San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Grandma Knew Best

Grandma always used to say that the way to lose weight was to cut out starches and sugar – no spaghetti, no potatoes, no dessert. In fact, back in the ’50s, a restaurant’s “diet special” usually consisted of a hamburger patty and a glop of cottage cheese on a leaf of lettuce. Then, sometime in the ’70s came the dictum from the governmental studies: Forget the hamburger! Saturated fat causes heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. Ha, Grandma! See how wrong you were. See how Good Science reveals Truth.

As for me, I spent most of my life as a size 6; then age hit, and I started to spread – and spread, until I reached a size 14. Over the years, I tried to follow official wisdom by lowering calories, cutting out fat and exercising. I consistently failed. My muscle tone improved, but the layer of jelly on top of the muscles didn’t budge.

Then, the Atkins diet rage came along. I held back. Sure enough, a plethora of trashy, low-carbohydrate products appeared and proved ineffectual. Some dieters ate nothing but meat, cheese and eggs, thinking they could lose their 20 pounds and then go back to cake, bread and potato chips. Some cheated because they made their diet too restrictive. All in all, it appeared to be a failure, so I continued as before.

Then, a good friend of mine put in my hand a book called “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” by U.S. science writer Gary Taubes. It made me understand why I was getting nowhere, and, at last, I was able to lose weight.

“Good Calories, Bad Calories” is a scientific summary of all the research that has been done in the last 50 years on heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Taubes began the book, which took 15 years to research, as a simple investigation. Based on sheer accumulation of evidence, he came to some startling conclusions, among them that a number of sometimes well-meaning people have derailed Good Science, that the medical authorities have spent 50 years spouting misleading doctrine about the role of fat in the diet and the inaccurate “calorie in, calorie out” formula. Meanwhile, a simple known fact is that after 50 years of low-fat messages to the North American public, our rates of diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed.

“Good Calories, Bad Calories” is not written for the layman (though I am one). Therefore, for those of you who are interested but not up to such a daunting read, here is my summary of Taubes’ conclusions about weight loss.

The story goes back to the 1970s, when the U.S. McGovern commission on nutrition bought into the theory of an influential expert, Ancel Keys, that dietary fat was the cause of heart disease. Keys had put together a study of nine countries that purportedly demonstrated his theory. The data, in fact, were ambiguous, and the bulk of the studies never showed conclusively that the ingestion of fat is conducive to heart disease and obesity, and many indicated the dead opposite. Nevertheless, the U.S. government officially adopted the saturated fat theory and, because it then spent vast amounts of money in support of it, forever after imposed it. Thus are we ruled by politics.

Taubes meticulously explains the underlying causes of weight gain. When carbohydrates enter the digestive system, the pancreas secretes insulin to control the level of glucose in the blood. A byproduct of this process, glycerol, causes stored fat molecules to stick together and thus remain unable to pass through the capillaries to be burned as energy. In other words, the fat is locked into the body as long as carbohydrates are present. This means the body must look for more calories with which to provide energy, because it cannot use the fat calories that have been locked up. In a period of absence of carbohydrates, however, the fat molecules separate, and the body begins to burn the stored fat, a process called ketosis. To put it more simply: When we are ingesting carbohydrates, the body looks for calories from without, causing hunger. When we stop eating carbohydrates, the body looks for calories from within.

For 2 million years, most of mankind ate a diet of protein and fat, punctuated by some carbohydrates in the form of fruits and roots. This meant man would sometimes lock fat into his body, which subsequently was released when carbohydrate ingestion ceased. Then, some 10,000 years ago, agriculture was born, bringing with it grains and abundant fruit. Later, refined carbohydrates such as white flour, white rice and white sugar came along, giving man the terrible and tempting option of injecting superdoses of carbohydrates into his system all at once.

This superdosing of carbohydrates causes the pancreas to pump out ever more insulin and to lock in ever more fat. Then, the muscles develop insulin resistance, which causes the pancreas to produce even more insulin and store more fat. Over a period of time, this much insulin has negative effects on the body, and the pancreas becomes overworked.

Make no mistake: The most lethal dietary combination is refined carbohydrates and fats, because all those dense fat calories get locked in by the high dose of carbohydrates. What’s important is that the presence of carbohydrates causes this process, not the fat. Today, as a matter of course, most people bombard their systems with a steady stream of carbohydrates, while on all sides the media rant about the inexplicable epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It is not inexplicable.

Reading “Good Calories, Bad Calories” gave me clarity, not because it was new, but because of the overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence it presented. I realized that poor, maligned Dr. Atkins was right, and, given the shape I was in and the road I was heading down, I simply had to give up carbohydrates, period – no bread, no rice, no fruit, no sugar. And so I did.

It really wasn’t as hard as I had imagined, and the results were astounding. To date, I have lost 26 pounds. I have suffered no sense of deprivation or hunger. I eat as much as I want. I have become almost as eager to eat the permitted protein, fat and veggies as I was to eat grains and sweets before. And, of course, I still exercise, but for other reasons. And, though it is tougher, even vegetarians can swing it (eggplant parmesan, anyone?).

The diet has also brought me a number of positive side effects. My allergies have diminished. I no longer suffer digestive upsets. My blood pressure is perfect. I have more energy than ever and experience no sugar highs and lows. My back and my knees have stopped hurting.

Now that I have reached my target weight, I eat some fruit and minimal amounts of starches. When I start to gain weight again, I simply go back to the no-carb formula for a few days.

Oh, and yes, I once again wear a size 6.


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