As is a frequent topic of this blog, I believe a key element necessary to being of value to your society as a fitness professional is a willingness to change your mind. If new research comes along that is persuasive, it’s foolish to cling to outdated practices, particularly if said practices are demonstrated to be ineffective and/or dangerous.
And while I’m open minded… I’m also skeptical. I read everything I can, but I don’t believe everything I read.
First things first: I believe in what is called the Law of Thermodynamics. I believe that if you eat less calories than you need to maintain your current bodyweight, then you will lose bodyweight. If you eat more calories than you need to maintain your current bodyweight, you will gain bodyweight. For the record, to my knowledge, all known research is in agreement about this. I will admit some people have interpreted some research as evidence that the Law of Thermodynamics is inaccurate, but never persuasively to my mind.
I’m also happy to admit that the Law of Thermodynamics is a bit simplistic, and that other elements (hormones, how different people metabolize different foods) will effect how this actually plays out in living organisms. Totally fair. And while I’m always open to learning more, at the moment it seems to me that these other elements are small rocks for most people most of the time. Again, I say this not only because of what the research has shown, but because of my own years of experience working with people and getting great results. Some people do seem to respond better and faster than others, but I still think obsessing over the little things is “small rock” thinking.
Enter Gary Taubes. Mr. Taubes is by all accounts a smart dude. He has degrees from Harvard and Stanford and he’s an award winning writer. His books on nutrition include Good Calories, Bad Calories and, most recently, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.
However, Taubes is on the front line of the demonization of carbs as the source of all evil. As usual in these situations, there’s probably more that fitness folks can agree on than disagree on. Yes, we all wish people would move more. Yes, we lament the decline of movement quality. Yes, all people would be better off eating a diet of mostly non-processed foods and eating within their caloric budget. I’ll even go so far as to say that a diet lower in carbs is often going to be a good strategy for many people much of the time. However, some people tend to wander off the reservation and look for … “the answer.”
We’re gonna make you FAT!”
Now I don’t mean to patronize Mr. Taubes because again, he’s no fool and he’s certainly not alone in his beliefs. There are many who believe that sugar and carbs are the main problem in America’s growing obesity and diabetes crisis. These folks sometimes border on suggesting that there is a near conspiracy to promote sugar consumption by evil corporate interests (which actually… now that I write it, I’m not totally in disagreement with). However, folks on my side of the fence look at this as scapegoat-ism; better to find one enemy than have to deal with the complicated nuances and grays of life.
Again, in practice, I agree that most Americans would do better to stop eating so much processed food and so much sugar. Big Time Agreed. Yes carbs are an easy place to cut calories, and I totally buy that if you are not very active, you don’t really need to be eating a ton of ANY carbs no matter how “healthy.” However, it is my position that the problem doesn’t lie in sugar itself so much as an overall increase of calories over the past several decades and a modern lifestyle that’s getting ever more sedentary.
Because my readership doesn’t generally care about diving into minutiae, for the moment I’m just going to leave it at this; I still believe that the main way to achieve your health and hotness goals is to eat a balanced diet of a variety of foods that your grandparents would have recognized as children with the appropriate, total amount of calories for your goals and make exercise a regular part of your life. Period. I’m happy to spend all day parsing the details, but I really do try to keep it as simple as I can. When we start demonizing one food group, I think we’re losing sight of the big picture. (Low fat Snackwell’s anyone?) So the next time someone tries to convince you that sugar is poison so you shouldn’t eat apples, remember this article and take their warning with a grain of salt. And for the record, if I see compelling evidence that debunks my current thoughts on the matter, I will IMMEDIATELY write an update and let y’all know!
For those amongst you that want to dig deeper, check out Taubes’s article from NY Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago. For a dissection of Taubes’s work by the super smart Fitness Super Hero Chi Chiu on fellow super smart Fitness Super Hero Mark Young’s blog, check this out (this piece is the scientific equivalent of a Mortal Kombat fatality). And for our friend Alan “The Bro Slayer” Aragon’s take on the particular brand of the “Carbs Are EVIL” camp that says that fructose (a specific type of sugar often found in fruit among other places) is a toxin, check out this mamma jamma of a blog post and a summary of the truly epic comment debate that followed.