Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Origins of a Sweet Tooth

TO UNDERSTAND WHY carbohydrates are important, we have to
take another fantasy trip, this time back to the dawn of man. On
the savannahs of Africa, the high plains of Europe, the wetlands
of Asia, and the woodlands and jungles of the Americas, primitive
man learned how to feed himself from nature’s banquet table. He
learned how to fish and hunt, and later, how to domesticate animals
and grow grain. But since he first stood upright, man has
also had a craving for sweets.
As with all things, there’s a reason why we crave sweets. The
sweetest things on earth, back in those days before Cherry Garcia,
were fruits: wild berries, pears, citrus fruits, and the like. Not coincidentally,
fruits are also packed with nutrients: vitamins to
fend off disease, minerals to assist with cell function, and fiber to
regulate hunger, control blood pressure, and help ease digestion.
Without our sweet tooth, we would have been happy to eat
nothing but wooly mammoth and buffalo meat—the original
Atkins program. But nature saw to it that we craved the foods
that would make us healthy.
Fast forward to today, when the sweetest things don’t look
anything like tangerines. Whereas our sweet tooth was once nature’s
way of protecting us from disease, now it’s the food industry’s
way of tricking us into it. To satisfy our cravings, we turn
to cookies and cakes and chocolates instead of apples and pears
and blackberries. That’s one of the main reasons Americans today
are so fat. And it’s one of the main reasons why, in the short-term,
low-carb diets work.
By limiting carbohydrate intake, diets like Atkins create bydefault
weight loss. If you restrict yourself to just one class of
foods—low-carb foods, in this instance—you’re bound to lose
weight. That’s because the stuff you’re used to munching on, from
the doughnut you nosh in the car on the way to work to the
S H O C K E R : H OW L OW- C A R B D I E TS M A K E YO U FA T 85
Snickers bar you snag from the vending machine before your drive
home, are now voided from your diet. You’re eating less food, so
you’re taking in fewer calories, so you lose weight.
The other sneaky advantage of an Atkins diet is that it focuses
on foods that are difficult to prepare and consume. It’s easy to pop
a bagel or a grapefruit into your briefcase; shove some steak and
eggs in there instead, and things get a little messy. So low-carb
diets restrict calories in two ways: by limiting food options, and by
limiting the ease with which we can consume food.
But there are two major reasons why, in the long-term, lowcarb
diets won’t work: Mother Nature and the almighty dollar.
Low-Carb Dilemma #1:
Take That out of Your Mouth!
SOMEONE WITH A SOUND understanding of nutrition and a sadistic
streak could have a field day torturing low-carb enthusiasts.
Here’s an evil trick: Take two pieces of soft, fresh, whole-grain
bread. Slather one side with 2 tablespoons of all-natural peanut
butter. Now take 1⁄2 cup of blackberries, mash them lightly with a
fork, and (this is where it gets really nasty) spread the mashed
berries onto the other piece of bread. Put the two sides together
and you’ve created the world’s healthiest PB&J sandwich: 5
grams of fiber (about as much as the average American gets in a
single day), 25 percent of your daily intake of vitamin C, 13 grams
of protein, and (sacre bleu!) a verboten 30 grams of carbohydrate.
(Oh, by the way, it tastes incredible.)
Float this concoction in front of a low-carb enthusiast and you
might as well be serving broiled rat viscera. (Come to think of it,
they’d probably prefer the rat viscera. No carbs.) The sandwich is
achingly sweet, soft, and chewy, a delicious comfort food that, at
the same time, is a cholesterol-busting nuclear missile. The fiber
86 T H E A B S D I E T
protects you from heart disease as well as from stroke and colon
cancer. The vitamin C boosts your immune system. And the highquality
(meaning high in fiber) carbs give you long-burning energy
and food for your brain. Yet phase one of the Atkins diet bans
every single ingredient in this simple sandwich.
Every single one.
In fact, the Atkins diet focuses on something called net carbs
that Atkins claims are the carbohydrates that actually impact
blood sugar. A rough formula for figuring out net carbs is to subtract
the number of fiber grams from the total number of carb
grams. (The reasoning being that fiber doesn’t impact blood sugar,
spike insulin, or contribute to fat storage.) By that calculation,
this sandwich has about 33 net carbs. Phase one of the Atkins diet
limits you to 20 net carbs per day. Eat this one super-good-for-you
food, and you’ll have to fast for the next day and a half to keep
your Atkins diet in effect.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think this whole low-carb plan is
simply crackers. (Oh, sorry—not allowed to eat those.)
See, carbs are not our enemies. As I explained earlier, we crave
carbs because we need them to protect us against a host of ailments.
The low-carb craze works temporarily not because it limits
carbs but because it limits food intake. And if I came out with some
crazy diet plan that said you could only eat foods that are high in
fat or low in protein or bigger than a breadbox or start with the
letter P, believe me—you’d lose weight. For a little while, at least,
until you couldn’t look at pudding, parsnips, and poultry ever again.
You’d lose weight because, by restricting your food intake, I’ve
restricted your calorie intake. And the fact is, when you take in
fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight; when you take in
more calories than you burn, you gain weight. That’s true regardless
of where those calories come from. The Abs Diet works
both by cutting the number of calories you take in through a sen-
S H O C K E R : H OW L OW- C A R B D I E TS M A K E YO U FA T 87
sible-but-satiating eating plan and by increasing the number of
calories you burn away by improving your metabolic function.
Fewer calories coming in here, a few more burned off there, and
presto—weight loss. No magic, no deprivation, and no pointing
fingers at the evils of carbohydrates.
The confusion about carbs comes from the fact that in today’s
society, we’re surrounded by high-carbohydrate foods that have
had all their positive attributes stripped from them. Commercial
bread baking has followed the same path as Michael Jackson—the
whiter it gets, the less wholesome it becomes. The refined flours
and sugars and sugar substitutes that you find in everything from
cookies to ice cream to mass-produced ketchup and peanut butter
give us all the calories and none of the nutritional benefits of their
original ancestors: whole grains and fruits. The lack of fiber in, say,
a plain bagel causes the calories in the bagel to be digested quickly,
flooding our bloodstreams with glucose, triggering spikes in the digestive
hormone insulin—which then turns the blood sugar into
fat cells and leaves us hungry once again.
But fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread products have a
very different effect on the body: They’re digested slowly, giving
us long-burning energy. Insulin levels stay steady while fiber
scours our bodies for cholesterol and other harmful substances,
and the vitamins and minerals inherent in those foods help protect
us from a host of ills.
The longer we try to go without carbs, the more our bodies
crave them. Eventually, you have to fall off a carb-restricting diet:
Your body is programmed to make you seek out carbs, just the
way it’s programmed to blink when something hurtles toward
your eye. It’s one of our natural defense mechanisms, and what
Mother Nature wants, she will eventually get.
Then again, what corporate America wants, it too will get.
Which presents us with part two of why the low-carb craze is a
disaster waiting to happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment