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Insulin, sugar and the food pyramid
September 24, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Our sugar and carbohydrate consumption causes our bodies to store the glucose as fat. Why does the food pyramid tell us to eat more of that food?

Keep in mind I am not a scientist/nutritionist.

I was helping my daughter with homework and noticed something. I am sure I read it when I was in school, but it did not click like it did this timeā€¦

Insulin is a hormone that regulates fat tissue. Consuming food high in sugar and carbohydrates causes an insulin release that tells your body to store the blood sugar/glucose in fat cells.

Why then does our food pyramid tell us to eat so many carbohydrates? We are to eat many servings of food types that helps make us fat. Bread, cereals, pasta, potatoes, etc., while eating less of the food that does not contain the sugars to tell our body to make us fat, primarily meat, cheese, eggs, etc.

Am I missing something here? Biology and evolution tells us one thing while the government, nutritionists, and "common knowledge" tell us something else.

(I know I simplified the information here, but I am curious...)
posted by Leenie to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your child is still using the "food pyramid" in school? That's pretty out of date. I thought the new thing was "My Plate"?

In any case, the food pyramid was created in the 1960s and reflected that era's consensus about nutrition, as well as the USDA's interest in supporting US grain farmers and dairy farmers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:39 PM on September 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


Biology and evolution tells us one thing

Which is to eat as many calories as possible and try to store them as efficiently as possible so that we can survive famines.

Having enough, or even too much, food available is a pretty new thing in the evolutionary timeframe.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:40 PM on September 24, 2012


The food pyramid you are talking about is outdated, and it has been replaced. Here's the current recommendation; very different!

But, do note that nutrition and what makes us gain weight is still fairly controversial (everyone agrees that vegetables are awesome, but there's a lot of debate between the low fat and the high fat people.)
posted by insectosaurus at 1:41 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


The food pyramid is not outdated. It has been ousted in favor of a more confusing graphic. The moment data came in about how effective the food pyramid is in presenting a message of 'eat less' food corporations went ape shit trying to block its use.

Ahem. The actual question. Any excess calories get stored as fat or expelled without being processed. Whole grains are what we should eat most because without glucose the brain gets crazy. No other molecule is small enough to provide energy to the brain. Your body can break fat and protein down into glucose, but it takes a lot of energy and water, and makes dangerous byproducts.

Without your brain, you die. So feedin the brain is our evolutionary priority. Storing fat is the body's next bet. Building muscle is kind of a gamble, because muscle burns more calories than fat, so you have to eat more to maintain muscle mass.
posted by bilabial at 1:47 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why then does our food pyramid tell us to eat so many carbohydrates?

Because carbohydrates are cheaper to produce, transport, and store, and they can be manipulated into endless concoctions that can be marketed (ever seen a spinach commercial?) and the food pyramid was developed/approved by the USDA which is hip-deep in grain subsidies.
posted by headnsouth at 1:47 PM on September 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


Note that Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate is much more informative than MyPlate.
posted by ReadEvalPost at 1:50 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


By outdated, I meant to say that it is no longer promoted by the US government.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:51 PM on September 24, 2012


Which is to eat as many calories as possible and try to store them as efficiently as possible so that we can

This is simply not true. Lots and lots of people and animals stop eating when their body has reached a particular weight. For some people this is lean, for others it is much higher.

The common case is someone reaches some weight and stays there. You should consider the incredible maintenance of a 250lb woman just as remarkable as a 110 pound woman. Both are mostly effortlessly and unconsciously maintaining a weight through what must be mostly automatic means.

It really has little to do with food availability unless somehow you believe all thin and moderately overweight people somehow have some sort of amazing self control that the truly life threatening non-stop gainers do not. The position is not reasonable.

The reason the food pyramid tells you to eat carbohydrates is an interesting historical result of both genuinely nutty religious kookery meeting up with zealousness and the very beginnings of real medical and scientific research (much of it completely inadequate) into diet and disease. And mix in a lot of farm politics.
posted by rr at 1:52 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


You should read "Why we get fat" by Gary Taubes. It's a quick read, and it goes into detail about the history of nutritional wisdom in the last 100 or so years, with some very concrete data about what changed and when, specifically in regards to the amount of carbs we are encouraged to eat.
posted by jbickers at 1:54 PM on September 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


Thanks for the comments.

This leads to another question.
Calories come from fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Fat at 9 calories per gram.
Protein and carbohydrates at 4 per gram.

If you consume a --given number of calories--, wouldn't you get fatter with the sugars (carbs) than you would with those that proteins or fats? 100, 500 or 1000 calories is just that. But if your body tells you so store the sugar as fat, wouldn't you get fatter eating a bagel or pasta than you would eating a steak or asparagus?
posted by Leenie at 2:01 PM on September 24, 2012


If you consume a --given number of calories--, wouldn't you get fatter with the sugars (carbs) than you would with those that proteins or fats? 100, 500 or 1000 calories is just that. But if your body tells you so store the sugar as fat, wouldn't you get fatter eating a bagel or pasta than you would eating a steak or asparagus?

If any of it were this straightforward, there wouldn't be decades of serious research on it only to have it still be an unanswered question. We don't understand what makes us fat, not really anyway, and certainly not in a general way across all people. The system is just very, very complicated.
posted by brainmouse at 2:03 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Consuming food high in sugar and carbohydrates causes an insulin release that tells your body to store the blood sugar/glucose in fat cells.

It really isn't quite that way. Eating either protein or carbohydrate will trigger the release of insulin. Simple carbohydrates will trigger a higher insulin release, however.

It isn't chemically accurate to say that "glucose is stored in fat cells". Lipids are stored in fat cells. "store the glucose as fat" does not make sense from a chemical perspective,

wouldn't you get fatter with the sugars (carbs) than you would with those that proteins or fats? 100, 500 or 1000 calories is just that. But if your body tells you so store the sugar as fat, wouldn't you get fatter eating a bagel or pasta than you would eating a steak or asparagus?

I am afraid this question does not make very much sense because it is based on the false premise of "storing sugar as fat". What do you think fat gets stored as? Not fat? Surely you do not belief that you would not gain fat by eating three pounds of butter per day.

You may have noticed that most of the planet eats a diet that is majority plants and grains. You may have also noticed that they are not a bunch of blimps. Japanese eat multiple servings of rice and wheat every day. They tend to be pretty slim.

If you really wish to learn more, you may wish to consult with a nutritionist.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:08 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am going to check out the book "Why we get fat" by Gary Taubes. The reviews and descriptions online seem to answer my questions.

Thanks!
posted by Leenie at 2:16 PM on September 24, 2012


I want to address your original question.

The (an) answer is: lobbyists! typically big agribusiness. Any food guide produced by the government is more advertising for specific agricultural concerns- the dairy board, for example- and is pretty suspect.
posted by windykites at 2:21 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, the wheat you eat today isn't your granny's wheat.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:30 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Calories don't make you fat anymore than grams or volts. Calories are a unit of heat. If I told you that 371 grams made me fat, you'd ask grams of what: plywood, elk, Pepsi. Will 250 calories of unleaded gas fatten or kill you?

Hormones cause human growth. It's all here if you can stomach it.
posted by larry_darrell at 3:03 PM on September 24, 2012


If you consume a --given number of calories--, wouldn't you get fatter with the sugars (carbs) than you would with those that proteins or fats?

No, you wouldn't. This has been demonstrated many times in controlled feeding experiments known as metabolic ward studies. Insulin is a necessary hormone with many important functions and is not required for fat to be stored. Net fat gain can't occur without a caloric surplus, and fat loss will occur with a caloric deficit regardless of macronutrient content. Carbohydrates as a class are not to blame for obesity and Gary Taubes' conclusions about carbohydrates are incorrect.

Here's a thorough explanation of the flaws of the carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity. Here is a series of articles on the role of insulin in the body, specifically highlighting the ways it's been misunderstood by the low-carb movement.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:06 PM on September 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Here's a NYT article by Gary Taubes titled "What Really Makes Us Fat".
posted by lois1950 at 3:36 PM on September 24, 2012


The (an) answer is: lobbyists! typically big agribusiness. Any food guide produced by the government is more advertising for specific agricultural concerns- the dairy board, for example- and is pretty suspect.

This is just as true of "experts" with an entire line of books advocating a single position, like Gary Taubes (or Atkins or anyone else). He's a "noted science journalist", not an actual scientist.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 5:22 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is just as true of "experts" with an entire line of books advocating a single position

absolutely; you're right. The difference is just that one's pushed by the government and one's pushed by a personality.
posted by windykites at 5:30 PM on September 24, 2012


You want low carb written by actual scientists? See The Art and Science of Low Carb Living by Phinney and Volek. Taubes is easier to read, he looked at the evidence and made interesting discoveries about the quality of the information that the USDA has chosen to use.
posted by monopas at 5:33 PM on September 24, 2012


Calories are a unit of heat

Actually, calories are a unit of energy. We would not be so likely to make this oversight if we spoke of the energy value of food in kilojoules (as is done in many countries) instead of calories.

I do not understand your point about calories of gasoline. A tablespoon of gasoline contains about 250 calories of energy, but the problem is because the human stomach is not an internal combustion engine that can break the chemical bonds of the hydrocarbons in order to release useful energy. Similarly, an automobile's engine cannot break the chemical bonds contained in a slice of bread, grain of rice, or organic free-range grass-fed buffalo raised by Ani DiFranco. The idea of different fuels for different machines is not a difficult one.

The difference is just that one's pushed by the government and one's pushed by a personality

The difference is that some are real experts and some are self-proclaimed. It does not matter if an idea is "pushed" by government, personality, or anything else. What matters is if the idea is supported by the data.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:55 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


To clarify something from above: dietary carbohydrate can be stored as bodyfat through a process called de novo lipogenesis. However, this pathway is not very active in humans, as opposed to in rodents, where it happens much more readily. For carbohydrate to end up stored as fat, a person would have to be consuming very little dietary fat or consuming an amount of carbohydrate that, on its own, exceeds their total daily energy expenditure. And if you're consuming more than you're expending, you're going to gain fat no matter what it consists of.

In a more typical mixed diet, consuming carbohydrate causes fat gain only indirectly, by causing the dietary fat you consume to be stored. But that fat gets taken out of your fat cells later, between meals, resulting in zero net gain at the end of the day, provided that you aren't consuming more energy than you expend.

Here are a couple of fairly straightforward articles about the processes that result in fat storage.

And for good measure, here's a well-cited article about how in addition to carbohydrates in general, fructose specifically is not the cause of obesity, as it's also a very popular bogeyman these days.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:01 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whole grains are what we should eat most because without glucose the brain gets crazy. No other molecule is small enough to provide energy to the brain. Your body can break fat and protein down into glucose, but it takes a lot of energy and water, and makes dangerous byproducts.

Tell that to all those Eskimos and Native Americans and Masaii who historically ate no grains whatsoever. You gonna tell them they all have "crazy brains" and have dangerous byproducts floating around their systems??

If we are designed only to use carbs for fuel, why do we store FAT on our bodies as a hedge against lean times?? Why not have larger carbohydrate stores to draw from? It's because fat is a great source of fuel!

Good explanation to be found here: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/a-metabolic-paradigm-shift-fat-carbs-human-body-metabolism/#axzz1za02xNxp
posted by parrot_person at 6:41 AM on September 25, 2012


If you consume a --given number of calories--, wouldn't you get fatter with the sugars (carbs) than you would with those that proteins or fats? 100, 500 or 1000 calories is just that. But if your body tells you so store the sugar as fat, wouldn't you get fatter eating a bagel or pasta than you would eating a steak or asparagus?

As others have said, it has to do with the metabolic pathways. Simple carbohydrates are easier for the body to process, so an excess of them will make (most people) fatter quicker.

FYI, those body recomposition articles are complete bullshit.
posted by gjc at 7:25 AM on September 25, 2012


[At this point folks we need you to address your answers to the OP and not start yet another "This is how metabolism works" argument. Link to sources, let the OP answer their own question]
posted by jessamyn at 7:42 AM on September 25, 2012


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