Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The underlying cause of obesity

Sometimes I think advocates of the two sides of the nutritional camps (let's call them the 'low carb' side and the 'balanced diet' side) are each so convinced that they are right that it's confusing to those of us trying to make sense of what's good and what's bad.

Here is an example:  If you are overweight, the balanced diet side say you're eating too much.  You need to eliminate fatty, sugary and refined foods from your diet, eat more whole grains, reduce your calorie intake, and you will lose weight in a gradual manner.  This solution works for some people, but many more feel guilty for lacking what they perceive as the willpower to stick to it.

The low carb side has an equally straightforward response, but they point to a different cause:  They say your diet has too much carbohydrate, which (1) caused the glucose to bind with the excessive fats you ate, forming triglycerides which are now firmly ensconced in your derriere, and (2) set you up in a vicious cycle that makes you hungrier than you'd like to be, and which makes it virtually impossible to control your appetite even when you know you've had enough to eat.

The low carbers go right to the source of the problem: focus primarily on carbohydrate reduction.  This means eliminating sugar and starches.  While the initial withdrawal can be uncomfortable, after the first couple of days, it becomes really manageable.

In the absence of a carbohydrate overload, fats are unable to form glycerol phosphate, which is needed to form triglycerides.  Essentially, this disarms the fats you eat.  Instead of banishing them to your fat deposits, your body burns them as energy instead.

Lower sugar levels allow your insulin to work much less than before, so now your body stops cycling through the ups and downs that make you crave a snack at certain times of the day.

There are three main sources of energy that fuel the body:  carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Carbohydrates are the only ones that offer little nutritional value in and of themselves, and there is no physical need to consume any minimum quantity.  Of all the fuels, they are usually the cheapest and most easily digested.  Because sugars are also highly addictive, it's psychologically hard to let go of the idea of radically reducing your carbohydrate load.

On the other hand, once you've made that decision, it's usually quite easy to stick to this way of eating. 

Many people realize, often for the first time in their life, that it is possible to break free from their appetite, and this is a liberating feeling.

The big hurdle is overcoming the initial psychological resistance, and the public health bodies don't make it any easier with their dire sounding warnings.  There are many degrees of low carb eating, the least radical being as simple as replacing sugar and starch with high quality protein and plenty of leafy green vegetables.  Usually, this approach also restricts fat consumption to some extent.

It's hard to work out why this is so threatening to the public health bodies, who, you would think, should be supportive of an effective diet that ensures its adherents stay away from processed food, sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Especially when there are growing numbers of doctors who have looked at the science and believe this is the way to go.

Of course the whole grains are still a sticking point.  But as long as our hospitals and other public institutions continue to serve processed grains with the approval of registered dieticians and their controlling bodies, I firmly believe real whole grain foods are not going to be a reality for the vast majority of North Americans, at least not in our lifetimes.

The reality, today, is that diabetic and morbidly obese patients in our local hospital get food trays with high glycemic foods like potatoes, crackers, bread, rice, juice and jello.  They even get fries.

Call me cynical, but in my opinion, the 'balanced diet' approach is broken when looked at from a public health point of view.

There should at least be more recognition that low carb eating plans are worth considering.  Instead of dismissing low carb diets out of hand, the authorities and foundations that are concerned with nutritional standards need to be more honest about the real underlying cause of obesity.

Rather than putting the blame on excessive consumption of fat-laden refined food, they need to tell people that our carbohydrate culture is the underlying cause of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Sugar is the worst offender, and they need to openly tell people to stop eating it.  But the other starches aren't much better.

We need more honesty.  We need direct language that cuts to the chase.  And we need more public discussion on the true cause of obesity.


  1. Very interesting point. The possible link between sugar and cancer is worth researching further.

  2. Agreed! Though there are already a number of studies pointing to a link between sugar and cancer, and others that show that cancers need sugar in order to grow, in the same way fire needs oxygen to keep burning.