Monday, August 22, 2011

Refined carbohydrate-rich foods, palatability, glycemic load, and the Paleo movement

A great deal of discussion has been going on recently revolving around the so-called “carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity”. I will use the acronym CHO to refer to this hypothesis. This acronym is often used to refer to carbohydrates in nutrition research; I hope this will not cause confusion.

The CHO could be summarized as this: a person consumes foods with “easily digestible” carbohydrates, those carbohydrates raise insulin levels abnormally, the abnormally high insulin levels drive too much fat into body fat cells and keep it there, this causes hunger as not enough fat is released from fat cells for use as energy, this hunger drives the consumption of more foods with “easily digestible” carbohydrates, and so on.

It is posited as a feedback-loop process that causes serious problems over a period of years. The term “easily digestible” is within quotes for emphasis. If it is taken to mean “refined”, which is still a bit vague, there is a good amount of epidemiological evidence in support of the CHO. If it is taken to mean simply “easily digestible”, as in potatoes and rice (which is technically a refined food, but a rather benign one), there is a lot of evidence against it. Even from an unbiased (hopefully) look at county-level data in the China Study.

Another hypothesis that has been around for a long time and that has been revived recently, which we could call the “palatability hypothesis”, is a competing hypothesis. It is an interesting and intriguing hypothesis, at least at first glance. There seems to be some truth to this hypothesis. The idea here is that we have not evolved mechanisms to deal with highly palatable foods, and thus end up overeating them.  Therefore we should go in the opposite direction, and place emphasis on foods that are not very palatable to reach our optimal weight. You might think that to test this hypothesis it would be enough to find out if this diet works: “Eat something … if it tastes good, spit it out!”

But it is not so simple. To test this palatability hypothesis one could try to measure the palatability of foods, and see if it is correlated with consumption. The problem is that the formulations I have seen of the palatability hypothesis treat the palatability construct as static, when in fact it is dynamic – very dynamic. The perception of the reward associated with a specific food changes depending on a number of factors.

For example, we cannot assign a palatability score to a food without considering the particular state in which the individual who eats the food is. That state is defined by a number of factors, including physiological and psychological ones, which vary a lot across individuals and even across different points in time for the same individual. For someone who is hungry after a 20 h fast, for instance, the perceived reward associated with a food will go up significantly compared to the same person in the fed state.

Regarding the CHO, it seems very clear that refined carbohydrate-rich foods in general, particularly the highly modified ones, disrupt normal biological mechanisms that regulate hunger. Perceived food reward, or palatability, is a function of hunger. Abnormal glucose and insulin responses appear to be at the core of this phenomenon. There are undoubtedly many other factors at play as well. But, as you can see, there is a major overlap between the CHO and the palatability hypothesis. Refined carbohydrate-rich foods generally have higher palatability than natural foods in general. Humans are good engineers.

One meme that seems to be forming recently on the Internetz is that the CHO is incompatible with data from healthy isolated groups that consume a lot of carbohydrates, which are sometimes presented as alternative models of life in the Paleolithic. But in fact among influential proponents of the CHO are the intellectual founders of the Paleolithic dieting movement. Including folks who studied native diets high in carbohydrates, and found their users to be very healthy (e.g., the Kitavans). One thing that these intellectual founders did though was to clearly frame the CHO in terms of refined carbohydrate-rich foods.

Natural carbohydrate-rich foods are clearly distinguished from refined ones based on one key attribute; not the only one, but a very important one nonetheless. That attribute is their glycemic load (GL). I am using the term “natural” here as roughly synonymous with “unrefined” or “whole”. Although they are often confused, the GL is not the same as the glycemic index (GI). The GI is a measure of the effect of carbohydrate intake on blood sugar levels. Glucose is the reference; it has a GI of 100.

The GL provides a better way of predicting total blood sugar response, in terms of “area under the curve”, based on both the type and quantity of carbohydrate in a specific food. Area under the curve is ultimately what really matters; a pointed but brief spike may not have much of a metabolic effect. Insulin response is highly correlated with blood sugar response in terms of area under the curve. The GL is calculated through the following formula:

GL = (GI x the amount of available carbohydrate in grams) / 100

The GL of a food is also dynamic, but its range of variation is small enough in normoglycemic individuals so that it can be treated as a relatively static number. (Still, the reference are normoglycemic individuals.) One of the main differences between refined and natural carbohydrate-rich foods is the much higher GL of industrial carbohydrate-rich foods, and this is not affected by slight variations in GL and GI depending on an individual’s state. The table below illustrates this difference.

Looking back at the environment of our evolutionary adaptation (EEA), which was not static either, this situation becomes analogous to that of vitamin D deficiency today. A few minutes of sun exposure stimulate the production of 10,000 IU of vitamin D, whereas food fortification in the standard American diet normally provides less than 500 IU. The difference is large. So is the difference in GL of natural and refined carbohydrate-rich foods.

And what are the immediate consequences of that difference in GL values? They are abnormally elevated blood sugar and insulin levels after meals containing refined carbohydrate-rich foods. (Incidentally, the GL  happens to be relatively low for the rice preparations consumed by Asian populations who seem to do well on rice-based diets.)  Abnormal levels of other hormones, in a chronic fashion, come later, after many years consuming those foods. These hormones include adiponectin, leptin, and tumor necrosis factor. The authors of the article from which the table above was taken note that:

Within the past 20 y, substantial evidence has accumulated showing that long term consumption of high glycemic load carbohydrates can adversely affect metabolism and health. Specifically, chronic hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia induced by high glycemic load carbohydrates may elicit a number of hormonal and physiologic changes that promote insulin resistance. Chronic hyperinsulinemia represents the primary metabolic defect in the metabolic syndrome.

Who are the authors of this article? They are Loren Cordain, S. Boyd Eaton, Anthony Sebastian, Neil Mann, Staffan Lindeberg, Bruce A. Watkins, James H O’Keefe, and Janette Brand-Miller. The paper is titled “Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century”. A full-text PDF is available here. For most of these authors, this article is their most widely cited publication so far, and it is piling up citations as I write. This means that not only members of the general public have been reading it, but that professional researchers have been reading it as well, and citing it in their own research publications.

In summary, the CHO and the palatability hypothesis overlap, and the overlap is not trivial. But the palatability hypothesis is more difficult to test. As Karl Popper noted, a good hypothesis is a testable hypothesis. Eating natural foods will make an enormous difference for the better in your health if you are coming from the standard American diet, and you can justify this statement based on the CHO, the palatability hypothesis, or even a few others – e.g., a nutrient density hypothesis, which would be closer to Weston Price's views. Even if you eat only plant-based natural foods, which I cannot fully recommend based on data I’ve reviewed on this blog, you will be better off.