Notice I don’t have carbohydrates, per se, in that chain of causality.
The idea, simply stated, is that perhaps the very root and fundamental cause of obesity and other “diseases of civilization”—obesity being a good ill-health marker—is malnutrition. But, because food is plentiful and we’re not talking about malnutrition in terms of chronic caloric deficit, the malnutrition is subclinical, i.e., no obvious micronutrient deficiencies such as would usher in rickets, scurvy, and other well-documented, easy-to-spot diseases arising out of micronutrient deficiencies like vitamin D, C, or others. Or, to put it another way, sufficient or even excess macronutrient nutrition in the face of mal-micronutrient-nutrition.
This is an idea that’s been brewing for some time and in fact, while not stating it explicitly in my book draft because I’m still thinking about it and would like to get more input, I did focus substantially on nutrition vis-à-vis the nutritional density of quality animal foods/fat and whole plant foods being crowded out by processed and fast foods, alternatively known as crap-in-a-bag/box/bottle. In other words, nutritionally bankrupt calories sufficient for energy utilization, insufficient for adequate or optimal biochemical and hormonal functioning.
Neither is the idea new, I don’t think; and anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Weston A. Price will immediately know what I mean. It’s just that thanks to the great work of both Dr. Stephan Guyenet and almost-Dr. Chris Masterjohn over the years, my understanding—or perhaps synthesis—of all the information at hand is working to give me a better understanding, way of thinking, et cetera…that I can then convey to you…in particular, recognizing that my readership goes from those who’ve been here for the duration, to those who popped in days, weeks or only a few months ago and who stick around to “see what he’ll say next.”
Stephan was the very first to open my eyes to the world beyond an Atkin’s style, low carb diet (at the time, I had yet to make even basic, dutiful distinctions between Atkins and De Vany’s EvFit), when near the very start of his blog back in 2007 or ’08, he began blogging about the marvelous health of relatively “primitive” populations; or at least, those existing on diets of Real Food without a lot of interaction with the industrial world (…as though those people aren’t industrious…but you know what I mean). At that time, I pretty much thought it was all about carbs. Enter Chris Masterjohn, via Stephan, and the very first thing he referenced was a specific micronutrient—Activator X or, Vitamin K2 MK-4 Menatetrenone most likely—that Price had isolated in his worldwide research of primitive peoples in the 1930s, and that he ultimately used to halt and reverse tooth decay (remineralize cavities), another huge marker of ill health. He was a dentist.
(I have for years used roughly that same formulation to keep my teeth pearly white and smooth, with little need of brushing, no need of flossing…and this…after having two surgeries in the early 2000s for gum disease.)
Now enter Gary Taubes and his fine work. I know there has been a materially relevant dispute going on between he and Stephan, but I’ll set that aside because it really doesn’t matter much to me. The ideas of both have seemed, in my awareness, to have evolved and developed over the years and I see no reason for that not to continue. I trust that it will.
…Where all the parties are honest dealers and continue in their searches and exchanges of information and ideas, things tend to run toward synthesis. In the end, it’s highly likely that two honest dealers can actually both be wrong—or some melange of wrong & right—but that the one’s thesis vs. the other’s antithesis, and vice versa, result in an overall synthesis more right than at the outset…and the process continues.
To be clear, I’m not making any just-so judgments on their respective ideas at this point; I’m simply describing a process of gaining knowledge—whether that German dialectic process is best attributed to Hegel, Kant, Fichte…or even Marx or Engels—that I believe all of us have been engaged in for years now, and it’s very healthy.
Stay honest. We may never get there but we can get ever closer. It’s…mathematical.
I could have chosen to write this post without even mentioning any of the foregoing gentlemen. On the other hand, I’ve had the privilege of meeting all of them in person, with email correspondence with Stephan for a very long time, and to a shorter extent, email exchanges with Chris & Gary. Here’s the deal: none of them ever try to persuade me to any view explicitly, and they never come off as authoritative even though I see them as such, relative to me. It’s always, always, about thinking. They deal with me honestly.
…When I was scouring the Internet for some things I could use in my book that I’d never blogged about, one of the top choices was this, by Chris Masterjohn: Understanding Weston Price on Primitive Wisdom.
First time that post from October of last year has ever been linked to, here; and while I’ve been aware of it for a couple of months, it’s like one of those early Stephan posts that I chewed on for weeks or months before blogging about. It’s kinda funny. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration ought to be enough, one might think. But it wasn’t until that Masterjohn post that I began to draw a more comprehensive and meaningful distinction between Paleo and Ancestral Health or Wisdom.
Paleo is the given; the evolutionary, environmentally given. It’s what you have available in any environment and if ultimately insufficient, you have to move on or suffer consequences. Enter cost/benefit dynamics and potential degeneration—as an acceptable cost over other alternatives or risk undertaking. Remember that these people were foremost and always: on their own. It’s also a long process of gaining wisdom; so while Paleo is broader, it covers only survival…presumably, with the ability to migrate when survival becomes too hard or impossible. Then, Ancestral health ushers in the idea of enhanced or, optimal Paleo in my view…or even better dealing with neolithic food (soaking, sprouting, fermenting, etc.). No longer is it merely sufficient to kill meat and gather veggies, tubers and nuts. You’re going for the big nutritional bang!
If rampant tooth decay can occur without the introduction of modern industrial foods, as it did during the Archaic period among the lower Pecos hunter-gatherers in Texas, what was it that protected many of the “primitive” groups that Price studied? In Price’s view, this protection resulted not simply by accident, but from accumulated wisdom. Indeed, he wrote the following:
“In my studies of these several racial stocks I find that it is not accident but accumulated wisdom regarding food that lies behind their physical excellence and freedom from our modern degenerative processes, and, further, that on various sides of our world the primitive people know many of the things that are essential for life—things that our modern civilizations apparently do not know. These are the fundamental truths of life that have put them in harmony with Nature through obeying her nutritional laws. Whence this wisdom? Was there in the distant past a world civilization that was better attuned to Nature’s laws and have these remnants retained that knowledge? If this is not the explanation, it must be that these various primitive racial stocks have been able through a superior skill in interpreting cause and effect, to determine for themselves what foods in their environment are best for producing human bodies with a maximum of physical fitness and resistance to degeneration.
“A very important phase of my investigations has been the obtaining of information from these various primitive racial groups indicating that they were conscious that such injuries would occur if the parents were not in excellent physical condition and nourishment.”
Indeed, Price stated that “some of the primitive races have avoided certain of the life problems faced by modernized groups,” not that all of them had. To Price, it was not primitiveness itself that proved protection, but the wisdom that the successful groups had accumulated over time. Presumably they had learned through trial and error processes that involved mistakes, or else they could never have had any consciousness about the types of injuries that would occur without proper nourishment.
So, perhaps we have reason to consider evolution not only on a level of genes and biochemical processes, but individual behavior and more: social behavior. I’ll save the rant about forcing social behavior and being willing accomplices to the forcing of others—in a quest to live at their expense—for another post…
For the time being, let’s focus on the wisdom of people who’ve never watched a TV show in their lives, listened to a radio program, nor read any of the classics…not to mention any recent thing I could reference in an instant on PubMed. I continue with Chris, citing Price’s finding, duly summarized (references are included in the link, above).
- The natives often went to great lengths to nourish their soil. After heavy rains, the Swiss villagers would collect runaway soil by hand and return it to their pastures and fields. Their milk products were several times higher in fat-soluble vitamins than the equivalent milk products from most European and American sources, including lower Switzerland. The Gaelics of the Outer Hebrides collected the residue of the smoke of peat fires to fertilize their soil, which Price confirmed to be highly effective using a laboratory experiment.
- The natives of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory knew of scurvy, and prevented it by using the vitamin C-rich adrenal glands of moose. These natives also had a plant product that they used for the prevention and cure of type-one diabetes. Price cited evidence that Canadian natives of the sixteenth century also knew that a drink made from the roots of spruce trees could also prevent scurvy. He cited another case in which a native cured xerophthalmia with vitamin A-rich flesh behind fish eyes.
- The natives of the Andes, central Africa, and Australia all carried knapsacks with balls of clay that they would use to dip in their food to prevent “sick stomach.”
- The natives he studied practiced systematic child spacing of two and one-half to four years, and used special diets for pregnancy, lactation, and pre-conception, always for the mother and sometimes for the father.
- Many of the groups would wrap newborns in an absorbent moss that was changed daily but would not wash the baby until several weeks after birth, which prevented irritation and infection of the skin.
- In some of the Pacific Islands, inland-dwelling groups relying mostly on plant products understood their need for shellfish and thus engaged in trade with the coast-dwelling populations to obtain these foods. This trade continued even during war time, although war was often started during famines when certain members of the inlanddwelling populations would turn to cannibalism and attempts to hunt coast-dwelling fishermen.
- Price observed that the “knowledge of veterinary science is quite remarkable” among the Masai and that they knew of the protective effect of malaria against syphilis.
- The Peruvian natives invented the antimalaria drug quinine.
- Natives of the Andes knew of goiter, and used kelp to prevent it. Some African groups also knew of goiter and treated it with various iodine-rich plant foods.
- Price noted that “probably few primitive races have developed calisthenics and systematic physical exercise to so high a point as the primitive Maori. . . . This has a remarkably beneficial effect in not only developing deep breathing, but in developing the muscles of the body, particularly those of the abdomen, with the result that these people maintain excellent figures to old age”. Price considered not only their diet but their “system of social organization” to be responsible for their development of “what was reported by early scientists to be the most physically perfect race living on the face of the earth.”
Now you know why I so often say that no matter what: you’re on your own. But when I say that, what I really mean is that you and yours are on your own and the foregoing ought to illustrate it well. You do it together and in small groups, where each member’s contribution is important to all. It’s a far cry from centralized authority over a population of millions.
So why in the world include Gary in all this? Isn’t he about carbs and only about the carbs? Maybe, maybe not, but what I intend to highlight is a little context. And frankly, he’s given many statements over the years to signal his willingness to go with the science (“maybe potatoes are fine,” as I recall, going way back). But he also gave an interview that was just published: FiveBooks Interviews > Gary Taubes on Dieting. Other than Sisson’s Primal Blueprint as a rather surprise recommendation from Gary, what other book do you suppose he recommended?
Do I need to ask? Hence, the synthesis, and the sense that when you are dealing with honest people, things tend toward convergence, and everyone’s better off. Quoting Taubes.
Weston Price was a great dental scientist and did some really important work. What I didn’t know when I read this for the first time is that Weston Price’s book was the culmination of a long line of dental research in the first half of the 20th century, demonstrating that high fat diets are required in childhood when teeth are developing, to protect against cavities. Weston Price travelled around the world with his wife – whom he refers to as Mrs Price – and did his 1930s equivalent of controlled dietary experiments. He visited populations that were so isolated that they didn’t have access to modern Western foods (ie refined flour and sugar or refined white rice) and he compared their teeth, gums and jaws to people of similar genetic stock that did eat Western food.
He began high in the Swiss Alps, in a village that is a mile above the nearest road, and he compared their teeth and jaws to the Swiss living in one of the major Swiss cities. He visited pygmies in Central Africa, and a variety of African tribes, Native American populations, Inuits and South Pacific islanders. Everywhere he went he took photos of their teeth and jaws. So you’ve got these populations that eat no sugar and refined flour with beautiful white teeth and perfect jaws, and other populations with the same genetic background, but living near Westerns outposts or cities or trading with the West. Not only were the kids’ mouths riddled with cavities, but their jaws were a mess…
You just look at the pictures. People who were eating refined flour and sugar were a mess, and people who weren’t seem to have been very healthy. It’s hard to tell with this kind of research, but as far as what was done in the era, Price did a pretty good job of convincing readers – he certainly convinced me – that there is something going on when you add Western food to any baseline diet. This is not modern science, it’s not something you can base public health recommendations on, but it is a book that can change your paradigm about what’s healthy and what’s not. And it’s a good read…
He’s a great storyteller. There are parts that I didn’t even believe could be true…You think this is crazy, and then you turn the page and there’s a photo of Mrs. Price, a dowdy-looking middle-aged woman in a pith helmet and a long skirt, standing next to two pygmies with two enormous elephant tusks towering above them.
Then, after some discussion of dental health vs. other health markers, Gary continues:
One of the fundamental observations that I discuss in Good Calories, Bad Calories is the absence of cancer in populations that do not eat Western diets. We think of cancer as inevitable. But the chief statistician of the Prudential Insurance Company, who later became one of the founders of the American Cancer Society, compiled the observations that populations that don’t eat Western diets don’t get cancer nearly as much.
One of the explanations put forward in the early 20th century was that the meat in Western diets was the cause of cancer. But people at the time pointed out that the same absence of cancer is true of the Inuit, the Native Americans of the Great Plains and pastoral populations like the Masai. These are people who live exclusively on animal products – so whatever is causing the cancer, it’s unlikely to be that.
There is now a growing body of research showing that insulin and insulin-like growth factor are cancer promoters. I actually have a five page article about this research in the journal Science today. The idea is that you avoid cancer by keeping insulin levels as low as possible, which means avoiding these same fattening carbohydrates we’ve been talking about, and arguably eating an animal product, fat-rich diet. It’s the same type of diet we’ve been eating for two million years, prior to agriculture, and the same diet that many of these indigenous populations were still eating through the early 20th century. Actually, while I was doing research for this story I interviewed the head of the cancer research centre at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School, as well as Craig Thompson, the president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in Manhattan. Both of them told me they were effectively on the Atkins diet – very low carb, high fat, mostly animal products – not because they wanted to lose weight, but because they didn’t want to get cancer. [emphasis added]
It’s interesting to me how, over the years, if you look up my post record, I go back and forth. I’ll go long spaces of time where’s it’s all about the fat loss. But I have done a lot of posts on cancer and its relative absence amongst primitive peoples and how refined sugar is probably a big factor (and vitamin D deficiency—and epidemiology of dark skins living at high latitudes being my next interest), not to mention how intermittent fasting might help in prevention. But that ought to be easy to understand. Cancer is rare amongst animals in the wild. We’re animals, but largely domesticated. That makes a difference.
The thing about Gary’s book, Good Calories, Bad Caloeies, that most resonated with me was not, in fact, his position on the role of carbohydrates, per se, in obesity, but 1) his heroic effort in digging up pre-WWII research on obesity, demonstrating that that a World War shifted focus and lost knowledge, and 2) his slaying of the Hydra-headed monster of the dual saturated fat and cholesterol cons.
…So let’s find a way to try and synthesize all of this.
First, in deference to Gary, I do think that carbohydrate plays an important role in obesity, but that it’s possibly a downstream contributor, after malnutrition and subclinical ill health. And, of course, that the processed packages carbohydrate comes in is implicated in malnutrition by crowding out nutrients. Chris: paleo is absolutely a mere “given foundation,” and being at the top of the food chain, we can do better than the evolutionarily given. We can optimize, pass along wisdom, and thrive better. Stephan: I do think that food reward plays an important role in obesity, but I think it’s a modern aberration. Or, I’m sure that many H-Gs find their food highly rewarding on many levels, not the least of which is their satisfaction in being able to do it all on their own.
In short, all of these guys are doing exactly what they should be doing—pursuing a passion to gain more knowledge and put it out there, get feedback, and hit the lab or keyboard, as applicable.
In terms of carbohydrate as a contributor to obesity, in no particular order:
- All carbohydrate is not created equal. Not only are some natural, and some manufactured, but the natural ones contain natural nutrients, anti-nutrients, toxins and even poisons. The manufactured ones contain far more unknowns in composition. And ancient wisdom has tended to separate out known nutrients from the others, or in various ways, contend with some of them.
- All people—all individuals, populations and cultures—are not evolved equal. Not only do we have environment to consider—equator to arctic, sea level to high-altitude—but now, mass migration. Then gender, then fertility, and so on. In addition, we have to consider pedigree. An individual that never consumed processed food likely has a metabolism that functions in different ways and on different levels from someone who grew up eating crap-in-a-box. Or, how about modern migration, where dark skins are living at extreme latitudes and white skins at the equator?
- Carbohydrate has been a valuable canary in the coal mine. That’s because carbohydrate is cheap-ass, compared to other foods and as such, has been exploited by clever marketing. Essentially, you can take the same wheat-based carbs, toss in some fat, protein and SUGAR (then the other 2-3 inches of ingredients on the label), and create a myriad of different enticing products to line shelves or to be served up “fresh” at fast food outlets. The textures and flavors can be as different as is a raw oyster to a too-tough steak, and even the macro-nutrient ratios of carb/protein/ fat can differ somewhat…but the micronutrient profiles will remain the same: crap.
- Most modern, processed carbohydrate comes packaged with a plethora of “confounding variables,” because it’s processed, needs preservation…not to mention colors and textures to make it enticing and competitive contra all the other stuff you’re “hunting and gathering” into your shopping cart…quite unlike going for the venison buck with a 4-point rack vs. a 3-point.
- When you restrict carbohydrate intake in modern society, that means you are typically replacing processed crap-in-a-bag/box/bottle with real foods like meat, fish, fowl, veggies, fruits and nuts that you have to “process” at home: cook & prepare. At least, it used to be that way, even with Atkins at the outset. Then they, too, fell victim to the profiteering of offering various dubious concoctions of processed stuff, only it was “low carb.”
- When you restrict carbohydrate intake in a primitive society, particularly a more tropical one, you may starve, unless you move on. One presumes, logically, that they are exploiting their food resources in the most optimal way considering cost, risk, time, etc.
Concerning the foregoing….
I’m a big fan of Karl Popper and falsifiability. Over the years, many have objected, but my reply has always been that Popper applies only to scientific propositions and it always ends there, because I’m completely right about that. It’s simply not science if an actual formal hypothesis is advanced and there’s no way for a test to render it…FALSE. That ought to come as mere common sense. For example, if I hypothesize that every 1,000 times tossing of a coin will result in 500 heads and 500 tails, owing to some “law of large numbers” (and lots of tedious math), that’s testable, and of course, it’s false. It won’t always come down to that, precisely. The cool part is that’s certainty. The proposition is forever false, no need to revisit: done. You are CERTAIN!
And if I say that “all swans are white,” that’s equally testable, but other factors such as environment and context get introduced. For a long time, that’s what people believed, ’cause they never observed a counter-exapmple. …Until Australia was discovered, and their black swans.
That second example is materially different from the first, because in the context of knowledge at the time, while one could not say it was absolutely true, one could say that it wasn’t false so far as all knowledge and observation was concerned. The entire relevant context had not yet been explored (we knew there were unexplored lands in the world). But now we can say it’s false, absolutely. We can lay it to rest.
(Just one more thing: faith based-beliefs are not falsifiable, and thus, they are not science. It’s why they call them “faith based.”)
OK, with all that in mind, I have, for a number of years, considered the idea that “carbohydrates alone cause obesity” falsified. On point, with all lean and healthy populations:
- The Kuna (65% carbs)
- The Kitavans (about 70-80% carbs; more info on health markers here, here, here, here, and here)
- A highland population in PNG that consumes 94.5% energy as carbohydrate, mostly from sweet potatoes. (lean throughout life, both males and females. See from about 22:00m in on Stephan’s AHS presentation)
Yes, this is an absolute; we’re done, nothing more to see here concerning an hypothesis that carbohydrate—as an independent variable—absolutely causes obesity amongst human animals. That hypothesis has been falsified. Nothing more to think about, and for God’s sake, wast time and money on.
So, are Gary’s ideas dead?
I don’t think so.
How many smart naturalists in all disciplines in the UK at the very dawn of excellent science figured that all swans were white? And owing to the disparity in time, distance and environment, had a disease cropped up specific to the white swan of the species, could that not have been dealt with competently, without reference to the as-yet undiscovered reality of black swans?
…Ah, so now we get down to it.
The obesity epidemic and all the downstream diseases are applicable only to “white swans.” This is what was largely known in a rather xenophobic, isolationist or even elitist burgeoning industrial society way back. You can fault them for that if you like, but it’s irrelevant to the science, much of which Gary unearthed in his first book (now unpack the metaphor: it was about obesity research in a similar vacuum, that being modern people eating modern food, much of it of poor nutritional value).
I haven’t asked him to weigh in on this idea—he’s a lot bigger than me and he played football—but how can you fault a guy for being totally honest about white swans and their hardships while being innocently ignorant of the confounding black swans and their experience?
In the end, all I have really heard Gary admonish is to please test it. While it’s hard enough as it is for him even to get that done, I have some thoughts along those lines.
But first, some observations about the state of the research, such as it is. It’s no secret that the state of current research focusses on macronutrients. Carbohydrate. Fat. Protein. Ratios. The most I see is some studies that separate out sub-categories of fat into saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (how about chain lengths within each?). There may be additional attention to detail, but I don’t know.
But unless I’ve been off grid, I just a can’t think of any studies that take into account micronutrients as a major role in obesity. No wonder. That would up the game substantially, owing to the introduction of quite a few more variables. So let us now go forth with a steam of consciousness, as to how we might get a better sense and idea of things—and even if never done, let it serve as a beacon against certainly until it is.
- Imagine testing two isocaloric diets against one another, and even the same proportion of macronutrients. Let’s do 70% carb / 15% each of protein & fat. But, the kicker is that one group gets their food in boxes and the other, from wise people flown in from some isolated island. Test the markers over time, including body composition.
- Then, make it crossover after a month or three, so each group of subjects shifts diets. Test again.
- Then, reverse it: 70% fat, 15% each of the other two. Do a crossover as well.
- Or, how about one group eats just real food and the other crap-in-a-box, no restrictions at all on caloric intake or macro-ratios? You object? That’s already been done! It’s already real reality! We already know how it comes out. Its life; it’s the white swan and the heretofore unknown black, because now we know about black swans. Indeed. It should be enough. It obviously isn’t. For you it is, but real people are stupid people, and until they know better, “just people.” …Until they know better. So, let’s do it in a metabolic ward. And crossover too. Let’s see how those natives’ health markers react to crap-in-a-box.
Obviously, I could go on and on. Designing the very basis or thesis of a study is pretty easy, but the point is, these are studies I’m pretty sure have never even been contemplated in the vaunted literature, much less ever conducted.
But it may surprise you to read me write that I get it, don’t expect them to, and it would likely be too hard and expensive; because to be sure, these would need to be metabolic ward studies of hundreds of people. Otherwise, any results will be criticized on various grounds: because there’s money, prestige, ivory towers, and political positions and appointments to consider.
So, you’re still on your own. That’s why I’m here and why I’ll stay.
Listen, the crap “food” producers aren’t going to fund them because, while they don’t know what the exact outcome will be, they know they’ll look like crap. The Alphabets (ADA, AHA, etc.) aren’t going to fund them because they get their money from the aforetrashed “food” producers. Government isn’t going to fund them because…well, the list is too big. See, whores only want money, and they’ll fake an orgasm or suck a cock they otherwise wouldn’t, to get it. Government has their whole-whore-on in too many places, and with too many variables, to say precisely why they won’t fund it. They just know, rightly, that it would be bad for them in many ways.
It’s been a long time since government said “we’re going to the moon”—damn the consequences being implied.
The United States never “goes to the moon,” anymore.
And it’s time we stopped pretending that America is anything like that country that once did. The whole world are whores, now. We spread metaphoric legs with the best of them.
…And a part of me regrets ending this post by insulting whores.