Magic Pills, Food Villains and the Allure of the Shiny Red Herring

Bread doesn’t make you fat. Your behavior makes you fat. Bread is a red herring.

“Carbs make you fat.”

Do you see the allure of that statement? It, and “Food Villain” statements like it, allow a person to shift the responsibility for their problems onto an outside entity. Carbs are a wildly popular Food Villain. Other examples of popular Food Villains are: High Fructose Corn Syrup, sugar, wheat, fat, fruit, PUFAs, processed food in general, dairy, animal protein, grains, gluten, starch and legumes. Food Villains are an evolved, more sophisticated form of Magic Pill. In days of yore, it was easier to sell people a Magic Pill that would miraculously cure all manner of ailments, but people are wiser now, and less likely to fall for spectacularly unrealistic marketing claims. Or so they think. Enter the Food Villain.

Food Villain Mythology is usually supported by a handful of (cherry picked) scientific studies and an elaborate and sophisticated web of logical fallacy. The resultant construct usually holds that the Food Villain in question is the root cause of either modern society’s obesity and diabetes epidemic, or the root cause of an individual’s obesity and illness. There is usually some kernal of truth in the claim. Take wheat for instance: it is true that wheat can be problematic for some individuals who have an allergy or intolerance, and for anyone who consumes it in excess or to the exclusion of other foods that would provide a more well rounded nutritional foundation. There are other issues with wheat too, involving it’s cultivation, processing, ubiquitousness and nutrient profile. But Food Villain Mythology has taken those issues and created what amounts to mass hysteria in some circles, with an entire mythology centering on wheat’s Magical Ability to single-handedly drive obesity and disease. Scary stuff.

Food Villains are generally foods that can cause problems for some people, under some circumstances. They are factors that can indirectly contribute to illness and weight gain. There is merit to many of the arguments against Food Villains. But Food Villain Mythology morphs those foods into primary drivers of obesity and illness. This is so very appealing to a desperate and suffering audience. Why? Because it gives them something to blame. It allows them to focus on an outside entity as the source of their suffering. It serves the human need for a Bad Guy. And shifting focus onto a Bad Guy is bad because…?

Because the REAL primary driver of obesity and illness is human behavior. Inactivity and poor eating habits specifically: too much or too little food (also known as ‘energy imbalance’), inadequate nutrient intake, lack of dietary variety, etc. There is a MASSIVE body of scientific evidence that supports this, it is so overwhelming that The Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, the NIH and the NDIC and countless other credible scientific establishments state definitively on their websites and in their literature that obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction are caused by inactivity and energy imbalance.

Food Villains are secondary contributors at worst. But they are a bright, shiny red herring that deflects attention away from the big elephant in the room, the primary drivers of obesity and illness: human behaviors. And who wants to focus on the primary drivers anyway? That would require taking personal responsibility for one’s own behavior, and doing WORK to change it. It’s so much more appealing to blame the [carbs/sugar/wheat/fat/animal protein/PUFAs/gluten/starch/etc]. This is normal human behavior. We always look for a scapegoat. And Food Villains are a GREAT scapegoat. People get very passionate about their personal Food Villains, so much so that they lash out violently at anyone who threatens their world view that their Food Villain is the cause of all their problems.

You can eliminate every Food Villain in the world (and there are certainly good reasons to eliminate some of them!) but even if all you eat is organic kale and coconut oil, if you ignore the primary drivers, physical activity and energy balance, you will never totally overcome your problems. Likewise, if you optimize your physical activity and correct your energy imbalance, you will be surprised at how harmless most of the Food Villains you’ve been living in fear of become. A person with healthy metabolic function can pretty much eat whatever they want and remain healthy. Food Villains, by and large, only become problematic once metabolic function has been compromised. Metabolic function is compromised by inactivity and energy imbalance, not by Food Villains. Eliminating Food Villains treats the symptoms of metabolic dysfunction, not the cause. The cause is inactivity and energy imbalance.

So why do ‘they’ (ie, the diet book authors and the bloggers) want to keep us fixated on Food Villains and not the primary drivers? Because focusing on Food Villains keeps us sick and fat, and when we’re sick and fat, we keep buying their Magic Pills…oops, I mean ‘books about Food Villains’.

If a food causes problems for you, don’t eat it. It’s pretty simple. But if metabolic health is your goal, you must shift your focus away from the secondary contributors and on to the primary drivers, or you will continue to spin your wheels and make the Food Villifiers rich.

76 thoughts on “Magic Pills, Food Villains and the Allure of the Shiny Red Herring

  1. beautifully said!!! Who hasnt fallen into that trap? It totally skews one’s knowledge as to what is healthy and balanced. Everything is extreme nowadays…and even “balance” is extreme

    Amber, how do u achieve nutritional balance? What IS balanced and healthy? My biggest confusion surrounds macronutrient %s, especially for hypertrophy training. Any advice?

    • I think, at this point I can say definitively that there is no One Right Way. If your goal is hypertrophy, eating at a small calorie surplus, including ample carbs and protein, is *probably* going to work well for you. Beyond that, as much as I’d like to say I know the answer to everything, my experience tells me that everyone’s experience is unique and you’ll need to take the ‘try something, if it works keep doing it’ approach.

      • Agreed, but having *some* guidance in terms of % to shoot for is helpful…u have the 811 group (high carb) in one corner and the 118 group (high fat) in another…so, what is the optimal range to shoot for?

        What %s seem to work best for YOU?

        • I’m a big advocate for taking a more balanced approach unless there is a medical need for going to either macro extreme. I think, in general, on average, *most* healthy active people will do well on something like 45-60% carb, 15-25% protein and 20-35% fat. There’s lots of room in there for personal preference and macro tweaking. Endurance athletes will do well with even more carbs.

          Getting enough calories is also really important and I think too many of the fad diets indirectly foster undereating by imposing extreme food restriction, even if they pay lip service to ‘not restricting calories’.

          Specifically, my macros usually average out at 45-55% carbs, 20-25% protein, 25-30% fat. With an average calorie intake of 3000, that works out to about 375-400 grams of carbs a day, give or take.

          • I agree with you for the most part, though I disagree that all metabolic dysfunction is caused by inactivity and energy imbalance. Stress, nutrient-poor diet (food is not just about energy…you can consume just the “right” number of calories, but if they’re devoid of nutrients, your health will suffer), environmental toxins, and…well, I want to say genetics, but it’s not that. A lot of people didn’t get a good start–due to maternal stress, lack of appropriate exposure to microbes, lack of breastfeeding–and become metabolically compromised very early in life.

            Personally, I couldn’t lose weight until I went on a super low carb diet with my daughter, who is nine and has epilepsy. We put her on a high-fat/low-carb diet to control her seizures without medication (which worked, by the way). For the first time in my life, I began losing weight without starving myself or exercising constantly.

          • Indeed, Chris, which is why when I was going into more detail I said ‘poor eating habits’ rather than simply energy imbalance, and included poor nutrition in my description of poor eating habits.

            There are many secondary contributing factors (some of which you mentioned), and addressing those factors can mitigate the symptoms and facilitate easier weight loss. There is nothing wrong with treating symptoms. If I had a headache from a brain tumor, I’d take pain killers for the pain, for sure! It sounds to me like your low carb diet helped mitigate the symptoms of your metabolic dysfunction, that’s great.

  2. Great Job Amber! You cut to the chase and really clarified the root cause of weight issues. Lack of movement and we need food as fuel. All kids of different foods to be healty.

  3. Very well put – as usual. The importance of achieving balance and finding your own personal “right way” seems to be a mystery to most. Hopefully your words will encourage more to take hold and be accountable for their health rather than relying on the magic pill.

    • I think it would be less of a mystery if the diet industry would just shut the hell up. People can’t see that the diet industry is invested in keeping them fat and sick, because fat and sick people keep buying the Next Optimal Diet. I’m so tired of it.

  4. I Love This!

    My food villain/brainwash/magic pill for the last year or so was the dreaded food combining and the promise of detox and weight loss…as in if I combined a protein with a starch I would be fat. And bloated. And gain weight. And not properly digest. Oh and don’t eat grains. Or beans. Or sugar. Ad nauseum. Same diet, different name.

    I’m working on my neurosis. Tonight I had whole wheat bread with eggs and it was like the best most satisfying thing I’ve eaten in months. I’ve been eating oatmeal and brown rice all week and eliminating like a rockstar…more than I ever did on any ridiculous detox regime. Oh did I mention…this guru recommends colonics. Gross.

    Thank you for shedding light on this, especially for those of us who at times feel hopeless with the whole weight thing. It will be challenging…but I’m throwing in the towel and eating what I want!

    This is important work!

    • Yep, truer words were never spoken. Same diet, different name. I’m so glad you’re on a better track!

  5. Pingback: Low-carb Drama Timeline | Go Kaleo

  6. Amber, this is one of my favorite posts!! Your critical thinking is so valuable and helps others to do the same. I do have one point of contention, I must speak.

    “So why do 'they' (ie, the diet book authors and the bloggers) want to keep us fixated on Food Villains and not the primary drivers? Because focusing on Food Villains keeps us sick and fat, and when we're sick and fat, we keep buying their Magic Pills'oops, I mean 'books about Food Villains'.”

    I know a lot of those authors and bloggers and they believe passionatly in their philosophies, they got into their buisnesses not to make money but rather to help people. They have helped people to shift from just thinking about quantity (which is the norm) and start to think about quality. I know that we need to shift to a balance between the two. They have made eating well about a lifestyle rather than a diet and are make the point the eating good quality food is for all not just those who want to lose weight. Just as specific food is not the villian, in the case of a majority of the dietary game players that advocate exclusion of those said foods are not the villian either. The real villian is our disconnect from our bodies…looking to outside sources for the answers.

    At any rate I believe your message is SOOOOOO IMPORTANT, and I feel like making out peoples beloved gurus to be the bad guys (when in my opinion is just not true in most cases) will put them on the defense, and in turn turn off their openess to listening to what you are really saying.

    You rock…:-)

    -Love, Steph

    • I hear you Steph, and I don’t deny that my communication style can turn people off. Believe it or not, I’ve actually toned it DOWN over the last few years.

      There are a handful of gurus out there anymore that I still think are doing a good thing. My list is getting shorter and shorter though. You know who I think is really awesome, and should be making the big bucks? The Anti-Jared and This is Not a Diet, it’s Your Life. Screw all these food villifiers. Lets start listening to the people who’ve ACTUALLY lost weight and turned their health around.

  7. I enjoy your output. After losing over 150lb from my 6′ tall frame over 10 years (and being on a three year plateau, with about 50 pounds to go until I feel more in the right range), I am pretty much a hostage to my mind on food. By that I mean that I try to keep my carbs under 100g and if I don’t (say, I “splurge” by having a green smoothie and tip everything into the 150g range), I get very upset with myself. Clearly my issues go much deeper than food, but the confusion and uncertainty over what is right makes me often unsure of whether I am getting in my own way.

    (FTR, I lost the first 150 pounds by using food combining – high-protein days or high-carb days, depending on how I felt any given morning – and one cheat day a week. I know now that someone like me should not use cheat days if they treasure their sanity. But it’s easy to drop weight when you have a lot to lose. These last 50 pounds are not a lot to me, relatively speaking, but lately have become everything.)

    • Jackie, I have to tell you that one of the stories I hear most often from new clients is, “I went on a low carb diet and lost weight and everything was great for a while. Then my weight loss stalled out and I started to have symptoms of…” (I hear different symptoms but fatigue is a big one, as well as obsessive thoughts about food, thyroid, menstrual irregularity, insomnia…)

      Have you tried simply tracking your calorie intake? Just to see where you are? What most likely has happened is you’ve simply stabilized at the weight your current calorie intake supports. That’s usually what’s going on with my clients. We add back in some carbs, create a more balanced plan, shave off a few hundred calories, and their weight loss resumes. And they feel better too, a lot of the time. This happens All. The. Time. You don’t even HAVE to add back in carbs, you can keep eating low carb if you want, just trim a few hundred calories and see what happens. You don’t HAVE to keep eating low carb though. Chances are it wasn’t the low-carb diet itself that produced your weight loss, but the calorie deficit the low carb diet created.

      • This is exactly where I am today. I lost 55 lbs in 2011 eating very low-carb and then plateaued for over a year. I’m 5’3″ and weigh 170, age 41. I finally realized that I got to the point where my calories in were greater than my calories out and I needed to adjust. I do taekwondo 4-5x/wk and walk/run a little. It isn’t just a matter of only eating chicken, meat and water any more to lose weight. In the past year, I added back in pretty much every single food (I have celiac disease, so still no wheat & other gluten) and maintained my weight loss, so now I am actually doing the work of tracking my calories to meet the target. That’s the part I’ve been procrastinating about forever! I found a website that makes it pretty simple. Thank you Go Kaleo for flipping on the light switch and getting me out of the zero carb/paleo mental maze.

        • “Mental maze’ is a GREAT description! I like that. That’s how I felt for a long time, too! Like I was in a maze, it was stressful and disempowering, and it didn’t help me lose weight or get healthier.

          I’m glad you’re doing better now! Thank you for sharing your story, and please keep doing it! So many people are still trapped in that maze and need to hear the stories of people who’ve found their way out. '?

  8. I eat local kale, lentils, yams and quinoa. Just because I have a craving for a grocery store roast chicken sometimes does not make me fat, unhealthy, a bad person, cruel or someone who hates the earth. I do not need to feel guilt (I keep telling myself!!!). The unhealthy thing IMO is to ignore your cravings and listen to some dogma instead. Great post and thank you for the reality check!

    • Assigning emotions like fear, shame and guilt to foods and eating is one of the worst things we can do for our health. Far worse, certainly, than eating the odd doughnut or (gasp) grocery store chicken. Thank you for posting! Keep up the healthy mindset!

  9. Hi there, I am a new “fan”. I have an education in nutrition (will eventually get certified as a personal trainer as well) and Ihave researched and studied nutrition, wellness and fitness formally and informally most of my adult life always searching for the truth, and trying to find my way around all the yahoo’s. I have wrote many articles like yours for my food/nutrition blog just to delete them, because I know people become very angry when you try to take away their “kool-aid”! I agree whole with everything of yours that I have read. I have a certification in vegetarian nutrition (though I am not a vegetarian myself) and sports and fitness nutrition, and understand the science of body processes, and I become disheartened at times by trying to convince others they are being fed a line of BS. So reading your articles have been inspiring, as there are not many who think the same way I do and have the understanding of these issues! I made a comment on my blog facebook page, and someone mentioned that I sounded a bit like you and introduced me to your site! '? It has been a breath of fresh air! Thanks for the great work! Keep it up!!

  10. Been visiting your site for a long time. You’re an inspiration to me. Thanks for being strong enough to not fall into the hype.

    It’d be awesome if you could do more posts on how to stoke your metabolic fires. Once your energy balance is compromised, it’s a rocky road to get it back. You seem to know all about that. I was a calorie-burning, energetic, eat-like-a-man BEAST one year ago to date. Unfortunately I hit some bumps in the road, now my thyroid/hormones/metabolic function are messed up pretty bad.

    Let me sum up in case you want to try to give me advice (I’d LOVE some!!).
    -Campylobacter infection (bacterial) from raw milk, immediate IBS problems, increased stress.
    -Dietary tweaking, started cutting out foods to try and solve my sudden intolerances to certain things that exacerbated the IBS
    -Took antibiotics for the campy, spring 2012.
    -Immediately started SCD/GAPS (only monosaccharides – no starch, sugar, low lactose, low carb >150g and much lower), did that for 6 months
    -Gained 12 lbs. Energy plummeted. Depression, lethargy, insomnia. Stopped ovulating (still had my period tho). Stopped exercising – too beat.
    -Oh yeah, and I have a 4- and 2.5-year old at home

    Just two weeks ago I added starches back in – potatoes, sprouted grains, soaked beans, whole milk, all the good stuff (no sugar, still ;). Feeling better physically but still low energy, sleeplessness, messed up thyroid/adrenals/hormones.

    How do people like me get back on track – back to the weight room, running and sprinting, pull ups, feeling capable of getting through a day with moderate to high energy?

    Do you have any advice? What do you think of Matt Stone’s stuff with his “Heal your Metabolism” schpeals? I’m not one to “follow” anyone implicitly, last time I did that, it backfired. You’re the first person I’ve found who’s actually figured out what balance is. Keep it up. Sorry for the lengthy comment.

    I’mma be like you when I’m 52, so help me god! '? Your shoulders are

    • Your symptoms (weight gain, fatigue, depression, insomnia, hormonal dysfunction) are pretty typical of the low-carbers who contact me for help. I’m glad you’ve added some carbs back into your diet. That will help a lot.

      I think what I’d do, assuming you’ve seen a medical professional and ruled out any treatable conditions, is focus on eating the foods you know your body can tolerate well (including whatever carb sources you can do right now) for a month or two, making sure you’re getting ample calories so your body has the fuel it needs to do the repair work it needs to do. Get regular, but not too vigorous, exercise: walking, cycling, swimming, maybe yoga, something you enjoy and that doesn’t fatigue you. Get a moderate amount, 30-45 minutes 5 days a week. Don’t worry about pullups and sprinting and heavy lifting right now, just stay active to keep your digestive system moving smoothly, but nothing to intense. Let your body’s repair processes go toward healing your gut and metabolism, not muscle fatigue from intense exercise, know what I mean? Get plenty of sleep and a few minutes of sunlight every day that you can. Give it a month or two and see how you’re doing. Once you start seeing noticable improvements, only THEN start adding foods and more intense exercise back in, and do it slowly, one food/activity at a time.

      I like Matt Stone, he’s one of the few people out there in this whole mess that sees the bigger picture, in my opinion. I’ve been talking about focusing on metabolic health first and foremost for a long time. Healing the metabolism IS possible, I did it, and I know others who’ve done it. You don’t do it by hacking the system for the rest of your life, you do it by supporting PROPER metabolic function, with proper amounts of food, regular exercise, ample sleep, sunlight and patience and consistency. Notice I didn’t include fad diets in that list. '?

      • I have a similar story…i had a mrsa infection and was treated with vancomycin in 2005…since then, ive developed all sorts of health oddities: thyroid/adrenal, ulcerative colitis, food intolerances, heavy metals, fibromyalgia, dysbiosis (klebsiella), hormonal, etc

        I lost all my muscle and used to be very athletic

        I tried the scd/gaps thing, but that made me worse. So, i tried the 80-10-10 approach, which worked for a while, but after a year, im suffering….hypoglycemia, more food intolerances, unpredictable GI issues, mood and energy lability, wt/muscle loss, no energy/motivation for working out, and insane sugar addiction issues (i binge on dates). Any advice? My digestion is poor and my body yearns for balance, but transitioning off this fruit diet is impossibly hard and the sugar cravings are intense. Im miserable and just want balance, but idk how to do it. Please, any advice is greatly appreciated, Amber! Any supplements u recommend too, in addition to how i can fix this mess?

        • Susie, I think you’re probably having the cravings and binges because your body simply isnt getting enough calories. What CAN you eat? Are there any sources of fat you tolerate well? What about white rice? You need to get more calories into you ASAP. Figure out what you CAN eat and eat as much of it as you possibly can.

          I generally don’t recommend supplements but it sounds like they could benefit you right now. What about a meal replacement product? I really like Vega One.

      • Sound advice! I appreciate your input immensely! My sincere thanks to you '? A few hours after I posted my comment, I got some bloodwork results back saying that I am anemic (to what degree, I know not). I think your advice to stay active in moderation for a while with things that won’t tax the nervous system is spot on. My digestion has been getting stronger since the stint on SCD/GAPS, and I am improving with much more carbohydrate. (SCD/GAPS is supposed to “starve” any “bad” bacteria or overgrowth; but then how the heck is your GOOD flora supposed to grow without any food [i.e. hello butyrate, starch, fiber]!) I think balance is key – something your previous paleo posts helped me to think through – how your body seemed to scream “NO” to it after a while… but I digress… Fad Diets do more damage than they’re worth especially for people who have compromised metabolism or gut health.

        Thank you so much for the encouragement… Looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say in future posts!! Take care friend!

        • Thanks amber and u too, jennae! U both give me hope that health can be restored. Jennae, u r right about the scd/aps/paleo not supporting the growth of good flora! Good flora thrivves on fibers from fruits, veggies, legumes, and certain brans (if tolerated, and probably best to limit gluten or eliminate it). Resistant starch, in particular is key!

          Amber, i agree i need more cals and am trying, but its hard….im trying to figure out how to best balance my meals, since for over a year, my meals have been nearly all carbs from fruits, and before that, it was all pro/fats from scd/gaps. Thus idk what “healthy” looks like in terms of balancing carbs/fats/pro on my plate per meal, nor what foods i should eat. Sounds silly, doesnt it? Yet, my mind is warped from all these so-called diet panaceas (u know, the ones promising 100% healing from all health issues, athletic gains, muscle, and such).

          Why do u suggest white rice instead of brown?

          What foods shoudl i focus on to help rebuild? What is a healthy amount of fruit to eat per day?

          Did u ever do 80-10-10 or have experience with others on it? Id love to see a post on ur experiences with the different diet u’ve done

          • I think you should stop focusing on balancing your meals and getting optimal nutrition for now, and focus instead on getting enough calories. Right now you’re in a bit of a crisis, brought about primarily by inadequate calorie intake. Eat whatever your body tolerates, even if it seems imbalanced right now. White rice is easier to digest than brown rice, which is why I suggested it. A lot of your symptoms are symptoms of starvation. Once your body gets the calories it needs, I really think you’ll start to see some major improvements, and then you can begin to focus on nutrition. In fact, even your thinking will be clearer.

            So put ‘optimal nutrition’ aside for now, and eat whatever your body can tolerate, and as much of it as you can.

  11. Never stop publishing things that are truly helpful!!!! I don’t care how many people I tick off…. I continue to plug healthy choices. You have a secert that

  12. Never stop publishing things that are truly helpful!!!! I don’t care how many people I tick off…. I continue to plug healthy choices. You have a “secret” that others need reminded of!

    • I know, right? The secret of patience, consistency, better choices and good habits. Pretty boring though, not much money in good habits. If only I had a magic pill'

  13. I’ve been having so much fun reading non weight loss food blogs, looking at recipes and cooking now that I’m not so worried about the diet noise….drooling over the things of my past I’ve been denying myself… bread, vegetables, salads and pasta with liberal pours of olive oil without worry or guilt or restraint! . Creating beautiful real food that is delicious, healthy and actually satisfying so I don’t get cravings or stress later. How freeing! I’m having a dark chocolate square and an espresso right now and I feel like a new lady. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • I’m eating a thick slice of crusty homemade bread, toasted, with butter right now! Winning! '?

  14. This article led me to watch some really interesting youtube videos today about orthorexia that really reminded me both how ridiculous some of these diet dogmas really are, how silly the followers sound, how crazy the gurus really are, and also how sad it can be when people get really caught up mentally and can’t get out.

    Some of the people went to such extremes that their healthy lifestyle made them not only boring to be around because it’s all they talked about, but literally unable to function at family gatherings, restaurants, parties or any social outing. Many achieved the exact opposite of what they were hoping for; they were unhealthy, gaunt, paranoid and in the worst case dying.

    I am so happy to be free from the diet burden thanks to you and other people who are into food and fitness but in a sane way. I love exercising and eating healthy but it’s so important to maintain the enjoyment in life as well and I truly believe that food can be a part of that…because I love food and restriction sucks! Thank you for your work and inspiration today '? '? '?

    • Yeah, if your diet has become the focal point of your social life, you might want to sit down and do some soul searching. '?
      I know that some people DO do well on fad diets, but I’m getting more and more emails from people who’s lives and health have been RUINED by this stuff. It’s really sort of awful, and the longer I’m in it, the less I feel any of it is worth it.

  15. I am impressed by your efforts and the way you have turned your health around. However, I think that you are much too quick to dismiss the concern that many have regarding carbohydrate intake. Everyone is different, but for many of us cutting out carbs is immensely important.

    My story is quite different to yours but just as valid I think. My wife is an athlete and there was no way that I could get away with not exercising. In spite of regularly running, up to 2hours, or mountain biking up to 7hours in a session, by my early 50's I weighed 200lbs which is quite overweight when you are only 5ft 6in. After I was diagnosed as Type 2 diabetic, I did some research. After cutting out carbs, I ate more calories in the form of protein and fat and also upped my vegetable intake. In a matter of months I lost 30lb and it was easy! OK I also exercised even more than before but that was because it was easier and more satisfying with less weight. Without medication, my blood sugar levels are in the non-diabetic range. My triglycerides fell by a factor of 5, from totally awful to very good. Total cholesterol down by a third to fair to good, hdl/ldl the same.

    As I said, we are all of us different but there is very strong medical research that says that carbs are not good at all for diabetics or pre-diabetics, which is a lot of us. When 12 academic researchers present an open letter to the Lancet begging the medical establishment to stop pushing the carb-laden food triangle at diabetics because all the actual research contradicted it, I don't think that your confidence in the 'conventional' medical view is all that valid. In fact, a startlingly high proportion of 'conventional' medicine is not 'evidence-based' at all, but based on the hunches of cabals of self-appointed experts. It has been rightly criticized as being 'reputational-based'. The medical profession seems to be getting its act together nowadays, at last, but there is still a huge inertia, due to the number of senior medical pundits with reputations to preserve.

    The fact is, unlike any other food group, carbs are not essential to health. We can easily get the calories, vitamins and minerals we need from a balanced diet of other food. Some people can tolerate carbs well, others especially those with sub-par endocrine systems are much better avoiding them.

    There is no doubt that excess body fat interferes with insulin effectiveness. Carbs, especially high GI carbs, make it much harder to loose weight, because of the appetite-stimulating effect of the blood-sugar spike they cause. That is certainly my own experience. I dieted for years, sensible non-fad diets, but my weight just crept up with age, in spite of exercising way more than average for my age. Cutting the carbs just made dieting so easy, I rarely felt hungry, in spite of the weight just falling off.

    Incidentally the GI research shows that the whole 'complex carbohydrate' story was just simply made up by the 'conventional medicine experts'. Far from being a good food, potato gives twice the glucose surge of the same weight of pure sugar! That's real, totally repeatable research that is easily explained biochemically. How can anyone still have any confidence in dietary recommendations made by the people who came up with that schoolboy howler?

    I am NOT criticizing your approach to health. It obviously works for you. However, by your sweeping dismissal of the carbs story you could very well be doing a serious disservice to those to whom it could be vital, like me.

    • Hi Peter, I'm not sure if you're directing your comments at me or Jen, but I've always acknowledged that restricting carbs can be very helpful in mitigating the symptoms of insulin resistance.

      (It just doesn't do much to address the cause.)

      I don't tell people what to eat or not eat. People who are metabolically healthy don't need to be on highly restrictive diets. People who are NOT metabolically healthy should be working with a qualified medical professional to implement any dietary restrictions that professional deems appropriate. That is the extent of my dietary recommendations.

      • Hi Kaleo,
        Yes I intended to answer your rejection of carb avoidance in your latest post but somehow got it in here. Any chance of moving it to the right place? Sorry if I confused Jen or anyone else here.

        I'm sorry but I just don't agree that your reply matches either my own experience or a large body of peer reviewed research. Fat causes insulin resistance, especially male-pattern abdominal fat. It may not be the only cause, but it's an important one. So restricting carbs treats both symptoms and cause. Eliminating carbs makes it far easier to loose fat for many people, because by eliminating the glucose surge and consequent insulin over-release It gets rid of the hungry-20min-after-eating effect. For the same reason it greatly improves the chances of keeping it off. And we need the help, after 5 years the vast majority of dieters will have regained all that they have lost. For the vast majority, willpower is just not enough to last for the rest of their lives.. We have to be realistic and recognize that ,just as the 47% are not useless benefit-fraudsters, the 90% who cannot keep the weight off are not all hopeless backsliders.

        As for the symptoms, that is just as important. For people with diabetes and for the many times more who have insulin resistance every shot of glucose in the diet is more work for the Islets of Langerhans. These poor little cells have been laboring like trojans for years, pumping out more and more insulin to try and overcome the insulin resistance. If the workload doesn't let up, eventually they die and you are on insulin injections for life. Carbohydrate is just another word for poly-sugar and a lot of that sugar is glucose, nearly 100% for potato.

        Although I totally agree with you that exercise is vital, my experience is that it is not enough. I have always exercised a lot and it didn't suffice on it's own. It was also a heck of a lot easier to step up the exercise after loosing the weight.

        • Hi again Peter. First I want to thank you for being so civil and reasonable in this dialogue. I really appreciate it! I’m going to try to address your points one at a time. (Also, I did move the discussion to the proper post).
          1. I don’t reject carb-avoidance. I acknowledge that it can be a helpful tool for people who’ve already developed metabolic dysfunction. I also frequently add the caveat ‘If what you’re doing is working, keep doing it!” to my posts. In fact, in this very post I said ‘If a food causes problems for you, don’t eat it.”
          2. I’m quite familiar with the science used to support the low-carb agenda, I find it every bit as compelling as the science to support the vegan agenda, and the science used to support the acid/alkaline agenda, and the science used to support the gluten-free agenda, and the science used to support the raw food agenda, etc, ad nauseum. In other words, I don’t find cherry picked science compelling, especially when it’s taken out of context and interpreted using logical fallacy. Which all of the Food Villain agendas do. The science I actually find compelling shows that physical activity and energy balance (and genetics to a degree) are far more pertinent to disease risk than any food or macronutrient.
          3. Excess body fat does drive insulin resistance. But carbs don’t drive fat storage, energy imbalance does. If carbs drove fat storage, I would be fat, as would millions upon millions of people on this planet who consume starch based diets. I can acknowledge that restricting carbs facilitates weight loss for some people, but would argue that it’s far more likely to be because the carb restriction inadvertently creates an energy deficit, and the energy deficit produces weight loss. To illustrate, when I adopted a plant based diet, I lost weight fairly easily, but it wasn’t because of the plant based diet. It was because eating the way I did worked FOR ME to facilitate an energy deficit, and the energy deficit produced the weight loss. I could go around telling people to eat a plant based diet and they’ll lose weight like I did, but it would be disingenuous (although probably lucrative), because I know that it wasn’t the diet per se that produced the weight loss, it was the energy deficit. The diet just made it easier FOR ME to maintain that deficit. I think for a lot of people, low-carb works in a similar way. There is NOTHING wrong with that, but a lot of people are out there claiming that it’s the low carb diet itself that produces weight loss, and I think that’s rarely the case. It’s more likely the low carb diet facilitates maintenance of an energy deficit, and the energy deficit produces the weight loss.
          4. The claim that 90% of dieters regain their weight is misleading. It’s based on a handful of clinical weight loss studies, and upon closer examination of those studies, I discovered that they ALL examined the results of extremely low calorie diets, generally in the 800-1000 calorie-per-day range. There are several reasons that people regain weight after losing it on an extremely low calorie diet, which I assume I don’t need to get into here. There are actually thousands of people in the National Weight Loss Registry who’ve lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off, and the most common factors among them are regular exercise and some attention to energy balance, whether it be by calorie counting, portion control or food or macronutrient restriction. In other words, permanent behavior change. It is the behavior change that predicts successful weight loss and maintenance, not any specific diet.
          5. Nothing wrong with treating the symptoms, like I’ve said elsewhere, if I had a brain tumor that was causing headaches I’d take painkillers for the pain. But I’d also address the tumor. I see simple carb-restriction as the painkiller. It mitigates the symptoms but it doesn’t foster healing and a return to healthy metabolic function. Shouldn’t the goal be return to healthy metabolic function? It IS possible to regain healthy metabolic function. I can’t guarantee that everyone will be successful, but shouldn’t there at least be an attempt? Restricting carbs doesn’t return the body to healthy metabolic function. To do that, one needs to address the causes of metabolic dysfunction: inactivity and energy imbalance. Carbs do not cause metabolic dysfunction. There are billions of people on this planet who eat carbs and remain metabolically healthy. There are hundreds of cultures who have traditionally (and currently!) eaten carb based diets and remained free of obesity and metabolic dysfunction. Carbs are not the driver of metabolic dysfunction. Behavior is. Behavior must be changed, permanently, to reverse metabolic dysfunction.
          THAT is why I post stuff like this. Because I want my clients to experience long-term good health, and to do that they must realize the importance of changing their behavior. Highlighting the shortsightedness of blaming carbs for metabolic dysfunction is one of the ways that I change my clients’ thinking, because changing their thinking is the first step toward changing their behavior.

          • You mention that many people eat carb heavy diets and are metabolically healthy. I eat 400 grams of carbs if not more every single day and I also eat between 3200-4000 calories per day with no purposeful exercise because I am working on recovering from orthorexia and anorexia athletica. Even if I suppressed my metabolism for three years because of over exercise and eating 2000-2500 calories, could my metabolism still be healthy if I am able to et this many carbs and only slowly/maintain my weight

            I am 23 almost, 5’6 and 118 pounds.


  16. I lost myself in dogma for a long time, but thanks to you and others I’ve emerged free '? The blogs I used to follow now make me half laugh at how ridiculous they sound….but seriously now that my diet goggles are wiped off I see there are a lot of blogs run by people with major eating disorders. Thank you for the clarity '?

  17. This is one of the reasons the low-carbers (and raw-foodies, others who have food villains) bug me so much. I don’t have problems with sugar, wheat, fruit, beans, anything, really. No allergies, no sensitivities. I exercise my butt off, and I’m one of the very rare individuals who eats their veggies. So why is it taking skin of anybody’s butt if I eat a small cookie every day? I lost my excess weight, maybe I could lose 10 more, but I’m not doing bad for a mid-forties ex-fatty. I didn’t ruin my metabolism or digestive system through years of abuse, and I’m not going to punish myself by living as if I did.

    Just over the holidays, I read Ominivore’s Dilemma, and Pollan refers to the French as believing that these food demons (in absence of allergies or REAL physical problems) is just bad manners, and the more I think about it, the more I agree.

    • BTW, I’m thrilled to hear you say that you eat ~3000 Cal/day. I don’t count, but I approximate I’m about 2500, and I get very disturbed when everybody seems to think I should eat no more than 1500. That’s no way to live.

      • Just would like to add to this reply by saying I am 23 y/o (5’6 118 pounds) and eat between 3500-4000 per day and have not exercised in 4 months because I am actively recovering from anorexia athletica where I used exercise as a way to restrict. I would still consume between 1800-2200 even then but I exercised every day. So, for the past 4 months I have stopped my cardio and have been able to see slow gain of maybe (5-6 pounds) in 4 months by eating 4000 calories and above each day…..for 4 months. With weeks at 5-6000 calories and 4 days of 10,000, so we can eat a lot more than we think….the body is smart people, trust it! Everyone’s bodys are capable of eating much much more than they think. The body is miraculous. And I know that I will continue to be able to eat between 2500-3300 for the rest of my life, I hope '?

  18. Thanks for another great post, Amber. I wanted to tell you that your blog helps me keeps things in perspective. I do Crossfit, and I absolutely adore it for the heavy lifting/functional movements/social and competitive aspect, but I’m not so bought into the nutritional dogma that floats around my gym. Sometimes I worry that I’m just in denial and Paleo is THE WAY OF THE FUTURE!!!!!11 and then I read your blog and get reminded how ridonkulous people can get when they live in a bubble.

    I think the reason I’m skeptical about the stuff that is taken for gospel at my gym is because I lost 40lb around 3 years ago, just through tweaking the quality and quantity of my calories – no food villains – just calorie counting and a focus on getting my vitamins and nutrients. Plus of course finally getting into a good exercise routine. I’ve maintained my current weight fairly easily since then – I run or get in a WOD most days, and am 80/20 about eating nutritious whole foods that nourish my body. I don’t count calories anymore, but I’ve developed a good instinct for how much I should be eating for maintenance.

    I’m confident in how I look now, and pretty fucking strong for my size, and the thing I’m happiest about is that the latter makes me prouder than the former these days. BUT – I am curious to know what it would take to get rid of the multiple tummy rolls that I still have, despite being at ~20% body fat. I’ve experimented with calorie counting like I did before, but I find that instead of making me feel energized and light on my feet like it used to, eating 1500 calories a day just makes me ragingly hungry all the time, and unable to think about anything but food. I’ve tried it a couple of times now and quit because (a) I have no idea if I’m actually on the right track continuing the calorie deficit thing and (b) I fail to see the point in ruining my daily mood for the sake of small optimizations to my outward appearance.

    So my question is – am I on the right track, do I just need to keep maintaining a calorie deficit to keep improving my body composition, or is there more to it? If the former, how do I actually quantify how much fuel my body needs for maintenance now, and how much I should be subtracting from that to create a healthy deficit? If the latter, what am I missing? Obviously the trainers at my gym say – Stop eating fruit, dumbass! Milk is TEH DEVIL! etc. etc. but I would like to hear your thoughts as well.

    Sorry this got so long! Keep up the great work!

    • Once you’re at a healthy weight (which it sounds like you are) trying to lose fat via a calorie deficit becomes a bit of an exercise in frustration. It’s much saner and more pleasant to focus instead on changing your body composition by building muscle. Have you seen my blog post on that? Take a gander, and let me know if you have any questions.

      PS: carbs are VERY helpful in building muscle!

      • Thanks – I only started following your blog in the last few months, so I hadn’t read back to that post yet! I’m trying the eating more thing. According to the calculators you linked to, I should be eating 2400 calories a day, and I normally eat much less than that. I instantly put on 5 pounds, but I definitely feel better overall. Let’s see how it goes once I’ve stuck with it for a while '?

  19. I am very surprised that anyone would be “equally convinced” by the science behind carb avoidance and some of the diets that you mention in the same breath. Most of those have neither biochemical nor empirical/ statistical basis at all and are in the same league as new-age crystal fads. Others are very real, but to a very limited proportion of the population. The effect of carbs on the appetite is solidly based, peer-reviewed mainstream research. It affects everyone.

    It has been said “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Good advice I think. However, even better advice might well be to eat nothing our pre-agricultural-revolution ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food. We have been farming for only about 10,000 years or so. This is way too short a time for the human race to adapt to the massive changes in diet that bought in. Before agriculture, carbs, apart from fruit, were rare items in the diet. We are extremely well adapted to a diet low on carbs. Hence, at the very least, recommending a low-carb diet meets the Hippocratic fundamental dictum “first, do no harm”. This is absolutely not the case with fad diets.

    The problem with carbs, which obviously includes sucrose, is that it is the only food source that provides a direct hit of glucose straight from the stomach to the bloodstream. Glucose is the basic energy source of the body. It is a poison in excess. We were meant to live on foods that did not provide a glucose “hit” but instead provided sustenance in a form that had to be transported to the liver where it was converted into glucose only on demand.

    Certainly you can get away with eating carbs, if you have a super-healthy endocrine system, but unless you immediately exercise hard and long you are overloading the insulin-producing cells and with increasing time there will be a price to pay.

    There is no argument about the basic fact that to loose weight, calories in must be less than calories burnt. Stepping up exercise from the pathetic levels of the average developed country adult is of course quite vital. However, it is simply not possible to for everyone to run 200km a month. There are genetic differences and that sort of level is only possible for young, fit, exceptional athletes. More practical levels, say 10,000 brisk steps a day, should be achieved but, for many of us, at that level loosing weight requires reduction in food intake as well. Genetic differences in appetite for a given stimulus of food also exist, some races are better “doers” than others. The genetic demand to put on fat whenever food is plentiful, to see you through the lean season is a liability when food is always available.

    The effect of a glucose “spike” in the bloodstream on appetite is well-documented. When you need to loose weight, why make it harder for yourself by adding that totally unnecessary impediment to what is going, for most people, to be hard enough as it is?

    • This is all a red herring, Peter. My post is not about any of the things you touch on here, it’s about taking responsibility for one’s own behavior and not blaming outside factors for one’s problems.

      You’ve clearly decided that the narrative created by the low-carb gurus is ‘right’ and all the other narratives are ‘wrong’. I’ve decided they’re ALL wrong, and instead look at the science and come to my own conclusions. I really don’t feel like rehashing the tired old low-carb debate, it’s been beaten to death on other blogs. I’m glad you found what works for you and I have no need to convince you you’re wrong and that you should eat carbs. I do not have a vendetta against low carb, I have an obligation to my clients to present them sound, scientifically supported information that will enhance their efforts to improve their health and create new habits. I’m not convinced at all that humans are evolutionarily adapted to a low carb diet, or that no adaptation can occur over 10,000 years, or that we even know what prehistoric man ate.
      It also does not take ‘hard and long’ exercise to support metabolic health, the science is quite clear that the amount and intensity of exercise necessary to improve insulin sensitivity is quite modest. Here is just one of dozens of studies I can show you to support this claim:

  20. Such a wonderful post. I’m so grateful to come across your blog and page. You continue to validate my thoughts regarding all of this info out there in the “health” world. I’m 4 yrs into my journey, I’ve lost my weight by small changes, lots of exercise and just completely changing my lifestyle. It’s been a lot of hard work, with different experiments, but I have always fought the no carb, no meat, only meat ideas. I felt as long as I was eating a balance of whole healthy foods most of the time then I should be okay. I’m don’t want to give up cheese, steak or French bread! But I do limit my intake and try to balance my meals out. In the last 9 months my approach has been more “clean eating” but in the sense of eliminating as many box processed foods as possible, yet not completely and eating as many whole foods as possible. That is my idea of clean eating, not restrictive like the book. I’ve basically maintained my weightloss within a 5 lb fluctuation for 2 yrs, and while I’ve changed my shape over that time, I still find that I’m unhappy with parts. I’m working on this. I’ve get frustrated cause I have to work so freaking hard and restrict myself to a point of uncomfortableness to see results anymore. While I love the result I refuse to kill myself to get them. I want to enjoy my food, I want to exercise 5 days a week and enjoy every moment of it and go with the flow. Taking it to extremes makes it stressful and not fun anymore. Yet I get told if I’m dedicated (which I am) if I really want it (which I do) then I will do X,Y,Z but again….I don’t think that is a way to live and enjoy. I opened back up some restrictions I had in the home. I gave them back their 2% milk vs nonfat, and their favorite bread, I brought back the 2% plain Greek yogurt vs the nonfat. There is butter in the fridge door again. We have to enjoy this ride for optimal health and like you say repeatedly, you have to do what works for you. I enjoy my oatmeal every morning and eating whole eggs, i’ll keep doing it.

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  22. You have misinterpreted me. I was not making a claim that heavy exercise is necessary to improve insulin sensitivity. I am aware that reasonable levels of exercise, e.g. 10,000 steps, does that (which is what the link you posted confirms). What I said, was that if you get a rapid influx of glucose into the blood, which you do from carbs and no other food, it has to be cleared, either by immediately stepping up exercise, or by an equally rapid release of insulin from the Islets. I am simply noting that it is well-documented now that such production surges seem to damage the islets over time. If they have already been damaged, whether by past neglect of diet and exercise, by serious illness or whatever, it is even more desirable to ease the load on the Islets. A significant proportion of people are unfortunately in that state now, and most of them are completely unaware of it.
    I do agree that there isn’t much point in continuing this discussion further,

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  24. Isn’t this is just kind of begging the question though? Do the foods we eat have any influence on our propensity to engage in activity, or our resting metabolic rate and do they have any influence on how much we eat? If so then the claims may be valid. Sure its about energy imbalance and inactivity but it is possible that the foods we eat influence these behaviors and if so they are not red herrings.

    • Yes, the foods we eat definitely affect many things, I discuss it at some length in my ‘Calories Vs. Food Quality’ post:

      (Cliff’s notes: the kinds of calories you choose do matter, but weight is still a product of energy balance. It’s not an either/or situation.)

  25. Hey! Just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your wonderful, inspring posts '?

    I have been in active recovery from anorexia athletica for 4 months strong now and have completely given up cardio and exercise, which was so difficult at first, but I dont even miss it anymore.

    Background: I lost weight from 140 to 111 4 years ago by lowering my calories and exercising way too much. Then I gained to 113-116 and maintained that for the last 3 years but through exercising every day (I felt like I couldnt eat my 2000 a day unless I did cardio, sick mindset) especially now knowing I eat 3500-4000 per day and dont gain weight (or I do slowly). I have gained maybe 5-7 pounds over the past 4 months eating this way and between 5-6000 calories for 2 weeks and a week of 10,000 calories '? I LOVE carbs and I eat 400 grams per day. I also suffered from orthorexia and was very low fat during my past restriction as well.

    Do you think that my body will be able to maintain whatever my set point weight is on 3000-3500 calories I do have a lot of muscle and I would like to begin working out again….once this whole ED thing is over (which will take a while because I still obsess pretty bad about calories, when/where/planning out meals, etc) and I am still cold a lot, tired, have bad water retention and so on. But do you think it’ is good and maybe normal for my body to have gained only 5-7 pounds during this time? I know many recovering from an ED gain like 20-40 pounds during the first few weeks….but I am 4 months into eating this way and hae only gained that much, so maybe this is my bodies set point? Thoughts

    Also, before I upped to 3000 and above, I was eating between 1800-2500 but exercising EVERY DAY.Thanks '?

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  29. No, do some research. There is a very real likelihood that polyunsaturated fats are a major driver of metabolic dissonance. Read Ray Peat to understand:

    Starches are a likely culprit also, they truly are villanous, and anyone who says otherwise is in denial. That people still don’t want to hear the hard, cold truth about “bad” carbs isn’t surprising. People have had many years (decades actually) to come to terms with the fact that starches are unhealthy but they just can’t seem to cope with it.

    Reducing or eliminating starches and omega 3/6 fats (salmon, nuts, green vegetables, olive oil- all paleo and “real food world” staples) are going to go a LONG way for most to eliminate weight issues, with only the slightest increase in exercise and/or reduction in calories. Weight loss is actually very easy to achieve and maintain, people have to stop saying it’s hard!

    It isn’t about fad diets anymore, it’s about SCIENCE AND TRUTH. Paleo bloggers must wake up to the fact that none of you are doctors and most of you don’t have any background in science. You don’t know *anything* about human biology/physiology and use dietary experimentation and paleo group think as a substitute. And THAT is the main reason the food villifiers have gotten rich.

    • 1. I’m not paleo.
      2. I’m very familiar with Ray Peat, and a big fan.
      3. I never claimed starches were good. Or bad. I didn’t make any claims about any foods actually.
      4. Did you even read my post?

      • Wait, now we can’t even eat salmon and green vegetables? What are we down to now? Dirt? That’s just too funny for words…

  30. Thank you for writing these posts. I’ve fallen prey to a lot of the magic pill pseudo-science about food in the past. And recently it had gotten to the point where I put myself on an elimination diet, because I was convinced that I had allergies and intolerance. It was making me miserable. I couldn’t go out to eat or even find easy snacks while I was out and about. Grocery shopping was one big helping of anxiety. And I was hungry all the time. And then exhausted.

    I’ve been pushing myself more now to eat food. I don’t have the best diet–still need to get back to eating more veggies and fruits–but I’m starting to have more energy. And I’m trying to not assign moral values to my food. It’s still hard, though. Other people tell me that I shouldn’t eat certain things (baked goods, especially) or are constantly assigning value judgments to foods. It can make it really hard to break out of the mindset.

    But I keep reading your posts and feeling hopeful that I can just be healthy and eat the foods I want to eat and exercise a modest amount and I can be okay.

  31. Great post! Yes, I am sick, sick, sick of all this dietary extremism! I was drafting a post for my blog as I took my morning walk and the thought food super heros and villains popped into my head. When I got home I googled “food villains” and found this. It’s so refreshing to read your perspective! Thanks!!

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