carbgrrl · 2009-06-28

Like sands through the hourglass

…so are the Carbs of Our Lives. (No? How about As the Pancreas Turns? Maybe not.)

Today’s carbgrrl musings are a little less overtly scientific than at times in the past, and a little more speculative and personal. You see, a friend loaned me a diet book that wasn’t actually 100-percent horrible, and it offered an insight that resonated with me in a big way.

The book was Michel Montignac’s Eat & Lose Weight For Good: The Montignac Weight-Loss Plan, in a UK edition. (This is probably the US equivalent.) My friend and I had discovered a mutual appreciation of GCBC, and she thought I’d like this book too.

Montignac has a wonderfully blunt style, and he seems to enjoy shocking his audience. Very French! He’s written quite a few books, focusing on what I’d call a hybrid low-glycemic/”French girls don’t get fat” approach. This book has a couple of scientific boo-boos, for example extolling the virtues of fructose (?!?). But he has a good handle on the sheer variability of people’s responses to carbs. (Atkins had the same, with his emphasis on finding your personal Critical Carbohydrate Level for Losing.)

This passage reached out and grabbed me:

Some people have been able to remain slim all their life, although they have bad eating habits. This is because they were blessed with a very healthy pancreas that has not lapsed into hyperinsulinism, despite the heavy glycaemia inflicted on it over a long period of time.

Others — and these are the majority — also started off with a healthy pancreas that enabled them to stay slim for many years despite their bad eating habits. And then, when they were about 30 or 35, and certainly by the time were 40, they started to put on weight. In later years, some even became obese and diabetic. Their pancreas held out for several decades, but in the end it succumbed to the abuse it had suffered.

And then there are those, like me, who arrived on earth with a sub-standard pancreas that was inherited. The chances of having a frail pancreas, if your parents were obese and therefore hyperinsulinic, is high. It is almost certain in any case, if the diet from an early age is hyperglycaemic. [p. 47]

I suspect he’s just described my pancreas: feeble, rickety, frail, sub-standard. Some of my friends (probably with brawny he-man pancreata) seem incredulous at the crazy lengths I go to even to avoid gaining weight at this point, having to cut out just about any slightly scary carb and some nominally okay ones (mmm, oatmeal). It’s like I’ve used up my lifetime allotment of normal insulin response.

Notice that Montignac suggests two factors to consider: heredity and environment. (With risk factors on both sides of my family, and with a history of dieting in the idiotic 70’s and 80’s, I bet I’ve got both.) One or both might explain one of the outcomes of an exercise in occupational medicine, done at DuPont in the late 1940’s to help executives lose weight and avoid the new epidemic of heart disease in America. Taubes recounts the tale:

In June 1949, [Alfred] Pennington published an account of the DuPont experience… All of this seemed paradoxical: the DuPont executives lost weight on a diet that did not restrict calories. Carbohydrates were restricted in their diet — no more than eighty calories at each meal. “In a few cases,” Pennington reported, “even this much carbohydrate prevented weight loss, though an ad-libitum [unrestricted] intake of protein and fat, more exclusively, was successful.” …. If [one executive] ate any carbohydrates, “even an apple,” Pennington wrote, his weight would climb upward. [GCBC p. 330, Ch. 20; bold added]

Heredity and environment are the filters through which I now view all women’s magazine articles, studies, and public-health pronouncements about obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. Maybe low-fat does work — for the young, or the pancreatically strong. Maybe it works now but it contributes to later yo-yo effects. If we had an easy way of testing both axes, maybe we’d have a shot at predicting who will lose weight on which diet at which juncture in their lives without lasting damage.

Speaking for myself, I just can’t take the chance anymore.