Just happened across this article from The Atlantic yeterday:
The article deduces that grain consumption was quite a bit higher 100 years ago yet people were not fat.
A couple of possible counterpoints come to mind:
1) It's not simply the grains alone that make us fat but grains also in conjunction with large amounts of processed fructose.
2) Grains have changed drastically in this time period though genetic modification and selective breeding.
What does everyone elsse think?
The first thing to notice, which I am surprised McArdle does not, is that her chart shows percentages from calories. If you click through to the (probably absurd and error-ridden) document from the USDA that she cites you can look at the absolute totals (p. 18 on the PDF; here's the link; her chart comes from p. 21 by the way). Basically, according to the USDA, carbohydrate intake stayed the same and everything else increased. This would explain how the percentage of grains can drop: the actual grain intake could have stayed around the same while the total caloric intake increased.
Megan McArdle might be happy to read my first point, but I wouldn't use it in an argument; since when do we think that increasing calories alone can account for the obesity epidemic? (Hopefully I can get away with linking to one of my own Paleohacks answers just this once, sorry: here.) Look at p. 18 of the PDF again and see what changed more than anything else since 1909: polyunsaturated fatty acid intake, from 13g a day to 37g a day. Omega 6 anyone?
But I wouldn't place too much faith in the USDA report. After all it claims (p. 21 now, where McArdle gets her chart) that the intake of "sugars and sweeteners" has only increased (if you do the math) by about 20% -- in absolute terms, not the proportion. (And that's ignoring the particularly low figure for sweeteners for 1909-1919.) Do we really think that sugar and HFCS intake in the United States has only increased by about 20% in the last 90-100 years? That's preposterous. I would go back and read all the fine print in the USDA report, but what's the point?
Even were her data both correct and non-distorted, there would still be the issue that all these points of hers are just observational and no causal link has been established or even suggested. By itself, a decrease in grain from 1914 until now with an accompanying increase in obesity shows nothing. It could still be the case that grain makes you fat. Think of it this way: it might perhaps be the case, again using her assumptions, that if we were eating even more grain we would be even fatter. Nothing about the assumed facts would prevent that.
Was grain consumption really higher in 1914? I doubt this given the amount of processed grain products in our processed foods and how our production of grain has increased as technology has improved the efficiency of American Farmers and Farmers around the world. Also in 1914, the idea of farm subsidies were just a figment in FDR's imagination, and didn't start taking off until the 1930's when farm life was almost unlivable.
Consider the modern day hunter gatherer tribe that recently switched to a modern western diet, how are they doing with western style chronic diseases?
The author oversimplifies from data provided by USDA. I was surprised to see in it that except for the 20's when it's actually lower sugar consumption seems fairly equal or stable since the 30's, that doesn't seem right. But the same data does show a 3-fold jump in the consumption of PUFAs starting around the 50's and accelerating of late. It also seems hard to believe that grain consumption was so much higher then when availability of Pasta, cookies and all manner of processed foods was just not there. But who am I to argue with data from the USDA, I mean, they're not the ones pushing us to consumer more grains are they? (sic).
It's funny also to see the author get into an argument with Dr. Harris, splitting hairs and taking cheap shots at Paleo. From my perception Mr. Archevore totally owned her. But I'm biased.
I agree also with Dr. K above, that life expectancy was much lower. We should also note it was time of WWI. But I disagree about the level of physical activity, as has been noted before that traditionally those who do hard labor, do more physically demanding work, also happen to have more issues with obesity.
I would also add that in 1914 the grains were more likely to be 'properly' (if there really is such a thing) prepared, meaning soaked in an acidic medium prior to cooking. They didn't have 'instant' anything, and it was socially acceptable to wait for your food, unlike today. Soaking oats overnight for cereal in the morning was just the way you made oatmeal.
The people in 1914 also existed with the attitude of "well if I get a little fat, I just cut down on grains and sugar until I like how I look." They actually had better information at the time at what actually causes us to be overweight and weren't socially pressured to do low fat high carb diets.
My third and last point, I would think they were not as affluent as us so could not afford extra food and sugar was expensive. So this feeds into your first point, since grains and sugar together are much more deadly than just grains (especially properly prepared).
thanks for sharing the article!
Oh dear, where to begin:
People were far more active - harder and more physical labour, more walking and less reliance on motor vehicles, fewer labour-saving devices (laundry was hard work, sweep up, scrub floors and so on). Children went out to play till it got dark (ball games, climbing trees, cowboys, soldiers, generally running about for hours) and didn't just park themselves in front of TVs, computers, PlayStations, Xboxes etc. The food was not genetically 'improved' so the nutritional content was significantly different. There was far less reliance on sugary foods and confectionery, and a comparatively non-existent fast-food industry (with associated hard-sell advertising)
Check out the comments to that article -- there are some excellent refutations, including an extensive back and forth between the author (Megan McArdle) and Kurt Harris.
I do not think you can refute that grains can be fine, in terms of weight, in a "clean" diet. The longest lived men in the world (Sardinia, Italy - living over 90 is perfectly normal http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100.html) eat a diet that is basically wheat (bread) and grass-fed sheep cheese. And they do not suffer from obesity/heart disease/ etc.
Perhaps the more major problem in standard american is the poor quality of fats? And the fructose also seems an issue, as the whole thing about fat being unhealthy seems to have been wrong... but that does not mean the trends to poor health incorrect. There is a correlation with pounds of sugar and obesity however.
Eating whole grains probably will not make you healthier (and has not bee all that strongly associated with health, like legumes and vegetables have), but in a modestly active population they do not seem to cause harm. Also see Japan pre-fast food and Kitavins.
I think that in 1914 people were a lot more active, people weren't eating fast foods, people were still making their meals mostly from scratch, they weren't ingesting the gobs of processed sugars and crap that is in our food today. It's not rocket science. It's common sense. Soon as you step away from sugar, processed foods, fast foods and get your butt away from television and other electronics that have created a generation (or two) of sedentary people, you will lose weight.
The grains were also much less toxic, as our current grains are much higher in protein (glutens). This could cause cascading physical issues related to leaky guts and malnutrition.
When I leave the US to live and work in rural neighborhoods, I experience NO gluten intolerance issues which I've attributed to the ancient genes in the flour and corn products, despite eating breads and grains for months at a time. I also, repeatedly, lost about 20lbs in the first month, regardless of the diet (South East Asian vs Peruvian, for instance).
Why did Humans Start Eating Grains? 15 Answers
HELP? How to explain it to a newbie? 2 Answers