Culture & Carbohydrates
By Dr. Jonny Bowden, MA, CN, CNS
Q. If high-carb diets have so many problems, why is it that in cultures where they eat so many carbs (i.e. Japanese, French) they seem to have no problems maintaining healthy weight and they continue to blow us out of the water with their low heart disease risk?
Answer: First of all, they’re not “blowing us out of the water” anymore. In these countries, there are rising rates of all the conventional problems- diabetes, obesity and heart disease- in all the countries you mention to which you can add China. (India has the highest rates of diabetes).
Two, look at the whole picture. Many cultures that have lower rates of heart disease have higher rates of cancer.
Three, it’s not just that they “eat carbs.” They have entirely different lifestyles from the average North American. For example: the French don’t eat between meals and they prepare most of their meals by hand using wholesome fresh ingredients. Until recently, France didn’t have fast food. What’s more, they traditionally eat tiny portions, have a much healthier attitude about food in general and stress over it a lot less than we do, drinking a glass or two of red wine a day, and walking about ten times more than we do.
Finally, there are genetic adaptations to food that take place over thousands of years. Take alcohol as an example. One reason that alcoholism is higher among certain ethnic groups is that alcohol is a fairly recent addition to their diet historically. They are not as enzymatically equipped to process it as effectively as those who have had alcohol in their culture for thousands of years.
It’s the same deal with food. There are isolated Swiss groups who thrive on high dairy diets. The Inuit of Greenland live on a mostly protein and fat diet of seal meat and whale blubber. The Bantu of South Africa thrive on a diet of 80 percent carbs, mostly from stuff that grows near where they live. They’ve been living that way for eons. They wouldn’t even recognize a Twinkie as food. Finally, many cultures cited eat less carbohydrates than we think. For example, the Japanese eat a lot of rice, but it is not New York portions of Chinese Take Out rice. It’s a little ball of rice surrounded by fish, sea vegetables and fermented soy products like miso, washed down with some green tea.
Sure, some societies do okay with higher carb diets. Some do well with lower carb diets. Some do fine on dairy, on meat, on whale blubber and probably somewhere some hunter gatherer society is thriving on worms and cacti. Remember this: none of these societies have thrived on foods with bar codes.