One of my favorite things to do when it starts to get warm in New York City and through summer is on Friday afternoons after work, I take the train down from my office in midtown to Soho. I visit my favorite bakery, pick up a cupcake and perch on the steep neighborhood stairs that overlook Soho’s signature cobblestone streets. People watching while satisfying my sweet tooth used to make for a perfect afternoon. Come this spring you can most probably still find me in Soho at week’s end, but most recently I have resolved to kick my addiction of the sweet stuff. Red flags such as sugar promoting the retention of fat in the body and recent studies linking sugar to cancer have led me to become a self-described high fiber, low carb, struggling vegan. I will go into full detail about my eating habits below, but my afternoons spent downtown and my lifestyle in general are now lived in great effort to eliminate processed foods and sugar; “the stuff kills”. (New York Times)
Adjusting the Paradigm: Should We Be Looking at Calories or Carbs?
Weight gain has traditionally been thought of as energy issue; In fact, The World Health Organization explains, “the fundamental cause of obesity and overweight, is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended”, Gary Taubes reveals in an article for Scientific America. In other words, weight gain occurs when there is more food intake than physical activity done to burn it off.
Simple right, eat less and be more active, weight loss city here we come! But wait a second; Would you say 100 calories of double chocolate devil's food cake is the same as 100 calories of kale? The answer is no; "there’s a huge difference in the way that [these different types of foods] affect your appetite, your energy level, and your long-term health". (Runner's World)
Not all calories are created equal. The marked difference between 100 calories of kale versus 100 calories of chocolate cake are the amount of carbohydrates. Gary Taubes in his article for Scientific America and in the book, The Case Against Sugar, advocates that we must begin looking at food based on its carbohydrate content, not it's calorie content - it is sugar that is affecting our health for the worst. Instead of how much we eat, we must focus on what type of food we eat. We must begin to rethink how we eat and further begin to dismantle this idea of calories in/calories out when it comes to weight management, health and well-being.
The Case Against Sugar
In his case against sugar, Taubes reveals that weight gain is more than just an energy imbalance, it is a hormonal flaw. When carbohydrates enter our bodies, they disrupt our internal systems to the point where certain cells are stimulated and told to retain fat; “one fundamental error we have made in our thinking about obesity", Taubes explains, "is to assume that the energy content of foods, [calories], is what makes them fattening, not the effects that these foods, carbohydrates in particular, have on the hormones that regulate fat accumulation”.
It takes a huge shift in thought to begin looking at your food in terms of carbs vs. calories; “Given how often researchers refer to obesity as a disorder of the energy balance, one might assume that the concept had been rigorously tested decades ago. But a proper scientific vetting never actually happened. The experiments were too difficult, if not too expensive, to do correctly. And investigators typically thought the answer was obvious—we eat too much—and so the experiments were not worth the effort. As a result, the scientific underpinning of the most critical health issue of our era—the burgeoning rates of obesity and diabetes and their complications—remains very much an open question” (Scientific America). Taubes in his research and book The Case Against Sugar, dives deep into the argument that carbohydrates or sugar should be thought of on the same level as cigarettes when it comes to our health and well being.
The Science Behind What Carbs Do In Our Bodies: Taubes' Argument Examined in Detail
The argument to rid of carbohydrates in the diet is hardly new. The Atkins diet calls for it and before World War II, “authorities on obesity (and most medical disciplines) worked in Europe... [they] had concluded that obesity was, like any other growth disorder, caused by a hormonal and regulatory defect. Something was amiss, they believed, with the hormones and enzymes that influence the storage of fat in fat cells” (Scientific America).
What is Sugar and How Does it Promote Fat Retention?
Sugar is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates, such as glucose are used by cells for fuel and energy (Harvard). After you eat a carby meal, like say a big bowl of pasta, glucose levels rise in the blood stream. In response, the hormone insulin is released. The primary function of insulin is to tell cells to suck up glucose that is floating around in the blood. The cells within then convert the glucose to energy; glucose is their fuel to run and sustain the body alive. Key point here and to get more specific, insulin, “tells muscle, organ and even fat cells to take up [glucose]” yes, but, “it also tells fat cells to store fat—including fat from the meal—for later use. As long as insulin levels remain high, fat cells retain fat...” (Scientific America). The more carbs you eat, the more glucose there is in your blood which in turn stimulates the release of insulin. The more insulin, the more cells are instructed to take up glucose to convert it to energy and the more fat cells are told to suck up fat and retain it.
High-carb diet = high insulin levels = burn less fat and store more = get fatter and fatter
Low-carb diet = low insulin levels = burn more fat and store less = stay lean
(Muscles For Life)
Taubes' hypothesis states that the only way to prevent the uptake and retention of fat, aka weight gain, “is to avoid the sugars and carbohydrates that work to raise insulin levels” (Scientific America). What will cells burn for energy then if there is no glucose? If there is no glucose present, cells will burn fat and fat stores. “To lose excess body fat, carbohydrates must be restricted”. We needn’t worry about how many calories or the amount of food we eat, stresses Taubes’ theory, we must worry about the type of food we eat as it has an effect on our hormones, more specifically insulin; “The ongoing worldwide epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes (which stems to great extent from insulin resistance) are largely driven by the grains and sugars in our diets” (Scientific America).
Taubes is working to prove this more solidly with upcoming experiments, but “in the past 20 years significant evidence has accumulated to suggest...that the hormone hypothesis is a viable explanation for why we get fat and that insulin resistance, driven perhaps by the sugars in the diet, is a fundamental defect not just in type 2 diabetes but in heart disease and even cancer” (Scientific America).
Sugar is Linked to Other Illnesses As Well
In an article for Mind Body Green, Dr. William Sears goes beyond revealing sugar a culprit for weight gain and pins it a link to several other diseases; "Persistent high blood sugar, mostly because of eating high-sugar foods, is the root cause of many illnesses". For example, Dr. Sears continues "The standard American diet, high in added sugars, is basically chemical fertilizers for tumor growth. This one simple change—eliminating added sugars from my diet—not only helped me survive and heal from cancer, but it helps every other system in my body thrive". (Mind Body Green)
The Solution | Less Sugar, More Fiber
Gary Taubes in his argument against sugars suggests replacing carbohydrates in the diet with fat. I would also like to introduce you to fiber, a worthy replacement for soda, candy, sweetened yogurt, flavored drinks, salad dressing, tv dinners, frozen pizza, frozen junk food, canned fruit, juice, granola bars, breakfast cereal, chips, cookies, energy + sports drinks, fast food, jellies and jams and other sugary and processed foods.
What is Fiber? The 'Miracle Carb'
I learned most everything I know about fiber from my nutritionist when I was Miss USA, fiber fairy godmother, Tanya Zuckerbrot.
Now down to the details: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, but unlike other types of carbohydrates that can be broken down, fiber cannot be digested or absorbed, it passes through the body undigested. As a result, “fiber does not raise blood glucose levels. Because it is not broken down by the body, the fiber in an apple or a slice of whole grain bread has no effect on blood glucose levels because it isn't digested” - if it does not raise blood glucose levels, it doesn’t call upon the release of insulin that further promotes the uptake and accumulation of fat by fat cells" (Joslin.org). “By eating a high-fiber diet, you naturally need less insulin to maintain normal blood sugar,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot in an interview for Women’s World, “the less insulin you have, the less fat you store. Even better, lower insulin allows stored fat to be burned more readily”. In effect, "fiber is a good thing ..[but], of course, most of the foods that contain fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas) also contain other types of non-fiber carbohydrate (sugar, starch) that must be accounted for in your meal plan” (Joslin.org). Lesson here, you have to, have to begin reading food labels and up your awareness of high fiber foods!
What to Eat?? What a High-Fiber Life Looks Like
I tote myself a high fiber, low carb, struggling vegan. Most Americans eat less than half the recommended amount of fiber per day at 10-15 grams a day. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the labels of some of your favorite foods. Most have less than 1 gram of fiber. Women should be getting at least 25 grams of fiber and men about 38 grams - I try to clear at least 30 grams of fiber a day. Try upping your fiber intake to at least the minimum required and you will see a difference almost within a day.
On top of controlling blood sugar levels, fiber lowers cholesterol, it helps make you poop and much more! The best part of following a high-fiber diet is that I hardly feel ravenously hungry - fiber is great because just a little amount makes you feel full for a long time.
I limit my intake of refined sugars to the point where most all of my carbohydrates only come from fiber. High fiber products are no longer just for your grandmother, there are some great high fiber products, including a line of high fiber bars Zuckerbrot is set to release this April 2018.
To help you navigate this new way of eating I have added two new features to Well, There's This: There's a new tab highlighting my favorite high fiber, low carb recipes and I also opened a store where I have curated for you some of my favorite high fiber, low carb foods. Bon appetit!
Before making any changes to your diet, be sure to consult your doctor or medical professional.