their consumption of carbohydrates; do that, and the “eating less” will take care of itself.  But in a country where sugar, wheat and corn are all subsidized by the taxpayers, I don’t expect this kind of policy shift to happen anytime soon.

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18 thoughts on “It’s the Carbs, Not the Calories

  1. agnostic

    It’s odd that the Supersize Me people never noticed what was being supersized — the fries and the soda, not the poundage of the meat, how much mayo was spread on, etc.

    Same at the movies — for only 25 cents more, you can buy a larger tub of popcorn or a larger bucket of soda. Even nacho chips come in small and large sizes (ditto at 7-11). There don’t offer small hot dogs that can be upgraded to jumbo brats for a quarter more.

    And this is true in general — who are these people who think we’ve been eating larger and larger portions of pork, more and more butter, etc.? It’s the rice, noodles, fries, popcorn, cake, and so on — it’s the carbs, stupid!

    That’s why I was annoyed when Super Size Me kept mentioning how much fat he was ingesting. That had diddly to do with it. He consumed more than a pound of sugar per day.

  2. TonyNZ

    “From a public policy perspective, expectations regarding what can be achieved with exercise need to be lowered and emphasis should be shifted toward encouraging people to eat less, Swinburn says.”

    Why is weight loss the end goal? I can see a number of people hearing this and thinking “exercise won’t lose me weight, so why exercise?” If weight loss was the only motivation I (and near as I can tell, 90% of the people at my gym) would not be going.

    Weight is not an indicator of health, and if this Swinburn fellow gets his way, there is going to be a lot more unhealthy people out there.

    Indeed. As you recall, that’s one of the points I made in the film. Fat people can be healthy, and skinny people can develop type II diabetes — which happened to my lean, muscular father-in-law. If we just want people to be thinner, we should tell them to take up smoking. Smokers on average weigh 10 pounds less; we may assume it’s not because of exercising and smart food choices.

  3. Scott Moore

    As a low-carb eater, I continually feel like I live in an alternative universe. I see things that my friends don’t see. (Eating a bowl of pasta because it’s healthy for me?) I hear statements that sound weird to me that everyone else thinks is normal. (Eat healthy whole grains?)

    I lost weight by radically lowering my carb intake. Yes, that’s true. But now that I’m at the weight I want to be, I swear I eat way more calories than I ever used to eat but I still have to work to *maintain* my weight. 5 eggs and 4 slices of bacon for breakfast, plus 1 or 2 protein shakes before and after I work out. Then a 1000 calorie burrito bowl for lunch (low carb, of course). Then a steak (or hamburger or fish or chicken), maybe 1/2 to 1 lb plus some asparagus or broccoli (and don’t forget the butter!) for dinner. And don’t forget the cheese and dark chocolate and nuts for snacks during the day. I eat like a freakin’ pig and my biggest worry is continuing to lose weight. I’m at about 11% body fat and either play basketball or lift weights for about an hour 6 days per week. So I definitely exercise, but it’s not like I’m insane about it.

    My doctor is going crazy about my cholesterol levels but I just ignore him (and try to educate him too, but he’s not too happy about that!). My HbA1c levels have levelled at 6.0 (too high, but no longer continuing to climb), and my triglycerides are in the upper 50s to low 60s, so I’m feeling pretty good about all of this.

    So, yeah, controlling carbs is a key to losing weight, but I *love* getting to eat these foods and in the volumes that I want while being free from worry about counting calories all of the time. If I limit the carbs that I eat, I can basically eat as much as I want. It’s a sweet deal, if you ask me.

    If your doctor won’t get off your back about your cholesterol, ask him to order the lab test that measures your LDL particle size. If it’s big and fluffy — almost certainly the case with your low trigs — the overall number is meaningless.

  4. Scott Moore

    Yeah, I asked about the particle size test. He said it’s really expensive and he only orders it in patients who show multiple signs of heart disease. I told him, “well, then, if you’re not going to order it and confirm that I know I have big ol’ fluffy LDLs floating around, then stop bugging me about my LDL #, because that test is as meaningless as a test that counts the number of cells in my body without telling me a bit more detail.” He didn’t like that response very much.

    I also told him either to read “Good Calories Bad Calories” or to watch “Fat Head”. I’ll let you guess what he did.

    Kind of a shame when we have to educate our doctors about things like particle size. If only we could clone people like Drs. Eades & Eades and Dr. Al Sears.

  5. Laurie

    I’ve read that over the last 2 decades, we in the US have spent One Trillion Dollars on Lipitor, Viagra, Prilosec and heart surgery. That’s $ 1,000,000,000,000. Written out, it’s staggering. Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 50% of ALL pharmaceuticals produced. And planet-wide the killers are AIDS, malaria, dysentery, starvation and tuberculosis. So what drugs do we spend so much on and consume like piggies here?- cholesterol lowering, erection raising and heart-burn lessening pills. (maybe all that indigestion comes from eating meant-for-bird-food-grain). There’s just something so wrong with this. Even if my quoted statistics are off , the discrepancy between us and the rest of the known universe is, well, staggering.
    Nobody makes any money advising supplementation with vitamins B and D, eating more meat and eggs and avoiding HFCS, wheat and lab-concocted Frankenfats. I don’t worry about whether or not exercise helps with weight loss. We’ve got bigger problems- orders of magnitude larger.

    And the drugs lead to more drugs. Statins cause muscle/joint pain and sexual dysfunction, so the Lipitor leads to Celebrex and Viagra. My mom was on a painkiller until I convinced her to get off her statin.

  6. Patrik

    @Scott Moore

    Regarding the NMR LipoProfile test — it is NOT that expensive. I had it done when Richard of Free the Animal posted about it. In fact, Richard was kind enough to help interpret my results:

    You can order the test online for $80 and go to one of the labs in their network:

    @Tom Naughton

    Keep on keepin’ on! Great stuff.

  7. Richard Nikoley


    Excellent, once again. I publicize:

    Great quote from you, and the reason I blogged it was because it reminded me of a previous post:

    In a battle between will and hunger, hunger will alway win in the long run.

    That’s why it breaks my heart to see someone like Oprah trying, once again, to starve herself thin. It’s doomed to fail — and even if it works, why should we have to be hungry all the time to lose weight?

    Dr. Oz spouts all this nonsense about how she eats too much because she’s craving love. No, she’s craving food. Lowfat diets will do that to most of us.

  8. TonyNZ

    “And the drugs lead to more drugs.”

    My fiance and I, while not trained pharmacists, have learned enough about drugs and their actions in the body through our studies. We went to visit my grandfather about 6 months back when he was ill and had been in hospital. Some other members of my family were puzzling over why he was on 13 different pills, and we were there saying “Well this one does this, this one counteracts the side effects of that one, and this other one counteracts the side effects of this one…”

    Eventually he got taken off his plethora of meds and is now a happy (and relatively mentally aware) 87 year old, eating fatty food because (in his words) “in my day we never heard of cholesterol and we were healthier than the new lot”.

    That’s the unfortunate result of a medical system that trains doctors to treat symptoms instead of causes.

    I think the biggest effect of all the emphasis on cholesterol in the past 40 years has been to scare people into eating the wrong diet.

  9. KD

    “But in a country where sugar, wheat and corn are all subsidized by the taxpayers, I don’t expect this kind of policy shift to happen anytime soon.

    I feel that this is the biggest problem. Even if the government read GCBC and believed every word (and hey, maybe they did and do!), it would be incredibly difficult to go back on the current dietary recommendations, not because they’d be admitting they were wrong (though I’m sure that’s part of it, too), but because they’d never be willing to give up the money they receive from agriculture lobbyists.

    In that sense, I feel that a huge part of the solution is to get rid of the subsidies in the first place… isn’t corn and soy so prevalent in our food as fillers and additives because it’s so cheap due to those subsidies? But I know the chances of that happening is also next to none for the aforementioned reason.

    And what’s really annoying is that that farm subsidies were supposed to be a “temporary” form of assistance during the Depression. There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary government program.

  10. Laurie

    I am sorry to hear your mother was on a statin, but glad to hear that you are a VERY good son and convinced her to stop taking it. In my family, we have just convinced an 84-year-old woman to stop and I’m helping another 58-year-old lady craft a letter to her doc -who wants her to get on them. She’s writing the letter to inform doc that she won’t be taking the statin, and because she wants to try to build awareness. We can dream can’t we?
    I have to calm down because I get stressed about this. Statins are now regularly prescribed for ‘primary prevention’ in groups that can’t possibly benefit from them. ‘Primary Prevention’ means taking a drug against a disease you don’t yet have. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is certainly perverted in the case of statins misused in this way. A woman dosed with statins is being prevented from a disease she is unlikely to get. An older woman is being prevented from getting a disease she is unlikely to get in the remaining time allotted. An older man on them is— time remaining thing again….. Although if you get the man to start taking them when they’re younger, it’s easier to convince them.
    And the biggest travesty is that these poisons have just been approved for children as young as 8. Wow, ‘primary prevention’ run amok. I certainly had no idea the ‘diseases of civilization’ were CAUSED by deficiency and low-blood levels of Lipitor. Thanks for allowing my rants past the moderator.

    Rants happily accepted. The drive to push statins on everyone is insane. Pushing statins on elderly women is worse than useless; it’s probably harmful. Your body makes cholesterol for all kinds of reasons, one of which appears to be protection against cancer.

  11. Patrik

    @KD and @@Tom Naughton

    With regard to food subsidies, have you watched the documentary “King Corn”?

    It explores exactly that — public policy and food subsidies. Most importantly, without gratuitous “gotcha”-s and embarrassment of its subjects. In this case, the Iowa corn farmers, who know they are producing, well, crap.

    I recommend throwing it in the Netflix queue and watching it.

    It’s on my to-do list. I noticed it’s available for instant viewing on NetFlix, so I’ll catch it one of these nights. Thanks for the reminder.

    I don’t blame the farmers. I blame the politicians who buy their votes with my money.

  12. Laurie

    Among many of my brain-f@rts and epiphanies, is this
    one. The (1)eat low-fat, (2)eat high-carb, and
    (3)drug-down-cholesterol-with-statins is a perfect
    storm and bad advice trifecta. It’s a
    make-and-keep-people-unhealthy prescription that comes
    at folks on every level, IMHO. Honestly, like you, I do not
    believe this was a conspiracy by Big Pharma or the
    gov’ment, but the effect is astonishing. This was arrogance (by Keys and
    McGovern) and not malice, but the end result today, in
    2009, is profound. Big Pharma and soy and corn growers
    have been handed the Philosophers’ stone and a
    perpetual motion machine. I know from physics that the
    perpetual motion machine is impossible, but this is
    pretty darn near close to one. The profits they make
    are staggering.
    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing
    repeatedly but expecting different results. Treatment
    of symptoms, like treating ‘high’ cholesterol by
    lowering it further just makes everything WORSE. And
    then adding inflammation-inducing fructose and insulin
    and vege Frankenfats, wow. We have a heatlh care
    crisis in the U.S., but guess what I think the cause
    and the cures for it are?

    From a dietary standpoint, we couldn’t have done much worse.

  13. TonyNZ

    Laurie, it certainly seems that way at this point in time, though the philosophers stone is more like fools gold and the perpetual motion machine is more like a pyramid scheme. Fools gold because its rubbish and those uninformed won’t know the difference, pyramid scheme because it keeps expanding on the basis of the first acts of deceit. Eventually it must come tumbling down, the question is how many people will have diabetes by the time it does…

  14. Laurie

    I should have been more explicit. I do quite literally mean the philosopher’s stone and a perpetual motion machine. {The fascinating book, “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager, is the story of the development of the Haber-Bosch process). This process makes ‘gold’ (fixed nitrogen in the form of ammonia) from air. The inert atmospheric nitrogen, as ammonia, is used as fertilizer from which much more gold (profits) are amassed. The fertilizer is turned into, golden in color even, corn which is fed to cows and to us as corn oil, etc. The ‘gold’ from the air is converted to foodstuffs that end up in our chow and make us sick. Big Pharma comes to the rescue and makes us sicker by filling us full of statins and directing docs to tell us to keep eating grains and less and less animal fat to continue the illnesses. This is definitely a viscous, mega-profit generating cycle, begun by the spinning of air into ‘gold’.

  15. TonyNZ

    Dr Eades also talked about that aspect of that book on his website. I understood what you were trying to say, I was just being optimistic that it won’t continue forever.

    I suppose ‘philosopher’s stone’ has always been used in the literature as something that, on the surface, is brilliant and wonderful and 6 shades of awesome but always brings out the worst in human nature and outcomes (Midas etc.).

    Interestingly enough, Azoth was a term for a universal medicine in alchemy, and is also the word for nitrogen in Slavic. This is coincidental however…

  16. Dana

    My dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in late 2005. Until his younger brother said, “I have it too,” Dad thought he was the only one in his family. OK, his mom had several strokes and his dad died of heart problems back in 1980 so they probably had issues related to diabetes, but as far as we know nobody had gone full-blown until Dad and Uncle Abbie.

    I saw his little cohort of meds. A statin, an anti-reflux drug and he might have been on a diabetes med too but I’m not sure. I have no idea what his doc told him to do as far as lifestyle changes but I’m pretty sure it was some variation of “eat less fat and calories, eat more fruits and veggies and fiber.” Dad interpreted this as “an orange with breakfast, an anemic-looking salad or tomato with dinner and I ain’t giving up my Evangeline Maid bread, thankyouverymuch.” He told me later he’d “gotten better.” Yeah right, dad. He always hated doctors.

    Well, late last year he informed me he’d been in the hospital April 2008 with major blood loss. It had taken a while to sneak up on him; they caught it on an annual exam. I did a Google search for “diabetes anemia” and guess what? He may be in the early stages of kidney damage.

    I try to tell him about this stuff. Useless. He vaguely understands kidneys have something to do with going pee. He knows next to zero about how diabetes works. This is not an unintelligent man. He joined the Navy in 1970, retired in 1992 and managed to attain Senior Chief rank along the way. He just never saw any reason to learn about the human body, just as I never saw any reason to learn calculus–or join the Navy.

    I doubt my father will live to see seventy. I hope I’m wrong.

    Meanwhile after all my reading I’m coming to believe I got a bad start in the first place because my mother has always eaten like crap. If you look at me head-on, the midline of my face is crooked. Always has been even before the orthodontia and the headgear. I found Weston A. Price’s book on a website last night and compared the photos of people on traditional diets versus people on industrial diets and considered that when I was a small child my sprouting permanent teeth were so crooked and my jaw so misaligned that I often got in trouble for eating my meals too slowly. My lower jaw is still underdeveloped. It’s a mess. I look around and every other person I see has a narrow, pinched-looking face, some with bad teeth and some who had to have had braces growing up. (And some who have them now, as adults!) I think that even if we get this obesity thing sorted, our next big crisis is going to be, as Dr. Price put it, the physical degeneration of entire generations of American and other post-industrial children.

    My daughter was born with reflux in both ureters, an underdeveloped right kidney and a propensity for tooth decay that cost her her upper front baby teeth (they’re all capped now and she’s lost one at age four). Her brother suffers from a central auditory processing deficit and obesity. I won’t be having any more kids. It isn’t fair to them.

    Sorry your dad (and you) have had such a rough time of it. That’s what all this nutritional nonsense is doing to people. I needed braces and so did my wife, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with our daughters. They like their meat and eggs and nuts, and while we give them bread if they ask for it, they rarely do.

  17. Matlock

    I think that there probably is some sort of inter-relationships between weight and exercise.

    Speaking personally I found it almost impossible to exercise (i.e. jogging 45mins 4 times per week) when I was 20kgs over weight.

    After three months of Taube/Atkins inspired eating I had lost the excess, found exercise much easier and more enjoyable so I did more creating a virtuous circle. Loosing weight enables you to exercise not the other way around.

    I think exercise is useful for keeping the weight off. It enables you to cheat more diet wise and get away with it and it releases various feel good chemicals into your body which acts a mild anti-depressant.

    I believe you’ve got the relationship right; when your diet allows your body to burn fat, you feel more like using that fuel. The one area where exercise seems to really help is in up-regulating insulin sensitivity, which helps keep your overall insulin level lower. Hard work — weights, cross-training, etc. — appears to be better for insulin levels than aerobics.

  18. Chris

    Quick Question: I’ve watched the animated clip of “Why Your Got Fat” a few times. At the end of it, there are little blue dots in the artery with an “L” in them. What does the “L” stand for? Lipid? Something else? Thanks.

    Lipoprotein Lipase.

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