Carbohydrate Density: A Better Guide to Weight Loss


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On its surface, the cause of the Western world's obesity epidemic seems simple: People are eating too many calories and getting too little calorie-burning exercise; the imbalance manifests as excess fat.

But this explanation is too simple. Even low-calorie diets and vigorous exercise fail to work in the long term for at least some people.

Here's why: Exercise, while vital to good health, is a poor exclusive means of weight control. Excess exercise tends to be counterbalanced by excess hunger, exemplified by the phrase "working up an appetite." A few people with extraordinary willpower can resist such hunger day after day, but for the vast majority, weight loss through exercise is a flawed option.

Meanwhile, simply cutting back on total calories is fraught with peril as well. An excellent study by Harvard University researchers confirms that the kinds of foods one eats -- rather than total calories per se -- is the most important indicator of whether a given eating pattern leads to weight gain or loss.

So what's the best way of eating to manage weight? Fortunately, some answers are emerging.

Increasingly, chronic, inappropriate inflammation is widely recognized as a driver of obesity. Inflammation in the body is a normal and healthy response to injury or attack by germs. We can see it, feel it and measure it on the surface as local heat, redness, swelling, and pain. This is the body's way of getting more nourishment and more immune activity into an area that needs to fend off infection or heal. But whole-body, elevated inflammation -- as evidenced by increased levels of certain protein markers in the blood -- has actually been shown to predict future weight gain in a study of non-diabetic healthy men. Inflammation, in short, helps make you fat.

Obesity, in turn, promotes chronically elevated inflammation. As this Harvard review article puts it, "A chronic, subacute state of inflammation often accompanies the accumulation of excess lipid in adipose tissue and liver (hepatic steatosis), evidenced by changes in both inflammatory cells and biochemical markers of inflammation."

In other words, obesity and inflammation feed each other in a destructive cycle. This may help explain why weight, once gained, can be so difficult to lose.

Which brings me to a fascinating new paper by Ian Spreadbury of the Gastrointestinal Diseases Research Unit at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada. It provides what I believe could -- and probably should -- become the dominant index for deciding which foods to eat and which to avoid in pursuit of weight control. Bearing the daunting title, "Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity," the paper lays out the hypothesis that carbohydrate density is probably the most important determinant of whether a food promotes inflammation/obesity or not.

Carbohydrate density is simple to calculate -- just divide the quantity of carbohydrate in food by the weight of the food. The more carbs that are packed into a given gram of food, the higher its carbohydrate density.

Modern food processing is, unfortunately, very good at boosting carbohydrate density. Two of the most powerful ways to do it are isolating and concentrating sugars from plants, and grinding dense seeds into highly compactible flour. In both cases, heat and pressure damage or obliterate the original food's cell walls. To use Spreadbury's terminology, sugar and flour are acellular -- almost wholly lacking in intact cells.

According to Spreadbury's review, these carbohydrate-dense, acellular foods may help to make the normal, natural bacteria that inhabit the digestive tract become pro-inflammatory. One destructive consequence: these inflammation-promoting microbes produce "leptin resistance in vagal afferent endings"; in other words, a blunting of the ability of leptin and other hormones that say "I've eaten enough" to communicate that message to the brain via nerve endings in the gut.

This matters, as virtually every physician who counsels obese patients hears the refrain, "I just never feel full!" Such complaints should not be dismissed as fanciful -- it's quite possible that people with inflamed GI tracts really do wrestle with more or less continuous, unquenchable feelings of hunger, making weight loss far more difficult than it should be.


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And a little more info:

Using The Carbohydrate Density Index

An important paper by Canadian researcher Ian Spreadbury proposes that high levels of inflammation produced by microbes in the gut may underlie many cases of obesity. Spreadbury's theory is that this inflammation is fueled by foods that are acellular - that is, so overprocessed that they are almost wholly lacking in intact cells.

(For more, see "Carbohydrate Density: A Better Guide to Weight Loss".)

This suggests that the best way to end the inflammation/obesity vicious cycle is to reduce consumption of foods made with flour or added sugar as much as possible. (I would add here that whole-wheat flour is little better than "white" flour - they are similarly acellular, and to be avoided.) Spreadbury recommends focusing the diet on what he terms "ancestral" foods; that is, traditional, relatively unprocessed vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and meats that promote healthy, non-inflammatory microorganisms in the digestive tract. In other words, pass on the "Modern" foods on this chart, and emphasize the "Ancestral" ones:
(chart at bottom)

Spreadbury also suggests that dietary fat, including saturated fat - long demonized in American nutrition science - is "unlikely to be the most pertinent factor in human obesity." In his view, focus on avoiding acellular carbohydrates, rather than natural fats, will yield better weight loss results.

The lesson here is to make sure to eat foods with intact cell structures. This lines up with the observation that native populations eating unprocessed foods can thrive on a wide variety of macronutrient ratios, ranging from equatorial tribes like the Kitava of Papua, New Guinea, who consume 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, all the way to the !Kung in Africa's Kalahari Desert who eat large quantities of nuts that are 60 percent fat. Surprisingly, some of these ancestral foods are fairly high on the glycemic index (GI), suggesting that GI is not the optimal measure of how likely a given food is to contribute to obesity.

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Interesting! I sure am glad to see rice cakes at the very top of the bad on the chart. They're like eating tiny pieces of cardboard all pressed together.


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I was shocked to see rice cakes at the top. I would not have been surprised to see German Chocolate Cake there though.


Pizza Chef
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not for the inquiring mind.

how many ounces of rice cakes can you eat
how many ounces / slices of fruitcake can you eat


measurements / condemnation by "normalized" measures are totally misleading / fraudulent.

why is it so many humans on the low end of the economic scale are overweight / obese?
is it because they can afford $50/lb fruitcakes?

perhaps because they're eating lots of high calorie, high carb "junk food" ?

taste good, is cheap, no cooking required.

the question is: of all the good / bad / so-so stuff you can physically / comfortably ingest, what is the better / worse of those choices?

an entire package of "rice cakes" does not remotely approach the "tummy happy" quantity of one slice of chocolate cake comma with icing.....
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Good points CM. I did not consider it that way.


Pizza Chef
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>> did not consider it that way.

that's how we got "spin doctors"

they take a truth, warp / malign / stretch / obscure "the real fact" to their employer's bidding.

anytime your see a (bad stuff) / (to weight) kind of number, you should immediately wonder "and so much how of that do I have to eat before that hugely bad level is actually detrimental / harmful to me / "a human"

frankly, it doesn't matter whether a piano's density is x lbs/ft3 or y lbs/ft3 - when a piano drops cartoon wise on your head from the 100th floor, it's going to leave a mark.

unless of course the ER "spin doctor" has other ideas.