Taubes - Chapter 16 - History on the Fattening Carbohydrate

- POSTED ON: Jan 01, 2011



Taubes discusses how carbohydrates were viewed in History. 

 In 1825 Brillat-Savarin wrote about the cause and prevention of obesity.
Regarding the Cause: 

“the roots of obesity were obvious.
The first was a natural predisposition to fatten.

The second was the starches and flours
which man uses as the base of his daily nourishment.
….and that starch produces this effect
more quickly and surely when it is used with sugar.”

Regarding the Cure:

“a more or less rigid abstinence from
everything that is starchy or floury
will lead to the lessening of weight.”

Taubes says very little that he has said so far is new.

“That includes the idea that carbohydrates cause obesity
and that abstinence from starches, flour, and sugars
is the obvious method of cure and prevention.”

The conclusion of Brillat-Savarin in 1825 has been
repeated and reinvented numerous times since then. 
 Up through the 1960s it was the conventional wisdom
and what our grandparents instinctively believed was true.

In the 1960’s calories-in/calories-out took hold,
and those prior diets were labeled faddish and dangerous.

“In 1973 the American Medical Association described them
as bizarre concepts of nutrition and dieting .”

Taubes finds this a mystifying trend   because the notion
of the fattening carbohydrate has been around
for most of the last two hundred years.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina written in mid 1870s contains

“he had very quickly been brought down to the required weight
of one hundred and sixty pounds, but he still had to avoid
gaining weight, and he avoided starchy foods and desserts.”

 Saul Bellow’s Herzog written in 1964 tells about a character
who avoids a candy bar

“thinking of the money he had spent on new clothes
which would not fit if he ate carbohydrates.”

Taubes says that this is what doctors believed
and told their obese patients prior to the 1960s,
and recites examples from the 1800s through 1950.

He quotes the obesity diet published in the famous
1951 textbook, The Practice of Endocrinology.

Foods to be avoided:

1. Bread, and everything else made with flour…
2. Cereals, including breakfast cereals and milk puddings.
3. Potatoes and all other white root vegetables.
4. Foods containing much sugar
5. All sweets…

You can eat as much as you like of the following foods:

1. Meat, fish, birds
2. All green vegetables
3. Eggs, dried or fresh
4. Cheese
5. Fruit, if unsweetened or sweetened with saccharin,
.......except bananas and grapes. “

 In 1946 Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care he counseled

“The amount of plain, starchy foods (cereals, breads, potatoes)
taken is what determines, in the case of most people,
how much weight they gain or lose”

That sentence remained in every edition for the next 50 years.

 In 1963 British Doctors, Davidson and Passmore, published
Human Nutrition and Dietetics, which was considered the
definitive source of dietary wisdom for a generation of
British medial practitioners, wrote

The intake of foods rich in carbohydrate should be
drastically reduced since over-indulgence in such foods
is the most common cause of obesity.”

Taubes goes on to talk about results of research
on the effectiveness of diets restricting carbohydrates
between 1936 and the 1970s.

the results were invariable the same.
The dieters lost weight with little effort
and felt little or no hunger while doing so.”

 Taubes says that despite these results,
which were confirmed in studies around the world,

“By the 1960s, obesity had come to be perceived
as an eating disorder,
and so the actual science of fat regulation
…wasn’t considered relevant (as it still isn’t)…

This (the science of fat regulation) simply ran contrary
to what had now come to be accepted as the obvious reason
why fat people get fat to begin with,
that they eat too much.”

Also the belief that dietary fat causes heart disease
and that carbohydrates are “heart healthy” started in the 1960s,
and this clashed with the idea that carbohydrates make us fat.

“This is why the USDA Food Pyramid put fats and oils at the top,
to be “used sparingly”; meat was near the top because
meat, fish, and fowl have considerable fat; and fat-free carbohydrates
- - or fattening carbohydrates (as they used to be known)
were at the bottom, as the staples of a supposedly healthy diet.”

 In 1965 a New York Times article

“quoted Harvard’s Jean Mayer as claiming that to
prescribe carbohydrate-restricted diets to the public
was “the equivalent of mass murder”.

The Times explained that to lose weight, one has to cut down
on excess calories; and because these diets restrict
carbohydrates, they compensate by allowing more fat, and
it’s the high-fat nature of the diets
that prompted the mass murder accusation.

Taubes says

“The belief that dietary fat causes heart disease
led directly to the idea that carbohydrates prevent it.
By the early 1980s, Jane Brody of the Times…
was telling us we need to eat more carbohydrates
and advocating starches and bread as diet foods. "

Not only is eating pasta at the height of fashion,
she wrote,
“it can help you lose weight.”

Taubes says he hopes this logic reached
the pinnacle of absurdity,   when in 1995
the American Heart Association suggested that
we eat virtually anything – even candy and sugar –
as long as it’s low in fat.

He says

“This advice and the shunning of low-carbohydrate
weight-loss diets might make sense if dietary fat
did indeed cause heart disease, as we’ve been
hearing now for fifty years. …But it doesn’t.”

 I think this information is true.
What Taubes says about the history of Carbohydrates
coincides with what I lived through
from an infant in the 1940s through the current time.

The original WW diet of the early 70s came at the end of the era
where everyone understood that starches needed to be limited to control weight
but also at the beginning of the scare over saturated fat and heart disease.

Gradually succeeding versions of WW allowed more carbs but were still very calorie restricted
which probably still limited carbs -- though not as much as before.

In the early 1970s when I first joined Weight Watchers,
the severely restricted sugars and starches just seemed appropriate,
because...of course...I knew it had to be that way.

As a child, my mother refused to serve bread with dinner (except on special occasions)
if we had another starch like potatoes or pasta,
and I remember her saying to me again and again
that eating corn and potatoes together (which was one of my favorites)
was "the same as eating two pieces of bread".

What I remember was a new concept from WW in the early 70s,
was that I could only have protein during a normal mealtime (3 a day),
and never within a snack, and fat or fatty protein was seriously limited.

That was the start of the popularity of water-pack tuna.
I wasn't too surprised that I had to remove the skin and fat
from animal protein, but only around 2 oz of cheese a week,
and only 2 or 3 eggs a week,
that felt harsh.

Also a new concept for me in early WW, was that all Snacks had to be carbs...
(like vegetables or a very small amount of fruit),
and no protein was allowed between meals.

Leave me a comment.

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Existing Comments:

On Feb 18, 2011 wrote:
I was born in 1958, and so I am old enough to remember that potatoes and bread were the reasons why people were fat. Also, I am buying into Taubes’ the argument that ………."carbohydrate is driving insulin is driving fat." (p. 161) ……………Taubes gives a summary of the benefits of a low carb diet:………………. "freedom from hunger, allaying of excessive fatigue, satisfactory weight loss, suitability for long term weight reduction and subsequent weight control." …………………….. I'm too early in my own experiment of intermittent fasting with no portion control to see how it turns out, but I do think that the reason why it is so easy is that fasting means no carbohydrates means little or no hunger. …………………………In a footnote on page 158, Taubes makes a reference to fasting………………… "which succeeded but only as long as the patients continued fasting." …………………………….Taubes has not looked at the potential for intermittent fasting to create a low carb effect of no hunger and allow weight loss. …………………. I will say one thing, however. I don't accept the list of what not to eat on page 155…………………………. There's a line from a musical that goes something like this: "Life is a banquet and most SOBs are starving to death." Part of enjoying life is enjoying food and enjoying socializing with other around food. …………………..I just think there has to be a better way than the low carb diet, and I am hoping that intermittent fasting produces the same result. The problem with food restriction is you shift focus from what you are doing and who you are with to calculating number of carbs. That's enough to sap the joy out of any occasion. I just won't settle for that as a way of life, and intermittent fasting, honestly, seems very easy. The problem is whether intermittent fasting will work. I'd try something else using the knowledge gained from this book, but I don't think I'd try carb restriction. I think I would increase the amount of time spent fasting.

On Feb 19, 2011 Karen925 wrote:
The food advice to diabetics will be seen in the same light as blood letting in the 1700's. The immense damage wrought cannot be overstated. My cousin, just recently saw a new endocronolgist (she has seen more-ologists than one can count) this week, young team approach, first thing out of his mouth was the carb connection. I am hoping it is not too late for her. I think our bodies can be damaged to a point of no return.

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