While on yet another stroll through the grimy gardens of the latter day internet, I discovered a derailed conversation that sung the praises of Atkins diets and decried the horror that is carbohydrate. To prove their postulations participants in this conversation pointed to “research” showing the undeniable evidence that carbohydrates are the ultimate enemy of the first world over eater. Yet amid this storm, it seems to me that a few simple facts got buried, yet again, beneath the agenda of decontextualised, corporate aligned research practices.
As a cultural studies graduate the mantra of: “but by whom and for whom is the question asked and indeed what is the question being asked to produce this new knowledge”. It is no secret that the lion’s share of American based nutritional and agricultural research is performed with and for massive corporations who take masses of biological matter and turn it into money with little regard for the environment or human health as it functions in a whole context. So when I read about carbohydrates turning to poison in our bodies and the very reason for diabetes and obesity, I reach for my revolver.
First, some historical context. Carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains, tubers or other forms such as plantains and simple sugars are the very substances which have allowed human beings as a species to put distance between themselves and the borderlands of survival and extinction. Almost every culture on earth has utilised carbohydrates to ensure survival and eventually flourish. There are exceptions, such as the Arctic Circle indigenous people who rely on animal products to the exclusion (impossibility) of carbohydrates, but their proximity to survival/extinction is clearly indicated by the fact they have and abundance of caloric intake yet some of the shortest life spans of human beings outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Carbohydrates have provided human beings with sources of storable, portable and versatile caloric and nutritional intakes.
The opposition to carbohydrates stems mainly from first world nations, particularly in the Anglosphere where overconsumption is not only rampant but encouraged. Agricultural subsidies and other economic policies have seen carbohydrates in three main forms (grain, other, converted to sugar) become devalued to such an extent that they are now seen as adjuncts to the diet and not staples. Indeed, meat rich diets of these nations are in fact merely another form of converted grain incurring massive waste and environmental destruction. It is my argument that if we were to scale back the consumption habits of the modern affluent countries and reconfigure eating habits so that they were more in line with “whole context” approaches, we would see at worst a reduction and at best an elimination of a wide variety of lifestyle related diseases.
Why is this? The food chain is as most aspects of contemporary society dominated by economic interest rather than human well being. Arbitrary guidelines are set and are adhered to only to the extent that they do not impact on profit. After all, do we really need to eat fresh tomatoes in winter in temperate and northern climates? Is it necessary for the survival of the Australian people to grow massive amounts of rice on the Murray River, an essentially dead irrigation trough? Is our desire for hamburgers so great that we need to feed a quantity of grain and protein to cattle so that we can buy the end product at a price that does not justify the inputs? Eating closer to home and with the natural rhythms of the land would certainly reduce the availability of certain foodstuffs. But again, would this be such a bad thing anyway? After all, look where overconsumption has got us.
Are grains toxic? This question and the research around it appears to be somewhat of a wild goose chase, another instance of people chasing the dollar to questions that are asked for purposes we as consumers cannot know. It is harder to address the actual causes of illness, individual and societal than it is to create new knowledges which become through repetition and frequency new common senses which result in an continuation of lifestyle related diseases.
I feel that if we were to take into account the broader considerations of contemporary society and begin addressing fundamental questions of overconsumption and overproduction we might start to find ways in which to address illness that do not require fad diets, special chemicals or gene therapy. Consciousness and moderation, while less profitable to certain merchants are the cornerstone of happy, satisfied living. So for the time being, diets and research created in the lands of overabundance, overconsumption and overproduction will not sway me, I’ll stick with my bread sticks, bowl of rice and various tubers throughout the day. You do what you want but let us just stop the noise?
Postscript.After a little scratching around, I found the homepage of Michael Greger, MD, which is essentially an encyclopaedic rebuttal of the entire Atkins’ mythology. Greger’s work is substantiated by literally thousands of actual academic studies from a stunningly broad range of sources as well supported by virtually all mainstream American medical and dietary organisations including: the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, and the American Medical Association. Greger goes to extraordinary lengths to rebut many popular myths which have become truth through repetition throughout the internet (especially the one about “not all calories being equal”).