Excessive belly fat, high blood pressure and nutritional deficiencies – if there’s one thing we’ve noticed about the lifestyle diseases that are on the rise lately, it’s that people are slowly getting frustrated and are on the lookout for someone (or something) to blame. 

Think about how the US low-fat nutritional guidelines of 1977 (which demonised fats in the public eye) contributed to the declining health of Americans(1). Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from history and realise that ‘demonising’ any macronutrient isn’t going to take us very far.

Instead, let’s look at the emerging alternative science on how carbohydrates relate to insulin levels, and draw a conclusion backed by evidence-based data. Now that we’ve delved into whether it’s high time we ended the obsessive calorie counting and how much hormones and food habits influence weight loss, we take a look at carbohydrates and their role in our diets.

Are carbohydrates really the root of all (dietary) evil?

Before you bring out the pitchforks on carbohydrates, we’d like to turn your attention to a pertinent study(2) that will make you pause for a moment, and revisit the Carbohydrate-Insulin Hypothesis(3) to check how complete it really is.  

As a part of this study, the diets of four groups of people from the USA, UK, China and Japan were compared. East Asians, of course, consume a lot more rice or carbohydrates compared to the other nations. By this logic, obesity in China should have been the highest of the group, but this was not the case. 

Interestingly, the intake of sugar in China was very low compared to the other countries.

Let’s follow this train of thought; the diets of the Japanese include a higher carbohydrate intake, but their sugar intake is far lower than that of either the US or the UK. Japan had very low levels of obesity until recently, when globalisation resulted in a Westernisation of diets across the world. 

Could it be that there’s something about sugar that is much more obesogenic than other carbohydrates? How toxic is sugar, really? Gary Taubes sheds light on the issue in his NY Times article(4), referencing the work(5) of Dr. Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at UCSF.

Source: Peter Attia

What kind of carbohydrates are being consumed across different parts of the world?

Another fact worth mentioning is that most people in the West tend to consume much more carbohydrates by way of refined corn and wheat products whereas Asians consume more rice. It’s a matter of comparing something like a plate loaded with fries to a small bowl of rice – sure, they’re both carbs but our physiology digests them in different ways. Could it be that rice is less obesogenic than wheat?    

Another aspect to consider is what is being eaten with the carbs. As per Peter Attia, ‘While these cultures may consume a higher percentage of their intake from carbohydrates, their actual glycemic load is lower. In other words, they actually consume fewer total carbohydrates in most cases than a typical Westerner (and in the presence of much less sugar!).’(6)  

Simply put-

While the link between obesity and insulin seems fairly clear(7), it appears that the Carbohydrate-Insulin Hypothesis is incomplete. Since carbohydrates aren’t the only driver of insulin, what is it that we are missing here? Could it be that we need to give as much importance to when we eat, and not just what we eat ?

Do we need to stop reaching for that snack?

Being told off for reaching for a cookie before dinner time is a distant childhood memory for most of us today, with fervent advice on the benefits of snacking doing the rounds. Is it time to rethink this habit and avoid the next “snaccident”?

Think three meals and snacks in between – what do you think you’re doing to your metabolism? You’re putting it in overdrive, with high levels of insulin being released persistently to normalise blood glucose levels. As we know, long, continuous exposure to insulin results in insulin resistance, as progressively higher insulin levels are required for homeostasis, or to achieve physiological equilibrium by evening out blood glucose levels. 

Read more about the perils of snacking here(8) and if you want to dig even deeper to know how the shrewd revolutionising of our eating habits, watch Jacques Peretti’s illuminating documentary “The Men Who Made Us Fat”(9).

What’s the way forward from here?

Questioning all dietary advice you come across through an alternative lens is a good place to start. 

From everything we’ve explored so far in our series, focusing on reducing the long, continuous exposure to insulin and doing everything in our power to increase insulin sensitivity seems to be a sensible approach. Low-carb high-fat diets, ketogenic diets, and intermittent fasting / time-restricted eating (not caloric restriction), are emerging to be effective insulin-reducing strategies, as they cause stored food energy or fat to be broken down to power the body. This prevents the metabolic slowdown that constantly soaring insulin levels cause, and results in a decrease in appetite and, eventually, weight.

Other lifestyle changes such as reducing stress levels through practicing yoga and meditation, better quality and quantity of sleep and regular physical exercise will also contribute to a healthier, fuller life.