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 theyâ€™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 youâ€™re poor, youâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€” whether in rural China, Japan, the Kitava study in the South Pacific, Africa, etc â€” and find relatively low levels of heart disease, obesity and diabetes compared to urban/westernized societies, theyâ€™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 donâ€™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 itâ€™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.