Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape

23Dec/102

How wheat made the world fat: part 1

Bread head. His head is made of bread.

Take two fat twins. Give them breakfast in the morning of bacon and eggs, except for the first twin, the one you don’t particularly like preferably, give them a crumpet as well.

At lunchtime, both are given an all you can eat buffet.
Repeat this every day for a month. Over the course of a month, who will eat more at lunchtime?

The crumpet-eating twin.

This is the deficiency theory in action and to be clear, it’s not directly about insulin, but everything to do with why the world has got so fat. To understand why we need to go back to grains and look at the mistakes we keep on making. This post is so long I split it into two - all I can say in my defence is that this is the most important one on here.

Grain genocide

Mistake no. 1: In the late 1800s, some bright spark decided to grind off the outer layer of rice and polish it, to make it look shiny and lovely. This overprocessing of rice ending up killing over a million people (“Beriberi, white rice and vitamin B: a disease, cause and a cure” by Kenneth Carpenter). Beriberi, which we now know comes from a lack of B1, thiamine. Dry beriberi is characterised by damaged nerves – you have difficulty walking, you become confused, you may vomit. Wet beriberi is all of the above and more, with enlargement of the heart, palpitation and breathlessness, combined with chronic water retention. And in babies, it’s characterised by crying quietly, usually without tears. Unless treated, a quick death is inevitable. Not so lovely.

Mistake no. 2: Beriberi led to the discovery of vitamins in 1930. But not before grain could do it again – Americans took up wholesale production of corn without soaking it in an alkaline solution as the natives had been doing. This led to a chronic lack of B3 – niacin. The result was a disease called pellagra in the early 1900s, characterised by scaly, flaking skin. Tens of thousands died in Southern USA. Urban folklore has it the scaly, scabby hands of its victims led Bram Stoker to come up with Dracula.

Mistake no. 3: In 1959, Tillsbury Mills introduced Turbogrinders, super-refining wheat to a level never seen before. This new production technique ensured that for the first time, white flour became cheaper than wholemeal flour. But this time, noone died. Instead, everyone got fat.

Why people get fat & why Taubes is wrong

In the wild, obesity is really rare, even when there’s plenty of food. We humans were no different, up until the obesity epidemic exploded around the 1970s. So what happened?

Given that our hunger is directly affected by the nutritional quality of the food (known as specific appetite), is it any wonder that where possible we eat until we have the nutrients that we need?

The human body has to make a choice when faced with the absence of nutrients. If the food’s available,  it will seek to maintain the level of nutrients required to function properly – the level of just enough nutrients to survive. The less nutritious the food, the more of it you have to get through to get enough vitamins, minerals, protein etc just to survive. But if the food is heavily nutritionally deficient, the body doesn’t have the keys to the ignition to use body fat as a fuel, so instead you get sugar cravings – instant energy that requires few nutrients to process instead.

How else do you explain the obesity paradox, where obesity and malnutrition exist side by side in 3rd world countries? (6th World Food Survey), often within the same family? Energy needs are already ticked off, but the essential nutrients needed for growth in the emaciated child and in fat burning and regulation in the mother are missing. Fat mum, starving kid.

OK, so if that’s case, what are the common theories on why people get fat?

The first, traditional age old, and wholly wrong dietary government advice states that fat is caused by a high fat, high sugar diet, and eating more calories than you need through inactivity or greed. Eat less, move faster right? So how do you explain why calorie consumption has fractionally gone down, fat consumption has plummeted and yet obesity has soared? I wrote about this known as the American Paradox /fat-people-eat-less-than-thin-people/ . It’s nonsense because it’s not about calories in, calories out. It’s nutrients in, nutrients out.

The second, more modern theory gaining more traction is Gary Taubes’ theory, author of the excellent, and exhaustively researched Good Calories and Bad Calories. He believes that carbs drive insulin drives fat storage. And this is certainly closer to the truth; insulin resistance clearly leads to obesity, but this still isn’t the root cause. People get fat when moving to high carb diets from low carb diets, but carbohydrates are not the root cause.

Deficiency theory

I propose something different – a deficiency theory. Lack of insulin control, along with inability to burn your own body fat as a fuel source has a single cause – lack of nutrients: essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and proteins in the diet. The inability to use your own body fat as a fuel source and burn it off is due to a lack of nutrients, rather than simply having too many carbohydrates.  It’s well known that long-term metabolic damage can lead to total insulin regulation breakdown (aka type 2 diabetes) requiring diets almost exclusively devoid of carbohydrates, but we are not talking about the majority of people here. If we were, across the world high GI, high carb diets would run hand in hand with obesity and yet they clearly don’t.
Here’s a few examples with thanks to Stephen at Whole Health Source for the research:
1) The Quechua, 74% potatoes and the majority of the remainder from grains

2) The Kitavans, 69% carbohydrate (mainly tubers)

3) And one I’ll add to the mix too – the Tarahumara, known as the finest ultramarathon runners in the world, with a whopping 75% of carbohydrates coming from corn and beans (big pdf alert)

And just to prove a point, Chris Voight, trying to redeem the reputation of the lowly spud (he works for the Washington State Potato Commission I should point out), spent two months eating nothing but tats. He lost weight, blood work improved, and Jimmy Moore interviewed him here

Fat and starving

The only thing that unites diets where people get fat is a lack of nutrients. I propose that people eat until they get some core nutrients, essential for survival, but not the other nutrients they need to be able to turn to fat as a fuel source. Obesity is a form of malnutrition – starvation due to a lack of calories leads to an emaciated frame. Starvation due to a lack of other nutrients leads to obesity.

People get fat because they lack the nutrients required to turn to utilise their fat as a fuel source. Those nutrients are most commonly – but not exclusively - found in meats (protein) and fat, and less frequently in carbohydrates. The difference is subtle but crucial. If Taube’s is right, all carbohydrates have the potential to make you fat, whereas if nutritional deficiencies are to blame, then grains, legumes and sugar are right in the firing line on account of their ability to strip nutrients (more on this later), but starchy tubers like potatoes are perfectly OK. Even then, there’s plenty of evidence that properly prepared grains form part of perfectly healthy diets around the world - let’s not forget the Tarahumara are eating corns and beans in 75% of their diet – something which would send a shiver down the spine of any hardcore Paleolithic dieter.

So, armed with the idea that a lack of nutrients makes you fat, or rather prevents you burning fat as a fuel source, why is wheat the number one suspect in driving obesity? Why not say, rice? And why now?

The wheat timeline of mistakes

Wheat’s been eaten for thousands of years, the bible calls it the staff of life and yet it’s causing obesity? How come? I did hear one person say “if it’s good enough for Jesus…”. Yeah right – let’s be clear, Jesus might have eaten bread but he didn’t have a baguette from Tesco’s did he?

Breaking it down, wheat flour is comprised of three parts, the germ, the bran and the endosperm. If you grind them all up together, you’ve got the key ingredient for wholemeal bread which we’ve been eating for time immemorial. But things changed. We started producing much higher gluten-types of wheat, and we got a preference for white flour – the endosperm part of the grain, the nutritionally devoid part that contains gluten that causes most of our problems.

In the late 1870s, the milling of wheat became ever more refined with iron rollers and higher-gluten types of hard wheat replacing softer wheat varieties. This prompted one physician to write in the Chicago Times that the milling techniques had increased rates of appendicitis dramatically:

However, white flour hadn’t yet replaced wholemeal. The Victorians in England regarded white flour to be purer and superior to brown flour, but as it was more expensive, it was still the preserve of the richer few. Obesity was additionally seen as a sign of wealth.

But that wasn’t to last. White flour had significant benefits other than prestige. Because the oils are stripped out, it has a phenomenally long shelf life. Ever wondered why crumpets last for yonks in the cupboard? Wonder no more. White flour gained in popularity.

In 1942, US passes a law to enrich white flour with a few of the nutrients stripped out. UK follows suit in 1956. Of the 16 minerals and 11 vitamins taken out, enrichment replaces only three vitamins (B1,B2,B3) and iron.

In 1959, Pillsbury Mills introduced Turbogrinders. These are air-flow systems, which create vortices in which the flour particles become smaller and smaller as they rub against each other. Air flow milling systems are now the defacto method of producing flour. Wheat flour had never been so refined. This method separates out the bran, germ and endosperm by default. Endosperm is a sole ingredient of white flour. This means that producing whole wheat flour requires mixing back in the bran and the germ. For the first time in history producing white flour was cheaper than whole wheat flour.

If you combine the cheapness of white flour together with the fact that white flour has a far longer shelf life, this defining moment turned white wheat flour into the de-facto flour for use in food products across the world.

In 1970s, Ancel Keys sits behind a recommendation for us all to reduce fats and increase carbohydrates (timeline from Crossfitter Kelly) UK and US Government issue corresponding advice, and an obesity epidemic begins.

By the 1980s, gluten, the damaging protein found in wheat, barley and rye, finds its way into millions of processed foods. Not only is it found in the obvious – pasta, noodles, bread of all descriptions, you’ll now find gluten in virtually every biscuit, cake, sweet, sauces, and even flavours of some crisps.

Today at the brink of 2011, gluten is everywhere.

Could it be the ultra-refinement of grain is removing some property of grain that protects us from the damaging effects of gluten? And that effect would be even more pronounced in white flour, given that gluten is only found in the endosperm – the sole ingredient in white flour?

What’s wrong with wheat?

There are three big problems with wheat:

1) Wheat contains anti-nutrients; namely phytic acid and lectins. Lectins are a toxic protein found in heavy amounts in all grains and legumes. To give you an idea, ricin is made from castor beans which contain a particularly deadly form. Lectins additionally can bind to insulin receptors, and given insulin drives fat storage, you have yourself a fattening food. Additionally, phytic acid binds to other minerals in your diet, preventing their absorption.

2) Wheat is addictive: It acts like heroin on the receptors of your brain. For dozens of articles on this, take a read of Dr Davis on the multiple clinical papers that’ll make you question wheat’s health food status

3) Wheat is damaging: Gluten, found in the endosperm (white flour) destroys the lining of your stomach in non-celiacs as well as celiacs.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the body violently reacts against gluten and starts attacking its own internal organs. The subsequent damage to the gastronintestinal tract means you can’t absorb fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Estimates of percentages of sufferers vary wildly from 0.2% to 30% of the world population – but the truth is, no one knows.

But severe symptoms of celiac aside, given it’s been recently discovered that GI tract damage occurs in non-celiacs too, what would it mean if the world started eating huge quantities of concentrated gluten (white flour), combined with other fairly nutrient free foods (junk foods)? It would create a nutrient deficit. You would need to eat to make up enough nutrients to survive, but not enough that you have room to spare to start turning to fat as a fuel source.

All grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients of course. Lauren Cordain’s paper on cereal grains pretty much started the paleo food movement which outrightly rejects all grains and legumes. And who can blame them? Most of the diseases of modern man have been traced back to the start of the agricultural revolution. But let’s not throw the cassoulet out with the ciabatta - plenty of natural foods contain toxins, from celery to tomatoes (great article about all of them here) . In moderation, most of these foods are fine to eat.

However, of all the grains, wheat does stand head and shoulders as being particularly shabby, and white flour even more so. Only white flour is nearly totally devoid of nutrients, to start with. Only white flour is known to have these addictive properties. And most significantly, only wheat, barley and rye flour contains gluten known to damage the gastrointestinal tract in everyone.

GI tract damage

Damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract results in malabsorption of fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K as well as minerals and fatty acids.

-          All of these are critical to the body’s functioning.

-          All of these are critical to burning off fat.

Now, knowing that we eat until we get the nutrients we need to survive, and yet in general fat people eat the same number of calories (if a little less) than thin people, the body does all it can to ensure survival. Its inability to turn to fat as fuel source gives rise to a preference for sugars, hoping that all fuel comes in easily digestible fast release form. That’s why I believe people get sugar cravings. The metabolism speeds up to try and get rid of excess energy but it’s fighting a slow uphill battle because it never has excess nutrients to burn off the fat. If it did, you wouldn’t feel hungry.

This lack of nutrients and steady weight gain sets off a cascade of obesity-related disorders, including poor insulin control leading to type 2 diabetes, poor cholesterol transport, leading to high blood cholesterol levels, heart disease, gallstones (see D day), osteoarthiritis, gout, cancers and even psychological disorders. All stemming from the lack of nutrients.

My experience of this is what prompted me to write this whole blog. Not only did wheat give me gallstones, it nearly stopped me running a marathon. But most significantly, although I’ve never been on a diet, cutting it out near instantly returned back to a weight not navigated since I was 18 (read about losing 4 stone in 8 months). But what about some bigger evidence?

Read part 2 over here… and the answer to the fat twins experiment.

Beriberi photo and Pellagra photo from Wikimedia Commons
Bread head from Aesop

Comments (2) Trackbacks (2)
  1. I linked your post on the blog post I made earlier today. Always nice to read good blog posts (they are rare).


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