Time Magazine Blames Carbs for Obesity: Is This The Real Story?

Written By: Kevin Cann


Most of you have seen the recent issue of Time magazine.  If you live under a rock and have no idea what I am talking about you can find it here, http://time.com/2863227/ending-the-war-on-fat/ .  This cover story for Time explains how dietary fat is not our real enemy, but high sugar diets are.  Don’t just go taking this story and running with it as if we just found the absolute cause for the obesity epidemic we face.  In order to fix the obesity issue we can’t just tell people to eat more fat. We need to understand more about the palatability of modern foods that drives us to make these unhealthy food choices as well as other lifestyle behaviors that influence these pathways, but this is a story for another day.

With all of that aside this is an extremely important article.  In 1961 Time magazine ran the article that vilified fat as the underlying cause of the surge of heart disease seen in America.  As we saw in 1961, that article played a major role in us shunning fat and eating a diet consisting of 45-65% of carbohydrates, mainly from processed foods.  Hopefully now we will see a shift to eating higher amounts of fats found naturally in our diets and we will see a decline in the consumption of processed foods including wheat and vegetable oils.  An important question to ask is will a dietary shift help?

In order to understand this question we must look into our genome.  Our genome is our blueprint.  It contains all of the information that makes us who we are.  For years this was thought to be set in stone from the day we were born.  However, now science has discovered that our genome is constantly adapting to our environment.  This new science that will forever change biology is known as epigenetics.  Our genome takes information from our internal and external environments and expresses or suppresses genes accordingly.  The food we eat is a major modulator of gene expression.

One influence of negative gene expression is bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA.  Research has linked BPA to weight gain, cancer, and decreased reproductive function.  When Agouti mice are exposed to BPA they are born with yellow coats instead of brown and are more apt for weight gain and disease.  Researchers knowing this wanted to see how nutritional supplementation would affect the offspring.  What the researchers found was that when they supplemented the expecting mother with a common methyl group such as folic acid, or the phytoestrogen genistein, was that the supplementation offset the negative effects of the environmental exposure to BPA (http://www.pnas.org/content/104/32/13056.long ).

What is this research telling us?  To go out and start taking more B vitamins and to eat more tofu?  Or that BPA is the reason we are all fat and sick?  Absolutely not.  It is telling us that what we eat, and what our mother’s ate while we were in utero are extremely important to our overall health and that the environment in which we put ourselves in can have positive or negative implications on gene expression.

I have said this many times and I will reiterate this fact.  Health and disease are placed upon a spectrum.  The more we do to promote good health the better off we will be.  With that said, the one piece of birthday cake will not give you cancer 20 years later.  Eat healthy nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time, sleep 7-9 hours in a blacked out room, get some sunlight, make some friends, pet a dog, and have sex every once in a while and chances are you will outlive the masses.  All of the above are in your control not to mention they are all much cheaper than getting sick, something Obamacare failed to connect on (yes I just went there).

I can see where the food part can get a little confusing.  From 1961 to two weeks ago we were told that fat is the enemy.  A high fat diet will make you fat, give you heart disease, colon cancer, kidney disease, all while destroying the planet.  So what diet should we all follow?  Should it be low carb, paleo, primal, ketogenic, intermittent fasting, or carb back loading, or something totally different? My answer to this question is to stop being so neurotic with your food and eat plenty of nutrient dense real foods such as; fruits, vegetables, animal meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

You may then be asking “But what about my macros bro?”  Chances are if you are consuming the majority of your calories from whole nutrient-dense food then your macros are not the issue.  Something else on that spectrum of health and disease may be leading you to less than desirable health outcomes.  Look at the bigger picture and clear up whatever you can.  With that said are there cases we need to alter macros?  Absolutely.  For example, low carb diets have been tremendously successful for weight loss, and athletes may need to consume higher carbohydrate diets.

We cannot take this article and swing to the opposite side of the pendulum and vindicate an entire macronutrient group again.  Is it carbohydrates that are causing the issues we are facing today or is it the processed, highly palatable foods?  Or is it a combination of processed foods, poor sleep, high stress, chronically low vitamin D, limited social relationships, and sedentary lifestyles?  67% of the population is overweight and obese and my guess is that this is not from eating too much fruit.  What we need to take from this Time article is that fat is not the enemy and the causes of modern disease are much more complex than blaming it on a single macronutrient group.

To get back to our original question, will a dietary change help alleviate the diseases of modern society?  If it leads to us steering away from processed foods to more nutrient-dense foods, it will absolutely play a role.  However, it is just one of the role players on a much larger team.  We can make these positive dietary changes, but if we do not address our other lifestyle choices the health implications will not be as astounding as they could be.  So eat less processed foods, but also sleep better, get some sunlight, actively manage your stress, and have strong social relationships.  This is how we will convince our genome to express the genes that will lead us to living long and happy lives.


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  1. Brad says

    “In 1961 Time magazine ran the article that vindicated fat as the underlying cause of the surge of heart disease seen in America.”

    Instead of vindicated, did you mean something like “vilified” instead?

  2. says

    Kevin…just so newbies don’t get confused, the word “vindicated” in your second paragraph should be changed to “vilified.” Vindicated means Time was saying fat *wasn’t* the cause of heart disease, which they are doing *now,* but not back in that original 1961 article.

  3. Dave Sill says

    Good article, but it could use some proofreading. “Vindicate” means the opposite of what you think, for example.

  4. Jenny says

    It’s so tempting to yell “HA! We were RIGHT! You were WRONG!” But having the pendulum swing to the other extreme of “carbs BAD!” is no more beneficial than the “fat BAD!” stance of the past 40 years. Thanks for tempering my ego and reminding me it’s about whole foods and not macro-nutrients.

    Also, I think you mean “incriminate” instead of “vindicate?”

  5. says

    This is exactly what I wish more people would be talking about. Nutrient density and food quality is the conversation that needs to be had, rather than splicing macros and ranking them from best to worst.

    Hopefully the pendulum will swing less extremely this time around, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. bill says

    “…1961 Time magazine ran the article that vindicated fat…”

    You might mean “implicated” fat.

  7. says

    Good article! Too often people feel the need to blame one individual factor on a specific disease or problem. Life is a spectrum, a continuum of choices and factors that all contribute to our overall health, or lack-there-of.

  8. says

    As a culture we tend to get focused on an all-or-nothing mentality in almost everything we do. Yeah, paleo has made me lose weight and feel better, but going outside more often is what made me start to feel happier again.

  9. says

    Steering away from high sugar sources is a great start, but yeah, there’s all kinds of bad stuff in any processed food. Any meal in a box is bad in general.

  10. Dave says

    Haha funny reading everyone’s interpretation of what they perceived was the right word for the incorrect “vindicated”… I got “vilified” as well Amy.
    Back to topic. I think we will continue to see these enlightenments on various health and fitness ideas and trends..as more and more gravitate towards a paleo type life style and the rest of the world slowly realises there is more then a little merit in its ways. Then again maybe everyone will continue to get fat and sick and eat crap…we can only hope not.
    Dave out..

  11. says

    This is a good read! I agree with you. Nothing beats the real thing. As much as possible, I don’t let my family touch anything processed as long as I’m around the house. I know it’s a bit pricier and needs a bit more work on always buying fresh food but I guarantee you, it’s worth it! Gone are the days my lethargic husband sulking on our couch eating chips and watching sitcoms all day every weekend. Now, I often see him playing with our kids and dogs outside. Just don’t take the processed foods out on an instant though. Just introduce an alternative a day at a time.

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