Guest Post: The Obesity Puzzle

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

Obesity and well-being are not just a matter of carbs/no-carbs; the causal chain is not that simple.

There are almost as many theories about why obesity has exploded in America and the world since the 1980s as there are researchers compiling data.
The rise in Body Mass Index (BMI) appears to correlate with the rise of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a simple carbohydrate.
Let's begin by comparing two charts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which depict obesity levels on a state by state basis: the first in 1985 and the second, a generation later in 2008.
Clearly, obesity has exploded into a pandemic in just a single generation.
Interestingly, all the usual explanations--the rise of fast foods, women joining the workforce and thus the decline of the home-cooked meal and the decline of physical labor jobs--fail to explain the dramatic increase for the reason that all these conditions were already present in 1985.
Women had already joined the workforce en masse, fast-food outlets were already on every corner and jobs requiring hard physical labor had already dwindled to a small percentage of our post-industrial, service-dominated economy.
So what is different between 1985 and the present? At least one factor is the increased consumption of sugary beverages--soda, specialty coffees, iced teas, fake "juices" (colored sugar water with 10% actual fruit juice)--and the addition of HFCS to everything from snacks to breakfast bars to canned soups.
As a consequence, consumption of fructose (both "natural" and high-fructose corn sweetener, HFCS) has skyrocketed.
Reader R.W. recently submitted this account of his own family's experience, and what they discovered by consulting with one of the nation's leading experts in Pediatric Endocrinology.

I’ve attached a YouTube film of a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, head of Pediatric Endocrinology at UCSF Medical School. This is an explanation of the biological--and political--mechanism that causes obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and why they’ve become an epidemic.We were fortunate to find Dr. Lustig when my younger son, Pat was an adolescent. Pat was a very heavy boy who gained weight despite being vigorously active (for example, he played water polo year round) and really not eating that much. I finally persuaded Pat’s pediatrician that there was something wrong with the boy’s metabolism. Pat’s blood test showed he had cholesterol and triglyceride counts that would be extreme for an obese 60-year-old--into the high 300’s. 

There were no pediatric endocrinologists in our area at that time, so we were sent to UCSF. Dr. Lustig enrolled Pat in a study which I think is still ongoing. The upshot: cut out all fructose, and obesity and all its symptoms subside.
Pat, now 20, weighs 25 pounds LESS than he did in the 8th grade, although he is six inches taller. People literally do not recognize him. It is a very gratifying and amazing transformation. It was simple, but not easy. Pat worked very hard, and for a while was assisted with metformin. (He is now off the drug, and shows no ill effects or relapsed weight gain or high cholesterol or triglycerides.) But mostly it was about shunning all fructose, especially in drinks. 

Fructose is addictive for the same reasons, by the same mechanisms, and producing many of the same pathologies as alcohol, as Dr. Lustig explains in the lecture. One of his catch phrases is: “Fructose is alcohol without the buzz.”
It’s 90 minutes. Stick with it. It’s a little dense in spots, but overall, it is a compelling story. Dr. Lustig puts it all in context. I know he and Michael Pollan are aware of each other, though when I asked him he said they haven’t had any formal collaboration. But their views of our food delivery system are totally aligned.
I’m hoping that once you see this, you will feel that it deserves a wider audience.

Sugar: the Bitter Truth (University of California TV)
Here is the puzzle: Everyone agrees that "empty calories" contribute to obesity, and many see simple carbohydrates as the key cause of obesity.
On the other hand, I personally know many slim, healthy Asians whose diet is based on white rice and processed-flour noodles--the very sort of simple carbs that are supposed to make us all fat. Yes, they also eat small portions of fish and meat and significant quantities of vegetables, but you can't get away from the fact that much of their caloric intake comes from processed carbohydrates.
The famous Mediterranean Diet is based on pasta as well as olive oil, fish, vegetables and wine: The Island Where People Forget to Die:

She found that her subjects consumed about six times as many beans a day as Americans, ate fish twice a week and meat five times a month, drank on average two to three cups of coffee a day and took in about a quarter as much refined sugar — the elderly did not like soda. She also discovered they were consuming high levels of olive oil along with two to four glasses of wine a day. 

Social structure might turn out to be more important. In Sardinia, a cultural attitude that celebrated the elderly kept them engaged in the community and in extended-family homes until they were in their 100s. Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy. 

In Okinawa, there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. As Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.

If carbs were the sole cause of obesity, then the Asians I personally know who probably get up to 60% of their calories from white rice or white-flour noodles should be grossly obese--instead, they're thin. (They only get fat if they live in the U.S. and start eating an American-style diet.) How do we explain this paradox?
I recently corresponded with David B. Collum, Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University, who noted two potentially important factors:

I was in Germany a month ago and noticed (1) the grocery stores no longer look like markets but rather supermarkets with all the brightly colored packages of processed food, and (2) the Germans are getting fat. 

I am wholly convinced now that hidden carbs--not the potatoes and rice but the carbs in the processed foods--are what is putting on the pounds. After months of pondering why I was struggling to control weight despite some effort and listening to an econtalk podcast on the evils with carbs (and containing a nice dose of real biochemical flavor to the discussion), I dropped the carbs and dropped 30 lbs within 6 months. 

In this Econtalk podcast (time: 1:20) Taubes on Why We Get Fat, author Gary Taubes presented some interesting rat studies along with the following model: (1) carbs trigger insulin, (2) insulin triggers fat deposition, (3) insulin with carb depletion triggers carb craving (after dinner foraging). I think the complex vs simple carb issue finally makes sense to me also. Simple carbs spike the insulin but the complex carbs are released more slowly and thus spike the insulin less. We eat carbs AND fat with the carbs sending the fat to the muffin top. The Asian diet may be carb-rich/fat poor.

I think there is plenty of evidence to support these two points:
1. That there are significant amounts of simple carbs (HFCS etc.) "hidden" in the processed foods Americans consume in quantity, and
2. It is the ratio and type of fats and carbs that generates weight gain, not carbs alone--that is, a carb-rich, low-fat diet based on legumes and vegetables typical of traditional Asian diets does not lead to obesity, even though the carbs consumed are simple/processed white rice and white-flour noodles.
I would add a third factor, which is the paucity of vegetables, fruits and legumes in the American diet. Just avoiding carbs does not make one healthy.
It's not just avoiding carbs that counts, it's avoiding all processed foods and sugar-laden beverages.
Lastly, let's not forget exercise, which dramatically alters our metabolism, blood sugar and psyche. Cutting our processed foods and simple carbs (empty calories) is only the first step--the second equally important step is getting fit via daily or almost-daily exercise of the sort that builds muscle mass and endurance. People who live long healthy lives are always on the move, and are doing so with purpose.
Gary Taubes' books:
This book presents evidence that vegetables and complex carbs are essential, meat less so:
These articles were written by a physicist who decided to investigate/experiment via his own weight loss program:

My new book Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It is now available in print and Kindle editions--10% to 20% discounts.

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edifice's picture

Two words: Corn, Soy.

zuuma's picture


I was just eating my last twinkie with lunch as I read this.

The flavor was exquisite.

And now to wash it down with some corn-syrupy Dew of the Mountain.

MillionDollarBonus_'s picture

Michelle Obama is committed to the war on obesity. The goal is to eliminate global obesity by 2014, with a series of educational programs in schools, regulations restricting the sale and purchase of unhealthy food, and inspiring media appearances by the first lady herself. I'm optimistic about the future of health in America - with the guidance of responsible, healthy eaters in congress and the media, Americans will inevitably derive the courage to create a healthier, hipper, more progressive society.

magpie's picture

Does this mean the American applepie is politically incorrect ?

Buckaroo Banzai's picture

MSG is a huge factor in obesity as well. The fact that MSG makes you fat is WELL KNOWN to biologists. In fact, if you need to make lab mice fat quickly and reliably, you feed them MSG. It's the standard protocol. MSG is in virtually every processed food that you eat, check the label. Don't see MSG listed? Well, guess what... MSG has a bunch of aliases that food marketers use to disguise its presence: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, autolyzed vegetable protein, calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate, glutamic acid and many others.


TheCanadianAustrian's picture

I see nothing in this article that refutes the simple "obesity is caused by carbs" theory in any way.

The main counter-argument seems to be this:

"On the other hand, I personally know many slim, healthy Asians whose diet is based on white rice and processed-flour noodles--the very sort of simple carbs that are supposed to make us all fat."


Nobody said that a high-carb diet guarantees weight gain. Just as some people are naturally immune to certain diseases, some people are spared from the fattening effects of carbs. This is simple biological diversity, a normal part of human evolution.

The whole point is that people of European descent simply have not have enough time to evolve and adapt to our newfound high-carb diets. Asians have been eating rice for millenniums. Europeans have relied on hunting and animal farming to a much greater degree.


So pointing out the existence of skinny carb-eaters is completely missing the point. We have an obesity epidemic. People who aren't part of that epidemic are irrelevant. Just to pull numbers out of the air, it's possible that 60% of the North American population is susceptible to obesity through carbs, and that the number is 20% for Asians. Given our dietary history, this might make sense. In this sense, carb-eating does not guarantee weight gain. However, it does explain the obesity epidemic.

TheCanadianAustrian's picture

Further, it's important to understand not just that obesity is caused by carbs, but why obesity is caused by carbs.

I think the easiest way to explain it is this: Your body is evolved to do things that increase the chance of survival. The body gains weight if it perceives an increased chance of survival in doing so. However, the body can't just "know" what's best the way the rational mind does. It relies on signals. The first signal is when you start to eat food that the body doesn't prefer, since this can indicate a food shortage. This might mean less animal fat and more bread for Europeans. It might mean less rice and more fruit and berries for Asians. Another signal can be simple stress. Financial concerns would elicit the same emotions as a primal fear of running out of food, and this can cause weight gain. Regardless of what the signal is, most humans will begin to produce the hormone that causes fat to be stored.

Long story short, if you don't want to be fat, you need to figure out the false signals that makes your body want to be fat, and then you need to reverse those signals.

TBT or not TBT's picture

That signal would be insulin production, in almost all humans(there are some with diseases and severe abnormalities of course), and certainly across all cultures/races.

TheCanadianAustrian's picture

Not quite. IMO insulin is the 2nd stage in the causal link, the body's way of sending the weight-gain signal, not receiving. Carbohydrates and stress are two common ways that the body receives the weight-gain signal, the 1st stage. But yes, I think you're right that the insulin component is universal across all races, just not necessarily the carb component.

It's an important distinction, because I think it makes sense of why Asians don't seem to get fat from eating carbs while Europeans do.

In a few hundred years, our obesity epidemic will likely be gone regardless of carbs and sugars, but in the meantime, I think you're better off sticking with fats.

TBT or not TBT's picture

Another way to spike insulin production is eating whey protein, even the concentrated stuff without any added sweeteners.   Of course the classic way is taking in carbs, but there are lots of surprises here:    Sweet TASTES also trigger insulin production.   Drink a diet coke one empty stomach with nothing else at all, and you'll both store fat and have a blood sugar crash, without any carbohydrate intake at all.

TBT or not TBT's picture

Which is to bring the focus back to insulin, of course, because that is what lays down fat, just about uniquely.    Carb intake stimulates insulin production, but that's not the only thing that will do it.   Insulin also upregulates the production of the toxic fatty acid that is the unique precursor of the immune system's strongest inflammatory compounds, in every cell, not just some kinds of cells.    Look up "delta-5-desaturase" in connection with "arichidonic acid" and "insulin".    

zerozam's picture

Fuck carbs - it's all AAPL's fault. In 1984 ppl didn't sit in front of computers growing their asses...

TBT or not TBT's picture

Sure they did, as far back as the commodore 64, the TRS-80, and those command line adventure games.   Before that people played freakin CARDS for centuries, to the degree they could afford the candlelight.    People don't need as much sleep as there is darkness at night.    They found all sorts of sitting around things to do.

mjcOH1's picture


1985- walked several miles to school
2012 - door to door school bus pickup, excluding 50' waddle to the curb

1985 - running on grass
2012 - thumbing the obama-phone

1985 - 23 million on foodstamps
2012 - 46 million on foodstamps

Purely coincidental .......

TBT or not TBT's picture

Increased consumption of carbs and cheap vegetable oils = inflammation and fat deposition, regardless of excercise.  

TheCanadianAustrian's picture

You have the causal link backwards. It's because our parents are lazy and our kids are fatasses that we want the government shuttle them everywhere.

TBT or not TBT's picture

To which I'll add, that the primary stress reaction is release of adrenaline, which signals fat cells to RELEASE, not store fat.    "Cortisol" is often brought into the picture as a fat storing stress hormone, to which, well OK, only insomuch as it modulates the LOCATION of fat storage preference amongt the body's very wide distribution of fat cells.   Remarkably, more cortisol is associated with a greater tendancy to store preferentially, and not release as easily fat around the viscera.   Storage tendency in a particular location as opposed to all and any fat storage.   Fat around the viscera is ASSOCIATED with lots of disease processes, with some theories and research to be found about how fat in the viscera are more active at producing endocrine hormones that cause bad stuff to happen elsewhere in the body.

TBT or not TBT's picture

CanadianAustrian your are approximate there on the genetic selection forces.    The genes evolve in reaction to selection pressures, including in humans social and cultural factors, that favored NOT "survival"(*) of any individual body, but rather success of the genes passing to successive generations.   Mere "survival"  of a body through some hard times is insufficient to transmit genes to future bodies.   The body must mate well and bring offspring along to also mate well, and beyond some point "survival" of the aging, damaged indvidual body is not just superfluous but probably problematic for the next generation ultimately, because the older bodies use resources, compete with genes they've already passed on(if they've succeeded in the Darwin sense) with radiation and oxidation and replication error infested DNA that really needs to just clear on out...

(no bodies survive in fact.   There is a systematic 100% mortality rate, which seems to be as much programmed by selection(!) as caused by wear and tear.)

Lost My Shorts's picture

I propose an experiment.  We will lock you in a cage, and I will feed you a no-fat vegan diet.  Quantities decided by me.  Do you think you will gain weight because of the carbs?  I doubt it.

TheCanadianAustrian's picture

I doubt it too. However, starvation and malnutrition is not part of a good weight loss plan.

Lord Koos's picture

Bullshit. The Chinese consume a lot of MSG and they are not nearly as fat as Americans.

r101958's picture

Another case of 'unintended consequences' - Hate to say it but one of the main causes is the other great government health crusade of the 90's. The campaign against smoking. Smoking is not good for you either...but I wonder which is really worse...smoking or obesity?

Socratic Dog's picture

Unintended consequences?  Try government subsidies for corn.  Or taxes on sugar imports.  Outcome, inevitably: hifh-fructose corn syrup in everything. has been pushing the same line on fructose for a long time.  This isn't news... or it shouldn't be.  He also talks about Big Sugar, and draws parallels with Big Tobacco.

BooMushroom's picture

No shit. I'll believe Mooshell is genuine on health when she starts advocating for the end of food subsidies on wheat, corn, hamburger and soy, and starts pushing for them on the consumer end for fresh produce, organic or 100% natural fresh meat, dairy and tree crops.

Fresh green salad with fresh honey-glazed chicken pan-fried in olive oil, and fresh peaches on a bed of cottage cheese.

Or a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

They say they want us to eat the first, but they are paying for the second.

StandardDeviant's picture

Smoking.  Obesity affects only yourself.

TuPhat's picture

The real cause of obesity is actually a gland problem.  The mouth gland takes in more than the ass gland puts out.

redpill's picture

Nice one MDB


Even within the realm of carbs, not all are equal.  Natural complex carbs get handled differently by the body than HFCS or other forms of refined sugar.  The simpler the sugar, the faster it gets to your bloodstream and causes your blood sugar to spike, which then triggers immediate fat storage.  The notion that eating fat makes you fat is a fallacy, it takes much longer for your body to process and has almost no impact on your blood sugar at all.  At that point it's just a matter of caloric intake.

The only thing your body metabolizes faster than pure sugar is alcohol, so the next time you wonder why your GF's ass is so big, look no farther than the 3 cloyingly sweet cocktails she had at the bar last night.

MillionDollarBogus_'s picture

Well, she does have a lot of junk in her trunk.

Don't tell her I said that...

James-Morrison's picture

Easy to fix:  disable "Sugar" on the EBT 

Abiotic Oil's picture

You know there are women who have a nice big, round, shapely, healthy ass made of firm glutes from doing heavy SQUATZ under the bar with a wheel or two on it and keep their body fat at around 24% or below.  That's hot.


Then, like you said, there are just plain fat asses with a lot of junk in their trunk.


Grinder74's picture


I'll be taking lunch in the bathroom stall...

Col_Sanders's picture


Nice form in the second photo...

El Viejo's picture

"Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.", Ogden Nash

Few people grow  up. Most just become more "sophisticated" in their desires. If our mothers were here they would be spanking us for writing on the walls.

_ConanTheLibertarian_'s picture

I used to have an annoying lunch dip every single day. I could hardly stay awake.

I just recently started eating part of my lunch already at 10am and the remaining 2 hours later. Lunch dip is 90% gone.

El Viejo's picture

That phenom is mentioned in one of Dr. Barry Sears books on Balanced Diets. He says that if you dose off at 3:00 pm you had too many carbs at lunch.

Abiotic Oil's picture

I've been on the Warrior Diet for a long time (Ori Hofmekler).  I eat very little if anything until dinner.  Nothing that will release insulin.  No crashes and even more alertness and energy than I ever had before.  Then massive evening feast followed by food coma.

KidHorn's picture

I kind of do the same thing. I eat a banana and cup of tea for breakfast at 6:30, eat lunch at 10:30 and then eat a big dinner at around 5:00.

Whoever said breakfast is the most important meal is full of it. Dinner is by far the most important. Try getting a good nights sleep on an empty stomach.

Cavemen didn't eat breakfast. There's no way they left food sitting around overnight. It would attract animals and the mice would eat it.

I'm 5'11' and about 160 lbs. Most people think I'm too skinny.

TBT or not TBT's picture

False, false, false.   BREAD HAS A HIGHER GLYCEMIC INDEX THAN TABLE SUGAR.    Go look at a table that has the two on it.    The reason is that the "complex" carbohydrate in bread is a glucose polymer that splits up into individual glucose molecules in the small intestine very rapidly, and absorbs rapidly.   Also table sugar is only 50% glucose.   The other 50%, metabolically speaking, is fructose, which doesn't count in the "glycemic index" measurements because it is doesn't raise "blood sugar".....     Still, wheat carbohydrates are "complex" and "natural" and DEADLY serious blood glucose hammers.

TheCanadianAustrian's picture

Agreed. More than anything, people should look at glycemic index and glycemic load tables to find out what not to eat. I really think that people are barking up the wrong tree when in comes to HFCS. Not that it's good for you, I just think that sugar and white bread are worse.

TBT or not TBT's picture

Hmm.    I'm saying HFCS and "sugar" are about the same, with HFCS being just a little worse than "sugar"(which is say cane or beet sugar, the familiar granulated crystal stuff).

All bread made from wheat, not just white bread, is a glycemic index and glycemic load terror...

but, those two measures of unhealthiness of foods come purely from an obesity/diabetes/diabesity view of health, ignoring the crystal clear hard science knowledge of what fructose does, starting with its first step in the body, processing in the liver.    Few cells can do anything with fructose directly.   The liver's handling of fructose involves producing lots of LDL cholesterol, the "bad" cholesterol, so there is apparently very good reason to maligh fructose from a circulatory system health standpoint(but you won't hear that from the ADA or sugar industry).   

Back to bread(any kind based on wheat, whole grain or white)   Yeah, sugar and HFCS are less bad on a glucose only scale, but they are both infinitely worse than bread on the fructose scale of things, because bread classically contains no fructose or just meaningless amounts.

But, but, but!   Neither HFCS nor "sugar" contain GLUTENS, and modern wheat glutens are very problematic for their interactions with our immune systems, and also for their addictive side effects.    Pepsin + acid environment + glutens yields peptides that cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the same brain receptors that lots of narcotics hit.   People are behaviorally and chemically addicted to wheat products.   Wheat is very very cheap as a food ingredient(thank you Norman Borlaug and the "Green Revolution" post war), stores very well(shelf life!), and can be eaten in huge quantities because satiation from it doesn't last long(the blood sugar emergency it causes brings on a spike and crash in blood sugar) and last but not least is addictive.

Socratic Dog's picture

I seem to recall that fructose is metabolized to methanol, which crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it is metabolized to formalin, which does you not a lot of good at all.  Fructose ain't too good for you.

Antidote to methanol poisoning?  Ethanol. Which may be why drinkers live longer than non-drinkers.  They don’t get their brains poisoned by their morning OJ.  Might also be one of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.