Gary Taubes Answers Questions

Michael Eades has posted Gary Taubes’s answers to questions sent in by readers. The first one, curiously enough, concerns China: “How do Asians and others living a seemingly high-carb existence manage to escape the consequences?” Taubes’s answer:

There are several variables we have to consider with any diet/health interaction. Not just the fat content and carb content, but the refinement of the carbs, the fructose content (in HFCS and sucrose primarily) and how long they’ve had to adapt to the refined carbs and sugars in the diet. In the case of Japan, for instance, the bulk of the population consumed brown rice rather than white until only recently, say the last 50 years. White rice is labor intensive and if you’re poor, you’re eating the unrefined rice, at least until machine refining became widely available. The more important issue, though, is the fructose. China, Japan, Korea, until very recently consumed exceedingly little sugar (sucrose). In the 1960s, when Keys was doing the Seven Countries Study and blaming the absence of heart disease in the Japanese on low-fat diets, their sugar consumption, on average, was around 40 pounds a year, or what the Americans and British were eating a century earlier. In the China Study, which is often evoked as refutation of the carb/insulin hypothesis, the Chinese ate virtually no sugar. In fact, sugar consumption wasn’t even measured in the study because it was so low. The full report of the study runs to 800 pages and there are only a couple of mentions of sugar. If I remember correctly (I don’t have my files with me at the moment) it was a few pounds per year. The point is that when researchers look at traditional populations eating their traditional diets — whether in rural China, Japan, the Kitava study in the South Pacific, Africa, etc — and find relatively low levels of heart disease, obesity and diabetes compared to urban/westernized societies, they’re inevitably looking at populations that eat relatively little or no refined carbs and sugar compared to populations that eat a lot. Some of these traditional populations ate high-fat diets (the Inuit, plains Indians, pastoralists like the Masai, the Tokelauans); some ate relatively low-fat diets (agriculturalists like the Hunza, the Japanese, etc.), but the common denominator was the relative absence of sugar and/or refined carbs. So the simplest possible hypothesis to explain the health of these populations is that they don’t eat these particularly poor quality carbohydrates, not that they did or did not eat high fat diets. Now the fact that some of these populations do have relatively high carb diets suggests that it’s the sugar that is the fundamental problem.

Tsinghua students are almost all thin, although they eat a lot of white rice (a refined carb). My explanation is that they eat a diet with great variation in flavor. Almost everything they eat is made by hand from scratch — including noodles! — and the choice is staggering (hundreds of dishes easily available at lunch and dinner). They don’t eat a lot of sweets, as Taubes says, but because you can lose weight by drinking sugar water, sugar alone cannot cause obesity.

The Filipino graduate student I mentioned in a recent post told me she lost a lot of weight (too much!) when she came here; I attribute it to the novelty and variety of the food. This may be the only time a young woman has told me she lost too much weight without trying. Because Beijing is the capital of China it has lots and lots of Chinese regional food (and the Tsinghua cafeterias do as well). The variety of cheap food available here may be unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Thanks to Dave Lull.

9 Replies to “Gary Taubes Answers Questions”

  1. Seth, what have you been eating in Beijing? Are you still able to keep up with your diet? I believe it must be hard to find flaxseed oil there, if you could not find it a Lohao City.

  2. A few more variables about rice to consider (from a Japanese perspective):

    1. Cooking rice isn’t like popping bread into a toaster. Japanese rice cooker technology is amazing. But you’ve got to scoop the rice out of the bag, rinse it (a long-ingrained habit), and wait for it to cook. And then wash the cooker before using it again.

    2. As a side-dish, white rice is not flavored. Try chowing down on mashed potatoes with no salt, pepper, butter, milk. Or bread made without salt.

    3. Because of government price-support policies, white rice in Japan is expensive. Price signals work not only in terms of demand, but can affect a food’s social status, and its “culture of consumption.”

    4. You eat the whole rice grain–that when cooked expands considerably in volume–not a ground flour made from the rice. The rice grain itself has a unique “mouth feel.”

    5. There’s no equivalent of gluten intolerance with rice. I suspect that the human body reacts much differently to refined rice carbohydrates than to refined wheat carbohydrates and sugars.

    6. Chopsticks. Seriously.

  3. yes, I’ve been continuing my diet — I consume a few tablespoons of flaxseed oil every day. I found flaxseed oil at Lahao City just not as much of it as I would have liked. I wanted to buy six bottles but was only able to buy two, even though an employee went to another store to find more.

  4. It’s true that the Chinese diet has an amazing amount of variety. It stretches belief, however, to think that everybody exploits this variety instead of routinely choosing favourite items on a daily basis. Furthermore, it’s my personal observation that other Asians with less varied diets are also almost universally thin — so long as they remain in Asia.

    Aside from processed sugar and flour, the other thing conspicuously missing from Asian diets is dairy (Indian cuisine does have some exceptions). Have you tried the local ice cream?

  5. Good point, Gordon. Let me add that in the Tsinghua cafeterias everything is made from scratch, including noodles. Just as everything was made from scratch in the much-less-diverse American diet back in the 1950s, before the obesity epidemic.

    I’ve had some ice cream here but I don’t know where it came from. It was vanilla with a lot stronger flavor than American vanilla ice creams. Tsinghua students drink some milk and yogurt.

  6. China is changing quickly.
    When I was in Shanghai (where the traditional cooking is full of fat and sugar, yum!), a lot of the kids were overweight – and directly after school they would go to their local convenience store and buy more sweets and fat.
    Furthermore, in China, being fat has historically been seen as a status symbol (you only get fat when you don’t do manual labor and sit around munching food all day because you can afford it). Historically, because there were only a few rich people compared to the total population who were near starvation levels, the chinese were considered a nation of “thin people”.
    Another reason for the fat increase seems to me to be that, because the grandparents are often the ones to take care of the children, and they starved most of their lives (remember the famines under Mao?), they could be making up for their past starvation by feeding their grandchildren too much. Children are considered ‘little emperors’ and are given as much food as they can hold.
    Here’s an interesting article on the subject of obesity in china: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/333/7564/362

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