Your Lying Eyes

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07 January 2009

In Defense of Carbs

Carb-bashing is all the rage in cyberspace, particularly in the more conservative habitats where I tend to troll - for example, here, here, and here. The basic argument is "it's not the fat, it's the carbohydrates." Particularly, those nasty, refined carbohydrates - that's what really puts on the pounds, they claim. But how can one tell?

The problem is that it is awfully difficult to tease out the actual carbohydrate effect in one's (Western) diet from the fats since carbs - particularly the refined ones - are almost always used as a vector for fat. The typical use for breads is to have something to spread fat on. And when was the last time you had plain, unaccompanied boiled potatoes - never? So I have no doubt that cutting way down on your carbs will help you lose weight, because you'll also be cutting down on fat, and so it's almost certain that total calorie intake will decrease. And I'm sure that more complex carbohydrates (say, brown rice) is better for you than simple carbs (white rice), but is that really the problem?

Consider this: look at all the obesity around us. Do you really think these people got that way from eating too much linguine with vegetables sauteed in olive oil with garlic? Are they wolfing down huge portions of white rice with steamed vegetables? Are they starting off their day with a plain bagel and black coffee? I don't think so.

Think about how people actually eat pasta. It's not linguine with sauteed vegetables - it's more likely Fettuccine Alfredo, most likely the souped-up four-cheese variety, where strings of cheese follow the fork from the plate right to the mouth. Rice is most likely paired with some creamy meat concoction, where it's main purpose is to soak up the excess sauce. Bagels are indeed major calorie hogs, but a typical bagel has about 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter or cream cheese, or else is used for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. And our favorite food of all, pizza - one might think of it as a carb, but of course it's really just piles and piles of cheese. Carbs, in America at least, serve the primary purpose of giving structure to fats. And of course there's the potato. No one eats potatoes plain. They are invariable either immersed in fat to fry or soaked in butter after mashing.

What about soda, you might ask? Well true, soda has no fat - but it is often the accompaniment to fast food meals (which as we've been discussing above are mainly fat). Still I have to admit I do see lots of fat people just sipping on soda. But I also see lots of fat people walking around with huge jugs of ice water. Fat people simply drink a lot of fluids, related to their fluid retention, which in turn is aggravated by the salty fast-foods they consume.

A "sweet tooth" is often blamed for obesity, but I contend it's really a "fat tooth." Do you really think those sneaky fatsos are going off and hiding in a corner gorging on Jolly Ranchers or jello? Again, not likely. What they're eating are snickers bars, oreos, twinkies, and ice cream sundaes - and not with low-fat Hershey syrup, but with high fat hot-fudge topping. Yes, these are all loaded with sugar - but they're especially loaded with fat.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that carbs are wonderful and should be consumed with abandon - I am contending though that the notion that fats are fine and it's really carbs that are the problem is mistaken. My preference is the so-called Mediterranean diet. Use more mono- and un-saturated fats. By all means consume whole grains, nuts and fruits (yes - those sugar-laden fruits!). But skip the whole-wheat pasta - it really sucks. If you've ever made pasta by hand, you realize how impossible it is to make good pasta with whole wheat flour. Buy a good brand of pasta - but regular durum/semolina pasta is fine. So is white rice - it's great with sauteed chicken and vegetables. Potatoes are tough to eat without fat, so they're worth skipping. And avoid bread as much as possible for the same reason. But if you can get your hands on a good loaf, eat it with gusto - dip in olive oil, though - skip the butter. Eat a grilled chiken sandwich at lunch - it's not going to kill you - but the melted cheese might, so skip that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, my wife has a co-worker (Chinese guy actually) who follows one of these low-carb diets religiously. He mainly eats only protein.

He went for his annual physical recently, and his doctor warned him that his cholesterol levels were sky high!

The pendulum will probably swing back the other way in a few years, it always does. There will be some study telling us how you need carbs for proper brain functioning or something like that, and everyone will abandon the high protein diets and load up on carbs again. Seems like a balanced diet that includes carbs, proteins, and fats is still the best way to go.

January 07, 2009 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cutting refined sugars out is the thing to do.

January 07, 2009 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, my wife has a co-worker (Chinese guy actually) who follows one of these low-carb diets religiously.

January 07, 2009 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I'd give to be able to eat bread or pasta (or drink beer or bourbon or grain alcohol).

I have celiac disease. It sort of makes you eat rather healthy whether you want to or not.

January 07, 2009 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What I'd give to be able to eat bread or pasta (or drink beer or bourbon or grain alcohol)."

You're still drinking sake, wine, vodka(potato), mead, brandy, etc...all the non-wheat booze, right?

January 08, 2009 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was expecting some sort of actual defense of carbs involving data. Instead you've basically offered up your opinion that they really can't be that bad just because... well just because.
Also: And I'm sure that more complex carbohydrates (say, brown rice) is better for you than simple carbs (white rice)
Uncritical acceptance of conventional wisdom. Everyone asserts this based on the fact that brown rice does have some additional nutrients, but there is no evidence that this isn't outweighed by the presence of antinutrients in brown rice.

January 08, 2009 1:41 PM  
Blogger Figgy said...

I've been railing against the demonization of carbs for years so it's good to see a piece that exposes some of the idiocy associated with the trend. I know a bunch of people who went on low carb diets such as the Atkins when the bad reports on carbs came out. Every one of them is either the same weight or heavier than before the trendy diet effort. And it's not because they consume carbs, it's because they consistently overeat and don't exercise enough.

I have to say though, you were a little rough on the olde potatoe, which would not please my Irish ancestors. The sweet potato is a tasty alternative to the regular bland variety and is also packed with useful nutrients. A little pepper and low fat spread or even olive oil and you're ready to go. Also makes a good accompaniment to chicken.

January 08, 2009 1:41 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Figgy - the sweet potato is an entirely different animal, so to speak. Much more nutritious than the plain white spud.

bbarlog - yes this post was data free. The main reason is there is no data - no one studies this in the kind of detail necessary to tease out the effects of carbs vs. fat. To do that would be very expensive but in my opinion worth it. But there's no study out there that actually monitors what people eat specifically (like how much butter they're actually eating and how many potato chips were actually consumed). And that's my point - there's no real scientific basis for the anti-carb mantra.

January 08, 2009 11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"there's no real scientific basis for the anti-carb mantra"

That's true - there's no real scientific basis for the anti-fat mantra, either. So why do we have numerous "authorities" making detailed recommendations on diet, that could potentially impact people's very lives, WHEN WE DON'T KNOW?!?

The whole carbs vs. fat thing seems to be becoming a political issue, with the right ant-carb and the left anti-fat. Great. We can all see what politicization did for the study of climate change...


January 10, 2009 11:47 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

The whole carbs vs. fat thing seems to be becoming a political issue, with the right ant-carb and the left anti-fat.

I think you picked the wrong blog to profer that opinion - just the opposite here at the moment.

January 10, 2009 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think you picked the wrong blog to profer that opinion - just the opposite here at the moment."

Yes, I know - this blog and it's readership is atypical, that's one of the reasons I read it. In general, though, I believe that the statement is true. I certainly encounter a lot of anti-carb sentiment on right blogs. And of course, ten comments is not enough to be representative of much.


January 11, 2009 11:34 AM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

I suspect that there's a lot of variation in people in terms of what diet works best for them, so I suggest experimenting for yourself.

January 12, 2009 5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's impossible to consider the effect of carbs or fat on an individual's health (and waistline) without taking into account insulin. A large portion of the population (maybe as much as a third) will develop a resistance to insulin eating a high-carb diet. Insulin resistance tends to lead to all the metobolic syndrome problems like obesity, type-2 diabetes, gout, etc.. Those people should avoid carbs. For most other people it's not much of an issue. Genes matter (as Steve Sailer implies).

January 12, 2009 12:27 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

The "scientific consensus" as they say is anti-fat. I agree though different people will have different reactions to fat and carbs. But, again, my main point is that no one (I of course mean almost no one) eats pure carbs - they're used to accompany fats, so I can't understand how anyone who hasn't conducted a very detailed, controlled study on themselves (which is well-nigh impossible) can tell.

But aren't we all sure that moderate consumption of everything is probably A-OK?

January 12, 2009 8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The name of the six ton elephant in the room is Exercise.

January 12, 2009 8:22 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

I tried eating an low fat high carb diet and instead of losing 15 pounds, I put on 25 pounds. I switched to a high fat low carb diet and lost the 25 pounds quickly without much discomfort, but never lost the next 15.

But if your ancestors were rice farmers in Thailand or wherever, your mileage might vary.

A lot of the anti-fat bias in the scientific literature came from a study of Japanese people in Hawaii, who put on a lot of weight when they started eating hamburgers.

January 16, 2009 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This made me I prepared spaghetti with a custom putanesca sauce. Now I am obese, and it is your fault(Mayor Bloomberg agrees with me).

Seriously, back in the 1960's (I do go back that far) could any of us have envisioned how silly things could get once the politicians realized that public health campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving, and now anti-fat)could provide them with favorable publicity at little political cost? They just need to pick thier targets properly.

January 16, 2009 6:58 PM  
Blogger Figgy said...

My diet contains a lot of (hopefully) healthy carbs and a relatively low amount of fats. For the past 15 years at least, my weight has been remarkably stable. There are times when I gain weight (Thanksgiving through Christmas being the consistent culprit). When this happens, I try to eat less and exercise more, and invariably the weight drops off.

With quantity under control, quality of the calories has become my big diet issue. Years of experimenatation have led to the belief that I feel best and maintain maximum energy levels when my diet consists mainly of fruits, whole grains and veggies (FGV). What Steve says about genetics is almost certainly true but the feeling here is that, for most people, a diet dominated by FGVs will provide the best chance to feel your best and achieve maximum lifespan. Of course, if you don't care about living as long as possible, then by all means live it up! There's a certain Malthusian logic to that approach after all.

January 17, 2009 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whole wheat pasta is delicious, IMO. How people eat white bread and white pasta and white goodness knows what else is beyond me. Whole grains are like beer- give it a week and you'll develop the taste.

Apropos of nutrition and health, everyone should take CoQ-10 and Fish oil supplements.

January 18, 2009 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see just how permeant virtual memory has become in our every day lives. It seems like everywhere I turn, I see something with a card slot or USB jack . I guess it makes sense though, considering how inexpensive memory has become as of late...

Ahhh... who am I to complain. I can't make it through a day without my R4 / R4i!

(Posted by WhatPost for R4i Nintendo DS.)

February 10, 2010 8:57 AM  
Blogger Vincent Do said...

There exists countries who consume higher amounts of saturated fat (butter, coconut oil, lard) than America, such as France, who have lower obesity and heart disease rates than America. There exists NO countries who consume high amounts of refined carbs and can say the same thing.

The only bad fats are artificial ones, such as margarine and industrial vegetable oils. Butter has been around for practically forever and we've been fine. It really is more about cutting the refined carbs than the natural, traditional fats.

March 21, 2012 2:11 AM  

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