After the post-Nativity indulgence, I realized that it was time to get serious about losing weight. It probably came on the morning I was eating a fistful of rum cake for breakfast, but if it wasn’t then, it ought to have been. I weigh more now than I ever have, and exercise less. I had started working out again late last fall, but my early December car accident has put that initiative on hold until my back improves. The only diet I’ve ever used that did a bit of good was going on a low-sugar/low carb regimen. In fact, the only time in my life that I weighed almost as much as I do now was the fall of 2001. I lost thirty pounds in three months on that diet, and felt better than I ever had before or since.
Back then, I was living in New York, and walking everywhere. Plus, I was about to turn 35. Now I’m living in Baton Rouge, and walking nowhere. And I’m about to turn 50. It’s never going to get any easier to lose this weight, and my woebegone lower back is not helped by my walking around with all this weight on my belly.
So, I’m off of sugar now, and carbs too. When I went for our splurgey anniversary dinner on December 30, I ate steak and salad and mushrooms like a boss, but I didn’t mess with potatoes. I did eat a few spoonfuls of cheesecake, but I wouldn’t do that now. I’ve managed to make it through the messy detox period in which you crave carbs and sugar like mad (and for me, it’s more about carbs than sugar; I’m not a big fan of sweets, but I love me some bread, rice, and pasta). Last night we went out for my wife’s birthday dinner. Mexican food is her favorite (it’s an ancestral Texas thing), and it just about killed me not to order enchiladas or to eat the chips and salsa. But I made it through, and indulged by eating three spoonfuls of whipped cream from the dessert she and the kids shared.
By the time I made it home, it felt like I had been drugged. Just from three bites of whipped cream! But you know, this is what it was like before for me, on this diet. Once you’ve gotten your body more or less past the massive craving for carbs and/or sugar, when you eat a serving of rice, potatoes, or something sweet, it feels like you’ve drunk a shot of something. Let me correct that: it feels like you’re as logy as you would be had you had a shot, but you get none of the pleasant feeling.
It turns out that I’m doing the right thing, and not just for
vanity aesthetic reasons. Here’s an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal‘s rave review of Gary Taubes’s new book The Case Against Sugar:
One wonders whether the debate might have been different if everyone involved had been able to read Gary Taubes’s blitz of a book, “The Case Against Sugar.” In his 2010 best seller, “Why We Get Fat,” Mr. Taubes argued that carbohydrates like grains and starchy vegetables were behind the obesity epidemic. “In a world without cigarettes, lung cancer would be a rare disease, as it once was,” he wrote. “In a world without carbohydrate-rich diets, obesity would be a rare condition as well.” This time around, he focuses on the “unique physiological, metabolic, and endocrinological effects” that sugars have on the human body, how they trigger obesity and diabetes, and the role that the food industry has played in covering up sugar’s contributions to our national health crisis.
Mr. Taubes’s argument is so persuasive that, after reading “The Case Against Sugar,” this functioning chocoholic cut out the Snacking Bark and stopped eating cakes and white bread. It was easier than I expected: Within a week, I was so sensitive to sugar that I could taste it in the weirdest places; in a restaurant salad, for instance, and in my organic yogurt. When I ate a piece of Thanksgiving squash pie, it made my head buzz. I felt like I’d just taken a hit off a tank of nitrous oxide.
That’s so true! Honestly, there is nothing like experiencing this to understand how powerfully our moods and sense of well being is controlled by sugar (including refined carbohydrates, which turn into sugar inside the body). The review says that Taubes, a well known science writer, meticulously explains why it’s simply not true that all calories are the same. A calorie consumed in the form of sugar affects the body differently, metabolically speaking, than a calorie consumed in the form of, say, spinach. And the fact that people assume that all calories are created equal is no accident, according to Taubes. from the review:
“The Case Against Sugar” is a history of the food industry and the medical science that has both supported and denied the role of sugar in disease. It explores the addictive aspect of sugar (which anyone with a toddler is familiar with); the “peculiar evil” of marketing sweets and sweetened cereals to children; and the industry’s 60-year effort to shift the blame for obesity and diabetes to saturated fats and behavior. In the 1960s, for example, the Sugar Association, a trade group, became concerned about the emerging evidence linking sugar to diabetes and heart disease. It worked hard, Mr. Taubes claims, to “combat the accumulating evidence from researchers,” by financing industry-friendly research and besmirching the credibility of scientists whose research suggested that sugar was unhealthy. These efforts were successful enough to influence the language of FDA reports on sugar in 1977 and 1986, as well as the first government-compiled Dietary Guidelines, released in 1980, which unsurprisingly declared that fat caused disease.
Opinions began to change in 2007 when the “Sugar Papers,” a trove of internal documents detailing the relationship between the sugar industry and medical researchers in the 1960s and 1970s, was discovered by Cristin Kearns, the general manager of a large group of dental practices. The trove—which she found by (wait for it . . . ) googling—revealed that the sugar industry had worked with the National Institutes of Health to create a federal program to combat tooth decay in kids that did not recommend limiting sugar consumption. Mr. Taubes convinced me that these food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research on American health to their favor and to the detriment of the American public.
Read the entire review, written by Eugenia Bone. Here’s a link to an essay in Aeon by Taubes himself, adapted from the Case Against Sugar book. In this excerpt, Taubes summarizes the alternative hypothesis to the “a calorie is just a calorie” view (the energy-balance hypothesis):
So here’s another way to frame what is now the imperative question: is the energy-balance hypothesis of obesity correct? Is it the right paradigm to understand the disorder? The competing hypothesis has existed for over a century: in this paradigm, obesity is not an energy-balance disorder but a disorder of excess fat accumulation and so, clearly, a hormonal and metabolic disorder – the result of an ‘endocrine disturbance’, as it was phrased in the 1930s by Eugene Du Bois, then the leading American authority on metabolism. By this logic, the foods we eat influence fat accumulation not because of their caloric content but because of their macronutrient content, the proteins, fats and carbohydrates they contain. This paradigm attends to how organisms (humans, of course, in particular) orchestrate the careful ‘partitioning’ of the macronutrient fuels they consume, determining whether they will be burned for energy or stored or used to rebuild tissues and organs. It proposes that dysregulation of this exquisitely-evolved, finely-tuned homeostatic system (a system that is biologically balanced) is the necessary component to explain both the excessive storage of calories of fat – obesity – and the diabetes that accompanies it.
This alternate hypothesis implies that sugar has unique effects in the human body leading directly to both diabetes and obesity, independent of the calories consumed. By this way of thinking, refined sugars are indeed toxic, albeit over the course of years or decades. We get fat and diabetic not because we eat too much of them – although that is implied tautologically merely by the terms ‘overconsumption’ and ‘overeating’ – but because they have unique physiological, metabolic and hormonal effects that directly trigger these disorders. If all this is right, then thinking of obesity as an energy-balance disorder is as meaningless as calling poverty a money-balance problem (caused, of course, by earning too little or spending too much, or both). By conceiving of obesity as a problem caused by the behaviours of excessive consumption and physical inactivity, researchers not only took a physiological defect – the excess accumulation of fat, often to a massive extent – and turned it into a behavioural problem. But they made a critical error, one that has grown over the course of decades into an idea that seems too big to fail.
The history of this scientific debate is fascinating. Conclusion:
If we accept von Bergmann and Bauer’s thinking that obesity is a hormonal/regulatory disorder and combine it with the revelations of the 1960s about the hormonal regulation of fat accumulation and the insulin resistance that is associated with obesity and diabetes, then the result is a very simple hypothesis that explains not just obesity but also the current epidemics and our failures to curb them. The sugars and refined grains that make up such a high proportion of the foods we consume in modern Westernised diets trigger the dysregulation of a homeostatic system that has evolved to depend on insulin to regulate both fat accumulation and blood sugar. Hence, the same dietary factors – sugars and refined grains – trigger both obesity and diabetes. By focusing on the problems of eating too much and exercising too little, public health authorities have simply failed to target the correct causes.
If you like, buy the book.
I would love to read of you readers’ experiences with low carbohydrate/no sugar dieting. In my past experience, once you make it through the detox period (about a week to 10 days), it’s not a difficult diet to follow in terms of controlling cravings. The hard thing is that sugar and carbohydrates are everywhere, and they taste so very, very delicious. Inevitably I have fallen off the wagon, usually with bread. You slide back into it very easily. So, what has worked for you, and what has not?