Carb Addiction: Why Losing Fat is an Uphill Battle

My Carb Addiction

In retrospect, if someone had asked me to stop lathering peanut butter on slices of whole wheat bread for breakfast because it was the worst thing I could start my day with, especially for losing fat, I’d have chortled without a care in the world. Now that I think about it, I couldn’t have stopped even if I wanted.

The Real Meal Revolution

Almost every food product in your local supermarket has been developed to within an inch of its life to make you eat more of it. Lost in the socio-political greed of big corporate food companies and the politicians that enable them, these edible time-bomb “foods” are designed in laboratories to be as deliciously irresistible and addictive as possible.

Prof Timothy Noakes

I was hooked: it wasn’t the peanuts, it was the added sugar, doping me up on dopamine and activating a reward system that was least rewarding.

In bread, it was the quick-digesting and insulin-spiking starch amylopectin in cahoots with gliadin, an exorphin known to stimulate the opioid receptors in the brain to evoke that feeling of gratification, making me crave the sight, smell, and touch of bread—and there I was thinking losing fat is a cakewalk.

My Struggle With Losing Fat

I starved myself, yet my body weight didn’t budge. When I did lose weight, I couldn’t maintain it beyond two weeks or beyond consecutive portions of chicken and brown rice. Why wasn’t my healthy life working out for me for losing fat, especially when I was?

I weighed 86 kg during that time, and my height is 5 feet and 11 inches. So my ideal body weight should have been 80 kg (range from 75 kg to 85 kg).
I had planned to burn 500 g of body fat per week by starving myself to under 70 g of carbohydrates, which was fiendish to say the least.

With resistance training thrice a week and steady-state cardio training twice a week, I’m pretty sure I was at my weakest then. I needed to start what we loosely call losing fat without feeling depleted. Accurately, I needed to lose body fat—unlocking the adipocytes that would then release triglycerides by way of fatty acids and glycerol. This is what we know as burning fat.

I realized this while sitting in class during my first introductory lecture on nutrition at K11 School of Fitness Sciences. At the time, I was studying to become a diploma holder in personal training, and then it all came to me.

Understanding Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates never had a large chunk of the figurative pie since the days of the hunter-gatherer. In those days, preceding the Neolithic age and the advent of agriculture (some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago), the human diet primarily comprised meat, that is, fats and proteins—losing fat was not an FAQ.

These macronutrients provide a host of benefits from head to toe, and we required these in large quantities since the dawn of time.

Proteins

Travelling first class all the way

I’m being literal here when I say head to toe: keratin and collagen, both scleroproteins, give us structure by forming our bones, hair, skin, and finger nails and toenails.

Furthermore, proteins aid in the synthesis of red blood cells, they shuttle nutrients in the blood vessels by way of lipoproteins, they are found in the form of glycoproteins to aid in immune functions, and through a process called gluconeogenesis, proteins break down into amino acids and, subsequently, glucose, to provide fuel.

There are a host of other benefits. I barely scratched the surface—which I couldn’t without finger nails. What did I conclude? Ok, proteins can serve as a source of fuel for the body, and I need to consume them in large quantities irrespective of losing fat or gaining muscle mass; that’s for sure. Next, fats.

Fats

No ifs, only butter

For a second and just a tiny second, because I will be circling back, let’s forget the unjust and baseless vilification of fats=bad and face the facts. Fats work their magic right from the cellular level too: our cell membranes comprise phospholipids for permeability, allowing and barring entry into the cell, depending on who’s knocking.

Fatty acids are required for the formation of the all-important myelin sheath required by our neurons, that is, nerve cells; cholesterol provides the much needed insulation for our neurons.

Furthermore, we need fats for the formation of our sex hormones (for example, testosterone and estrogen), and fats help in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K.

In addition, through a process called ketogenesis, wherein triglycerides break down into free fatty acids and glycerol, fats can also provide energy by way of ketone bodies as a fuel source: acetone, acetoacetate, and beta-hydroxybutyrate.

What did I conclude? Ok, fats can also serve as a source of fuel for the body, and I gotta have fats for other vital bodily functions. Next, carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates

Flour: As addictive as what you think it looks like

The following is the function of carbohydrates: either breaks down into glucose to provide fuel or helps store excess glucose as triglycerides and, consequently, adipose tissue. Apart from that, I discovered it had no other primary function other than sabotaging my efforts.

Insulin: The Hormone That Makes You Gain Body Fat

I discovered the role of hormones, specifically insulin secreted by the pancreas, in deciding whether I would be in a state of lipogenesis (gaining body fat) or lipolysis (losing fat or losing adipose tissue).

As a retaliatory response, when an unnatural insulin spike occurs, especially after consuming simple sugars, the usual progression of storing excess glucose in glycogen stores in the liver and the muscles is bypassed.

Rather, the body calls upon adipocytes to pull the glucose out of the blood and lock it up as triglycerides: this is know as lipogenesis, albeit a bit simplified.

Insulin Response on Proteins and Fats

Blood glucose levels and the insulin response must therefore be regulated. I researched and surmised that proteins and fats both have a low-to-moderate effect on raising blood glucose levels. Alright, that’s two down and one to go.

Insulin Response on Carbohydrates

Indeed, carbohydrates provide fuel by way of converting to glucose; however, out of all the macronutrients, they also have the greatest effect in elevating blood glucose levels, causing insulin to work its magic time and again.

The greater the quantum of glucose, the more the insulin required, and your pancreas need to work that much harder.

Glycemic Index

To segregate foods on the basis of the effect they have on blood glucose levels, a score is assigned to each one on the glycemic index (the maximum and worst being 100).

The greater the score, the more the sugar in our blood: bad news for us. The tables below list the food items based on the macronutrients and their effect on blood glucose.

Food (carbohydrates)Glycemic index
Glucose103
Potato, instant mash87
Cornflakes81
White bread75
Whole wheat bread74
Source: health.harvard.edu
Food (proteins and fats)Glycemic index
Beef21
Fish28
Milk, full fat39
Eggs42
Cheese55
Source: health.harvard.edu and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Compared with protein and fats, high-carb food sources cause greater spikes in blood glucose levels. The figure below shows the blood glucose response on low–glycemic index and high–glycemic index foods.

Source: aafp.org

Given the understanding of these rudimentary facts, which in no way surfaced in high school biology lessons, I began to understand my losing position.

Not Losing Fat and Fighting a Losing Battle

With a mere 5 grams of glucose in 5 litres of blood (100 mg/dL) in the human body, the ideal amount, my understanding of my predicament boarded the following train of thought: an insulin response is a retaliatory response, a defensive manoeuvre against a flood of glucose—like Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae, outnumbered against the Persians, still defending the gates down to the last man.

Any food source that takes our body beyond the threshold of 5 grams of blood glucose is therefore an attack on our body, requiring the beta cells of the pancreas, the organ that secretes insulin, to rally the troops at the sight of the invasion.

The higher my blood glucose levels went, the greater the defensive insulin spike; the greater the insulin spike, the greater the long-term damage to my pancreas. As I looked at the protein bars, bread, and breakfast cereals laden with sugar, ensconced on the kitchen counter, I started to get the sense of things.

Could a nation sustain mortar fire every day for, say, the next 70 years? It could, but by the end of it, even the reserves would be utterly depleted, and that’s what happens to the beta cells of our pancreas.

Over time, the beta cells may become damaged and may stop producing insulin altogether, and that’s what signals the onset of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

In addition, the consumption of excess sugar, which I was guilty of doing during those bulking phases by way of sugar-filled protein bars, could also lead to chronic inflammation, which meant that my body responds to refined carbohydrates in the same way when a virus attacks. Things didn’t quite add up on my losing fat journey: why was I consuming carbohydrates again?

When Did Carbohydrates Become Rampant?

Paradoxically, without any rhyme or reason but beyond a shadow of a doubt, refined carbohydrates and sugars always found their way onto my plate and even into my pockets in the form of bite-sized sugar bombs—more than 90% of “healthy” protein bars are battered with sugar, and to make it even more palatable, they call it natural sugars.

Coming back, the advent of agriculture did sow the seeds—pun intended—of the current-day gratuitous consumption of refined carbohydrates.

However, we couldn’t blame our primitive ancestors for having a backup plan to gather when they couldn’t hunt—keyword: backup. So, where in the evolutionary curve did we take a dastardly dietary turn?

The Seven Countries Study: The “Key” Player

I still remember the trepidation that took over whenever I accounted for the calories consumed by way of fats, I almost shuddered at the thought of adding more than 10 grams of butter on my whole wheat toast, because even I believed consuming dietary fats would make me fat.

If you ever felt the same, you have one person to credit for that marvellous bit of inception: Ancel Keys.

Context

Remember discarding egg yolks because you didn’t want to risk a stroke? Well…we have Keys to thank for that misguided hypothesis: the cholesterol-heart disease hypothesis.

In the mid-twentieth century, on the back of the Lipid Hypothesis (1951), Ancel Keys embarked upon a mission to conclude that heart disease was directly related to the consumption of dietary fats, particularly cholesterol, because the American business class was reeling under the effects of increased rates of heart disease.

The United States experienced a burgeoning growth in cigarette smoking rates that also happened to peak in 1950. Camel even advertised cigarettes by stating the following: More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette—yes, that happened—but nobody paid attention to the correlation of smoking with heart disease. 

The public wanted a scapegoat, and here came the butcher sharpening his cleaver: this was the genesis of the Seven Countries study.

The aim of the study was to conclude beyond a doubt that nations consuming less dietary animal fat were at a lesser risk of developing heart disease. Seven such countries were found (Italy, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Finland, Italy, and Greece), but the study had more by way of what it concealed rather than what it revealed.

Scientific Bias and No Trials

The study that was going to strike the final nail in the coffin ended up digging its own grave by way of some grave omissions. The only reason why the study came to be known as the Seven Countries study was because out of the originally included twenty-two countries, only seven countries confirmed Keys’ hypothesis.

The remaining countries, where higher dietary fat intake equated to lower rates of heart disease, for example, France and Switzerland, were conveniently swept under the rug. The book Cholesterol Clarity (Jimmy Moore with Eric C. Westman, MD) highlights this scientific bias with the following quote by Dr. Malcom Kendrick:

The country whose people eat the highest level of saturated fat in Europe is France. Their average total cholesterol is 215 mg/dL, and yet their rate of heart disease is one-seventh that of people in Ukraine, where people eat less than half the amount of saturated fat and their average cholesterol levels are slightly lower.

Keto Clarity: Jimmy Moore with Eric C. Westman

Dr. Malcom Kendrick further went on to state the following:

Cholesterol levels vary from around 195–225 mg/dL, with Switzerland having the highest cholesterol average at 250 mg/dL—and the rate of heart disease among the Swiss is the second lowest in Europe and one-fourth of that in the United States.”

Keto Clarity: Jimmy Moore with Eric C. Westman

Attacking Fats Without Facts

In addition, the study was an observational study, and no randomized control trial was conducted to substantiate the findings. Simply put, there was no control group and no intervention group upon which research was conducted. The world based formulating policies and propagating nutrition advice on a conjecture, a convoluted one at best.

Causation can be proved only by randomised controlled clinical trials (RCTs) in which all variables except the one of special interest, are held constant. Keys only ever reported observational studies; he did not undertake a single RCT as truly great scientists must do. For the goal of science is always to disprove that which we hold to be most obviously true. Science advances through disproof of our personal scientific biases. Not through continually “proving” what we already believe to be self-evident.

The Real Meal Revolution: Prof Noakes et al.

Fats were cast in the same light as John Dillinger: public enemy number one, based on a study that was never put to the test. A grain-based diet was all that was force-fed by way of policy and, as Noakes put it, “lax political policing.” The rest, as I say, is a sad statistic.

The American Heart Association endorsed the findings, the National Institutes of Health further elaborated on them, and the United States Dietary Goals for Americans (USDGA) latched onto the study to turn it into the blueprint for constructing the food pyramid.

Source: Wikipedia

If the Egyptians succeeded in turning theirs into a wonder of the world, the Americans succeeded in turning theirs into a woe for the world.

United States Dietary Goals for Americans

Within 20 years, the unproved principal findings turned to precedents, with the requisite backing for nationwide and worldwide implementation. The USDGA did the obvious: the public was advised to load up on carbohydrates and restrict their saturated fats, cholesterol intake.

The United States Department of Agriculture: Food Pyramid

To me, this was a familiar sight as a kid growing up in India. Yes, the American agenda found its way into the pages of my country’s education system.

A nutrient with a surefire pathway of causing lipogenesis formed the foundational base of every eating habit, and when not-so-subtle subliminal messages hit your brain with unrelenting omnipresence, you start believing the lie.

The Compound Effect: Diabesity

Thus, the question unravelled: did the “intervention” work? People from all over the globe dutifully followed the protocols laid by the leading authorities on nutrition, and we were by no means foolish for doing so: dietary fat intake reduced, low-fat “modified” alternatives flooded the market, and everyone expounded the virtues of grain-based living. Till date, fat is the enemy.

Up until 8 months ago, even I made sure I stocked up on grains, cereals, low-fat yoghurt, and skinless meat every week. The rules were followed to the tee, everything went according to plan. So, what happened?

The problem this fat-phobic and carb-fuelled living was supposed to solve was of heart disease, but more has happened: diabetes and obesity rates have skyrocketed to such an extent that the synchronized rise is now termed diabesity.

My use of the present perfect tense here is deliberate, because the rates continue to rise as you read.

Diabetes

The effects of the guidelines manifested more rapidly than anyone could have anticipated—as early as 1980.

What I could never articulate through words, the World Health Organization (WHO) sums up through statistics:

  • The number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014.
  • The global prevalence of diabetes* among adults over 18 years of age has risen from 4.7% in 1980 to 8.5% in 2014 (1).
  • Diabetes prevalence has been rising more rapidly in middle- and low-income countries.
  • Diabetes is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.
  • In 2016, an estimated 1.6 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes. Another 2.2 million deaths were attributable to high blood glucose in 2012**.
  • Almost half of all deaths attributable to high blood glucose occur before the age of 70 years. WHO estimates that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in 2016.
  • Healthy diet, regular physical activity, maintaining a normal body weight and avoiding tobacco use are ways to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.
  • Diabetes can be treated and its consequences avoided or delayed with diet, physical activity, medication and regular screening and treatment for complications.

If that’s not enough, here’s an infographic to stop sugarcoating matters.

Globally, with 422 million people suffering from diabetes, are we still wondering why?

Obesity

Then came the turn for obesity. Along with the sheer number of queries regarding losing fat, I didn’t have to look beyond the third person on the streets to know of the crippling effects of the carb-fuelled manner of eating. WHO backs me up here as well, with the same confounding effect:

  • Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.
  • In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese.
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2018.
  • Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.
  • Obesity is preventable.

Obesity is among the top-five risk factors that lead to deaths.

Conclusions

The negative effects of refined carbohydrates on my health, understanding the tenets of nutrition science at my school, and web-based research compelled me to find an alternate fuel source not just for losing fat but also for eating and existing as nature intended. Going down the same road would have simply added my name to the statistics you see above.

At the end, what is most disappointing is being lied to by the very institutions that should instil a sense of trust, regardless of whether it stemmed from ignorance or vested interests.

The same imperious guidelines that led a planet to this modern-day pandemic have now removed cholesterol from its blacklist, citing the reason as “not enough information.” In light of the recent diabesity statistics, this is no cause to celebrate, although I’m hoping against all hopes for the ripple effect to turn to a tide.

The sad part is that the refined carb cycle continues to perpetuate itself. Consider this but a modest attempt to nudge those reading in the right direction.

Afterthought

Never blindly believe what people say let alone what you read on the internet, not just for losing fat but for every bit of knowledge coming your way.

Find research papers, collate, make sense of it, and then conclude. That’s what I did to finally start seeing beyond the garb of carbs.


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