Thursday, April 29, 2010

Food Nazis?

When low-carbers begin following the low-carb lifestyle, they start to feel free. Free of the hunger that forces them to eat every few hours even though they are morbidly obese. Free of enslavement to particular foods that they have never been able to resist. And after a while, free of many, many pounds of fat that they have been hauling around everywhere, all the time.

Low-carbing is an odd way to eat, but the freedom makes it worth the trouble of figuring out a new way to shop and a new way to eat out in restaurants. There are many low-carb bulletin boards and blogs for support. There is more and more scientific evidence demonstrating the superiority of low-carbing in the control of diabetes and heart disease and its efficacy in weight loss as well. The recent appearance of the paleolithic approach to low-carbing has given a common-sense aspect to the low-carb lifestyle. When observers object to low-carb food choices, low-carbers can point out that this is the way humans have eaten for millennia. It's only recently that humans began to eat lots of refined carbohydrates, and with that change in diet, perhaps not coincidentally, humans also began to experience the diseases of Western civilization.

So far, so good. But as I look back on my recent blogposts and those of other bloggers, I have started to notice a more rigid, regimented (shall we say Nazi-like?) aspect to the world of low-carbing. Some examples:
  • It's good to eat fat, but be sure the fat has the right omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
  • It's good to eat nonstarchy vegetables, but remember that broccoli has goitrogens and tomatoes are nightshades. And wheat, even whole wheat, contains many compounds that can damage the human digestive tract.
  • It's good to eat meat, but it should be grass fed, not grain fed.
  • It's good to eat eggs and chicken, but they need to be free range.
  • It's good to eat seafood, but watch out for the mercury.
  • It's good to avoid sugar, but it's better to avoid artificial sweeteners as well.
The list could go on and on.

In the last couple of days I've noticed one low-carber who seems to be on the edge of dropping out because of the difficulty of following all the extra rules all at once. Another works 60 hours a week and is not sure he has the time required to be sure all his food meets the higher standards for healthy low-carb eating. A third concern is that, although low-carb foods tend to cost more than the Standard American Diet, the more strict versions of low-carbing become prohibitively expensive for people on a limited budget.

Low-carbing is literally a lifesaver for people who are on their way to diabetes, heart disease, and morbid obesity. Some people have additional health issues, and it is fine to refine the low-carb lifestyle to help address those needs.

However, it's important for low-carbers to remember that we don't need to sacrifice the good for the sake of the perfect. For those who are new to the low-carb lifestyle, or for those who don't have the concentration, the time or the money to pursue all the ins and outs of healthy eating, can I make a plea for mercy?

Let's not become low-carb food Nazis. Low-carbing is a gift. Please let people enjoy the freedom it provides. If they want to add additional aspects to it, fine. If not, we can rejoice that they are at least doing something that will significantly improve the quality of their lives. With that knowledge, we can follow our own set of dietary rules while giving other low-carbers the freedom to choose what additional modifications they will or will not follow.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Diabetes Caused by Refined Carbohydrates?

Last week we criticized Good Calories Bad Calories. This week we shall praise it. In chapter 6 of GCBC, Gary Taubes discusses Captain Thomas Latimore Cleave, a physician who believed that the common chronic diseases of Western civilization could be linked to the consumption of refined carbohydrates. Cleave had observed that non-Western societies tended to remain healthy even if they ate relatively large amounts of low glycemic index carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholemeal flour, non-starchy vegetables and nuts. But when a cultural group switched from traditional foods to white rice, white flour and sugar, the chronic diseases of civilization would begin to appear. To illustrate this, Cleave prepared the chart at the top of this post, which has been scanned from page 116 of GCBC. The dashed line shows per capita sugar consumption in England and Wales from just before 1905 to just after 1945. Sugar consumption increased during prosperous times and decreased during periods of wartime rationing. If diabetes had no relation to sugar intake, one would expect that deaths from diabetes (diabetic mortality) would gradually decrease as (1) injectable insulin was introduced and (2) medical treatments in general improved. Instead, until 1945 the index of diabetic mortality increased and declined in parallel with the consumption of sugar. Correlation is not causation, but the close relationship between sugar consumption and deaths from diabetes bears serious consideration.

Since 1945, the use of antibiotics to treat infection, the widespread use of home blood glucose monitors and the advent of new drugs to treat diabetes has dramatically reduced the death rate from diabetes. Nevertheless, there seems to be a steadily-increasing incidence of diabetes, particularly of type 2 diabetes. A recent article in Science Daily describes a study showing that type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in China. The scientists estimated that 9.7% of adult Chinese have diabetes and 15.5% have prediabetes. The prevalence of both conditions is higher in urban areas. Possible causes may include longer lifespans, increased smoking, decreased physical activity, increased air pollution, increased food consumption and decreased food quality.

Along the lines of Dr. Cleave's hypothesis about the relationship of refined carbohydrates and diabetes, in 2007 the Archives of Internal Medicine published an article suggesting one possible cause for the increase of diabetes in China. Its title was "Prospective Study of Dietary Carbohydrates, Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load, and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Middle-aged Chinese Women".

The study spent 4.6 years observing a cohort of about 64000 Chinese women with no history of diabetes or other chronic disease at baseline. These women were between 40 and 70 years old and lived in seven communities in urban Shanghai. They were divided into sets of quintiles according to several measures of carbohydrate intake. Adjustments were made for possible confounding factors including age, education, income, occupation, smoking status, alcohol consumption, total daily energy intake, physical activity, body mass index, waist-to-hip ratio and presence or absence of hypertension.

When confounding factors were eliminated, it was found that in middle-aged Chinese women, the percentage of carbohydrate in the diet was positively associated with the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. When glycemic index was considered, the higher the glycemic index of the food eaten, the more likely the women were to develop type 2 diabetes. In Shanghai, rice is a main staple food, contributing 73.9% of dietary glucose load (calculated by multiplying the total carbohydrate of a food by the glycemic index of the food and summing the values for all foods over a day). When women were stratified according to the amount of rice they ate, the group eating the most rice (over three cups of cooked rice per day) had a relative risk of 1.78 of developing diabetes as compared with those eating the least rice (less than two cups of rice per day).

For this group of Chinese women living in an urban area, carbohydrate intake averaged between about 260 and 340 grams per day. The largest part of their diet consisted of rice, which has a glycemic index of 55 (glucose=100). In this population, when adjusted for other factors predisposing to diabetes, a diet high in carbohydrates with a high glycemic index was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Does this mean that diabetes is caused by refined carbohydrates? No, but once again, the close association between a higher intake of refined carbohydrates and a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes is worth serious consideration.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Good Calories Bad Calories Is Not Necessarily Infallible

When Good Calories Bad Calories (abbreviated here as GCBC) was published in 2007, the low-carb community was ecstatic. Dr. Robert Atkins and the Doctors Eades had discussed the scientific basis for the low-carb lifestyle, but their writings were usually presented in the context of clinical observations. With GCBC, Gary Taubes gave low-carbers 460 pages of tightly reasoned discussion and another 113 pages listing many specific citations from the scientific literature.

For a layperson, the book was not easy to read, but with effort it was comprehensible. At last low-carbers had access to information that cast doubt on the hypothesis that excessive consumption of fat raises cholesterol levels, which in turn causes heart disease and early death. Taubes presented plausible evidence for an alternative hypothesis--that excessive carbohydrate consumption, not fat consumption, is the cause of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and even cancer.

Since the publication of GCBC, two interesting things have happened. (A) GCBC has moved into the position of holy writ in the eyes of many low-carbers and (B) several low-carb blogs and forums have arisen to discuss the scientific and practical aspects of low-carbing.

A rereading of GCBC in 2010 shows that many of its ideas have been supported by the subsequent publication of prospective dietary studies, including Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, recent discussions in the blogosphere show that some statements in GCBC may need to be reconsidered.

Specifically, on page 394 of the hardbound edition of GCBC, Taubes states, "By the mid-1960s, four facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt: (1) carbohydrates are singularly responsible for prompting insulin secretion; (2) insulin is singularly responsible for inducing fat accumulation; (3) dietary carbohydrates are required for excess fat accumulation; and (4) both Type 2 diabetics and the obese have abnormally elevated levels of circulating insulin and a 'greatly exaggerated' insulin response to carbohydrates in the diet..."

Let's address these statements in order.

1. Although consumption of carbohydrates does prompt insulin secretion, it is a well-known physiological fact that consumption of proteins also prompts insulin secretion. The amount of insulin released in response to protein is about a third of that released in response to carbohydrate on a gram-for-gram basis, but the increase is still measurable. Dr. Mike Eades has an illustration of this on page 37 of the paperback edition of Protein Power. Scientific articles measuring the insulin release in response to protein can be found here and here. Insulin response to various foods in terms of 120 minute area under the curve can be found in Table 4 here.

2. Insulin release does promote the storage of fat in adipocytes, but it is not the only signaling protein that produces fat storage. Acylation Stimulating Protein (ASP) is secreted by fat cells and allows fat to be removed from chylomicrons and stored in fat cells. Acylation Stimulating Protein permits the body to store fat in the absence of insulin. The process is discussed here by Dave Dixon and here by Petro Dobromylskyj (Hyperlipid).

3. While it is difficult to accumulate excess fat in the absence of dietary carbohydrates, it is not impossible. On various discussion boards, a few zero-carbers have related anecdotal evidence that they gained weight while eating large amounts of protein and fat. From a theoretical perspecive, on pages 388-392 of GCBC Taubes goes into great detail about the necessity of glycerol phosphate for the storage of fat in adipose tissue. (Glycerol phosphate is the precursor to the molecule used as the backbone of a triglyceride, the storage form of fat.) On page 392 Taubes says, "Dietary glucose is the primary source of glycerol phosphate. The more carbohydrates consumed, the more glycerol phosphate available, and so the more fat can accumulate. For this reason alone, it may be impossible to store excess body fat without at least some carbohydrates in the diet and without the ongoing metabolism of these dietary carbohydrates to produce glucose and the necessary glycerol phosphate." This sounds logical. However, biochemists know that glycerol phosphate can readily be produced from protein via glyceroneogenesis. The absence of dietary carbohydrate in no way prevents the synthesis of triglycerides from a high-protein or even a high-fat diet.

(4) It is true that high insulin is often associated with type 2 diabetes, but it is important to remember that type 2 diabetics do not always have an excess of circulating insulin. Instead they have insulin resistance. If their body tries to control high blood glucose levels with excess insulin production by the pancreas, this can result in beta cell burnout and a patient who actually has less endogenous insulin production than a person without diabetes.

As described here the scientific method is an ongoing process. Good Calories Bad Calories is an excellent book and provides many good arguments for the low-carb lifestyle. But the scientific method requires that we keep testing and evaluating our hypotheses, and it is important to realize that not everything we read in GCBC will necessarily stand the test of time.