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America's Carb Addiction

Updated: Feb 19

In America carbohydrates reign supreme. Don't be fooled by the "popularity" of diets like ketogenic, Mediterranean, Atkins and the like... they're not actually that popular and only a fraction of the population follows them. Carbs are still the bulk of the standard American diet by a long shot and we devour them voraciously. Refined carbs, sugars and starches—cereal, pasta, cookies, sliced bread, crackers, bagels and other sugar-rich, nutrient-poor carbs—represent almost half our daily calories. The baseline for refined carbs is so high in the US that cutting down to even 20% (still way too many in my opinion) sounds extreme.  


But why is this such a big deal? Well for starters there’s a direct, linear correlation between refined carbs and obesity, disease, and certain psychological disorders. They're incredibly bad for our health and the evidence is all around us. And America's carb addiction didn’t come out of nowhere, it was cultivated by the food industry that sells the products to you... with some government complicity thrown in for good measure. 

I think it’s important for you, as a consumer of food, to know why carbs became the default in the US and what's so flawed about this paradigm. Why a Nature Valley granola bar, with a recipe of processed carbs, sugar, brown sugar syrup and inflammation-boosting oils, is reflexively a healthier option than a slice of bacon.  

I have two goals here.  One is to show how your beliefs about carbs might be all wrong and why you should start questioning them immediately. If you’ve already broken away from the standard American diet hopefully I can reinforce that this was one of the best decisions you've ever made. Two is I want to give you a different paradigm to follow.    

To reiterate a couple things first:


1. We eat a LOT of refined carbohydrates in America


It's not just that we eat a lot of carbs, it's the type we're filling our diet with: refined carbs. We eat 200 to 300 grams of them per day in the US. These starchy complexes do little more than spike blood sugar, make insulin go crazy and produce high levels of inflammation without delivering real nutrient content. They're the worst of all carb varieties (as opposed to, say, mineral and fiber rich vegetables) and they comprise 42% of the standard American diet. This number went down marginally by 3.25% from 1999 to 2016, which is about 8 grams... that's like two bites of Honey Nut Cheerios. That's not enough to mean anything.

Refined carbs populate grocery stores, restaurants, vending machines, coffee shops. They're everywhere and escaping them can feel like an act of willful defiance. Pasta, pretzels, pizza, Pops cereal, pancakes, pastries... the food industry grain mills crank them out and throw them on the shelves where they get scooped up by the consumer (and reap a crazy high profit margin). Even foods labelled "whole grain" or "whole wheat" don't have to truly meet this standard due to a loophole created by the USDA.



2. Refined carbs and sugar are wreaking havoc on our health 

Our carb-eating proclivities have spelled doom for our health.  Diabetes, inflammation related diseases, auto-immune disorders, psychological and cognitive disfunction, cancer—carbs and sugar are mixed up in all of them.  Since the refined carbohydrate was installed as the base of the American diet--thanks to the disastrous food pyramid released thirty years ago (published by the USDA but designed by the food industry)--obesity and other health problems have increased like clockwork. In 1992 about 20% of US adults were classified as obese... this number is projected to be 50% by 2030.


To be sure there’s more going on with our poor health than consumption of refined carbs and sugar.  We don’t move enough, we sit too much, we stare at devices too much, we don’t drink enough water, we drink too much coffee and alcohol… the list goes on.  But what we eat is fundamental to our health and thus refined carbs have played a huge role in how sick we’ve become over the last few decades.  To say we’re actually dying by them, or from them, is not an overstatement.



A refined carb is a grain that's been stripped of its nutrients--fiber, vitamins, and minerals--and whittled down to nothing but complex sugar/starch. They're basically none of the good stuff and all of the "bad" stuff, which is why they're so unhealthy. But if refined carbs are so bad for us why do we eat so many of them? Because they taste good isn't enough of an answer. Yes we're fallible creatures that make bad decisions in the pursuit of pleasure (who doesn’t love a good donut?) and I know food can be difficult to figure out... but the divide here is colossal between our diet and what's best for our health. Refined carb consumption has essentially a one-to-one ratio with disease and potential death over time. Even for a population that isn’t perfect this level of self-destructiveness doesn't quite compute. So truly, where did it come from?

The American diet wasn't always such a mess. It is now and there's lots of factors that are keeping it this way, but it all traces back in some way to the distorted message we received from the USDA about refined carbohydrates and what a healthy diet should consist of. It's why in the 2020’s people think a bowl of pasta is a better option than steak, why Goldfish crackers are normal but a slice of pasture-raised bacon at snack time is weird.  Why cereal is a breakfast staple and whole eggs are still sketchy.  The former is a nutrient-poor grain mill product that spikes blood sugar, deregulates hormones, scrambles the brain and disrupts the immune system and the gut. The latter is a superfood with about every nutrient a human needs.  Which of these sounds like a better option for your first meal of the day? 


Flash back to the 1980’s for a second. Two things were happening at this time:


1. Americans were eating less fruits and vegetables than they had in decades. The USDA hired a nutrition panel to create new national dietary recommendations in the supposed best interests of our health. This would eventually become the food pyramid (but not really, as you can see below).  


2. The wheat and corn industries were tanking.  People weren’t buying their products and they had huge amounts of surplus merchandise, so they had to come up with a way to get their items back in the stores and turn a profit. They began lobbying aggressively to win back their share of the food market, pestering the USDA to sell their products for them.

In the end the USDA chose to ignore the advice given to them by the nutritionists (i.e. science) and published the guidelines pushed by the carb lobbyists (i.e. industry).


"Our recommendation of 2-5 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour—crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats—at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly.  To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now the Pyramid’s base."   

- Luise Light, head of the USDA panel and renowned health expert



So there you have it--the tale of two pyramids. Version one isn't perfect--anything that restricts healthy fats is suspect to me--but it still looks like a pretty dang solid diet. Version two is a bonafide advertisement for refined carbs, a glaring example the government allowing profit to circumvent science and the health of its own citizens. Natural foods subsequently got a bad name--red meat, cheese, butter, healthy fats that the body desperately needs to function properly. A piece of steak, with its rich amino acid profile, stellar nutrient content and life-sustaining heme iron, was seen as about the worst thing you could put in your mouth. .  

Since then it’s been a steady digression for US health.  We’ve gotten fatter and sicker each passing year.  Auto-immune disorders, cognitive and learning disabilities, depression—they’re all running rampant in the US of 2024. In just over half a decade half obesity will be a coin toss situation. To give them some benefit of the doubt, I don't think the higher-ups at the USDA could have anticipated just what kind of epedemic they were creating. But regardless nothing has gone right since the industry-sponsored pyramid was released.    


The pyramid itself might feel like a relic at this point but the original message is still very much alive, mostly because nothing since then has truly and definitively changed anyone's mind; and now more than ever it’s about the money being spent to maintain that message.  The carb industry is a behemoth with billions of dollars at stake and they’re not going to relinquish it anytime soon.  In 2022 they spent $1.5 billion on advertising for their products--cereal, chips, crackers, pancake batter, doughnuts and anything else produced by a grain mill--and made a staggering $41.6 billion in revenue.  As a side note the ad budget for whole, natural foods was about $12,000… this sounds like a joke but it isn’t.  

The carb industry doesn’t come after anyone harder than children.  Fun packaging, bright colors, cute lettering, cartoon characters—they pull out all the stops to grab kids' attention.  Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, happy little Goldfish… hard to compete against a lineup like this.  They're all strategically placed on the shelf at junior eye level so there's no chance of missing them. As a final point of attack they slap something healthy-sounding on the label, like how Frosted Flakes are high in Vitamin D, how Goldfish are “baked” with 100% real cheese, how Lucky Charms are a good source of calcium and whole grains. It's all a sham but it works. Check out the top ten cereals in the US:

  1. Cheerios 

  2. Honey Nut Cheerios

  3. Frosted Flakes

  4. Honey Bunches of Oats

  5. Cinnamon Toast Crunch 

  6. Lucky Charms

  7. Froot Loops

  8. Frosted Mini-Wheats

  9. Life

  10. Fruity Pebbles 

With "grown-up" foods the imagery and selling points are different but it’s the same concepts at play.  Special K has been pitched as a health food for decades and is famously associated with its eponymous diet.  Everything about the package is meant to connote health and energy—the pleasing colors and the oh-so-healthy looking stalk of wheat, the generic nutrition stats on the box.  But it's what's on the inside that counts, and Special K essentially amounts to a bowl of nutrient-poor complex sugar that's devoid of protein, healthy fats, or any organic vitamins/minerals (nothing but synthetics to be found here).  That doesn’t sound nutritious to me.  The only reason its "diet" ever works is because it limits you to about 1000 calories a day--another term for that is starvation. And unless your goal is to lose muscle tissue, if you’re ever in this kind of deficit what you need above all else is protein... not a bowl of sugar.            


There are examples everywhere in the US, both past and present, of food industry shenanigans. Like the new GMO-labelling law that provides exemptions to two of the unhealthiest foods on the planet: industrially processed oils and soda. So things are definitely stacked against you in the US and the food landscape can be difficult to navigate.  But your health is always in your hands.  You can choose to be another cog in the carb machine or you can go against the status quo and create your own path.  

Here are some general rules to go by:

1.  Ignore the standard American diet

Seriously. Pay absolutely no attention to what other people are eating or what they consider to be normal. Nothing we’re doing presently is working so if you’re going to have any success you’ll need to break away from the pack and follow a different blueprint.  You need to fully embrace this idea. As a population we eat way too many refined carbs and it is not biologically normal or healthy to do this. Everything we’ve been led to believe about them (and other foods like saturated fat) is simply not based in real science.  

2. Fill your diet with whole, natural foods

Eat a LOT of these:

Eggs and chicken.  Pasture-raised.  Whole eggs only—the yolk has all the important nutrients and minerals.  

Meat.  Organic and grass-fed.  Steak, beef, pork, bacon, liver, heart… it’s all good stuff.  Locally raised is better, heritage breed is the best.    

Fish.  Wild-caught, top-dwelling.  Salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines.       

Roots and vegetables.  Organic and local.  Sweet potatoes, cauliflower, onions, brussel sprouts, carrots, cassava, radishes, kale, broccoli.  A broad spectrum is best—go for a variety of colors!  

Eat MODERATE amounts of these:

Nuts and seeds.  Organic.  Cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.  No peanuts—they’re not actually nuts and also not especially healthy.

Dairy foods.  Organic, low-lactose, full-fat.  Cheese, butter, heavy cream, yogurt.

Fruit.  Organic, local, and low-glycemic.  Strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears.  Eat all fruit sparingly. 

Eat very LITTLE or none of (no surprise):

Refined carbs and sugar. These should be considered an indulgence or a cheat, not the bulk of your diet.    

3. Cycle carbs out occasionally

I’m not saying you need to axe carbs completely or go full keto but you do need to limit them out every so often.  The baseline for carbs in the US is way too high.  The human body didn’t evolve for constant carb intake—even fibrous, nutrient-rich carbs from whole foods—and it definitely didn’t evolve to consume the grain-mill products that qualify for carbs nowadays.  So if you want to achieve optimal health, make a point of dropping carb intake for awhile and focusing on protein and fat rich foods. 

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