Low-Carb Diets On The Rise

I’ve been paying close attention to diet this past year. It’s something I’ve had some focus on for decades now, but new info has recently changed the public debate going on. For example, a few years back, the research data from Ancel Keys was reanalyzed and an entirely different conclusion was found to be more plausible — instead of blaming saturated fat, the stronger correlation was to sugar. So much of what mainstream dietitians and nutritionists asserted as fact was based on Keys’ work, but it has since come under a dark cloud of doubt. Simply put, it was horrible science and even worse public health policy.

My own recent interest, though, was piqued in watching the documentary The Magic Pill. It came out in 2017 and several other great documentaries have come out in the last few years, with Nina Teicholz’s documentary in the works. In playing around with diet in the broad sense, I didn’t find much that helped, beyond limiting added sugar and throwing in a few healthy traditional foods (e.g., cultured dairy). It’s not that I ever was much interested in formal diets — some combination of laziness, apathy, and being too independent-minded, hence figuring something out for myself or else failing on my own terms, no doubt plenty of failure was involved and long periods of depressive despair and frustration. I’ve always been more about experimenting and finding what works or doesn’t work for me, if for no other reason than being stubborn in going my own way.

The problem was that nothing fundamentally had worked for my depression that plagued me my whole life nor for the weight gain that hit me as I approached my 40s. It is damn hard struggling to be healthy while depressed, but I did try such things as exercising regularly for it had some immediate palpable effect. Still, it was strange to exercise and yet not lose weight, even if aerobics did lift my mood ever so slightly. I was literally running to stay in place.

That is where The Magic Pill came in. I randomly came across it and watched it out of passing curiosity. Something about the case made was compelling to me, a blend of science and personal experience that rang true to my decades of reading and experimentation. It brought many pieces together: the whole foods emphasis on quality, the vegetarian emphasis on plant foods, the traditional food emphasis on nutrient-density, the low-carb emphasis on avoiding grains, legumes and sugar, the ketogenic emphasis on shifting metabolism, mood and much else, the alternative health emphasis on eliminating processed foods and additives, and the holistic/functional medicine emphasis on seeing the body as a system and part of larger systems.

So, what miraculous diet brings all of this diversity of views together under the umbrella of a coherent understanding? It’s the paleo diet, although some prefer to call it a lifestyle or a philosophy as it isn’t a singular dietary regimen or protocol. It’s about learning how to be healthy by following the examples of traditional societies in combination with the best science available, not only research in diet and nutrition as narrow fields but also research from dentistry, anthropology, archaeology, etc — any and all info that helps us understand the evolution of human health, specifically in explaining what has gone so terribly wrong in industrialized societies with the diseases of civilization. Diet is important, but only one part. Through an alliance with functional medicine, there is a greater focus on what makes for a healthy lifestyle: exercise, stress reduction, toxicity elimination, forest bathing, sun exposure, learning new things, etc… and don’t forget about play, something lost to so many modern adults.

Despite that greater focus of concern, it is the dietary angle that draws people in. Simply put, a lot of people feel better on the paleo diet, often in healing numerous conditions or at least reversing some of the worst symptoms, from conditions like obesity and diabetes to autism and depression to Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, and much else. The paleo diet, as with traditional foods (both inspired by the work of Weston A. Price), is a good introduction to an alternative way of thinking not only about diet but health in general. It seems to be a gateway diet for many who go on to try related diets: primal (paleo plus dairy), Whole30, ketogenic, ketotarian, pegan, pescatarian, carnivore, etc. Primal, as one common example, demonstrates how paleolists have a tendency of drifting toward the similar traditional foods. Paleo is more of a framework than anything else, to the extent that it requires or promotes a paradigm change in one’s attitude.

The greater issue at hand is a potential paradigm change of society. That is the battle going on right now, those promoting that shift and those defending the status quo. Most figures and institutions of authority attack diets like paleo and keto because they are threatening. And the reason they are threatening is because of their growing popularity which in turn comes from their being highly effective for their intended purposes, while also being followed and sometimes promoted by many famous people, from media figures to politicians, including plenty of athletes (according to various sources, and in no particular order):

Bill Clinton, Madonna, Drew Carey, Renee Zellweger, Katie Couric, Al Roker, Halle Berry, Kim Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Vinny Guadagnino, Jordan Peterson, Vanessa Hudgens, Megan Fox, Adriana Lima, Jessica Biel, Blake Lively, Channing Tatum, Eva La Rue, Phil Mickelson, Aisha Tyler, Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Jeb Bush, Kanye West, Christina Aguilera, Jack Osbourne, Kelly Osbourne, Sharon Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, Ursula Grobler, Becca Borawski, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Flintoff, Jenna Jameson, Savannah Guthrie, Chris Scott, Tamra Judge, Grant Hill, Uma Thurman, Kobe Bryant, Gwyneth Paltrow, LeBron James, Alicia Vikander, Tim McGraw, Kristin Cavallari, Tom Jones, Grant Hill, Mick Jagger, Melissa McCarthy, Jennifer Lopez, Robin Wright, Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Aniston, Guy Sebastian, Elle Macpherson, Courteney Cox, Catherine Zeta Jones, Geri Halliwell, Ben Affleck, Joe Rogan, Brendan Schaub, Shane Watson, Tim Ferris, Jessica Simpson, Rosie O’Donnell, Lindsey Vonn, Alyssa Milano, Kendra Wilkinson, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Joe Manganiello, Tom Kerridge, Jessica Alba, Mariah Carey, Tobey McGuire, Jennifer Hudson, Shania Twain, etc.

These low-carb diets work. People feel better, lose weight, go off their meds, have a lot of energy, and on and on. It’s a paradigm change with a real kick and so the change is largely coming from below, from probably hundreds of thousands of individuals experimenting similar to what I’ve done, including individual doctors who decide to buck the system and sometimes are punished for it (a few key examples are: John Yudkin, Tim Noakes, and Gary Fettke). And every individual this works for ends up being an inspiration to numerous others, even if only to the people they personally know such as family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Other people see it works and so they try it themselves. This is how it went from a minor diet to its present growing momentum and did so in a fairly short period of time.

As I was saying at the beginning of this piece, I’ve been observing this shift. And I’ve come to realize it might be a seismic change going on. Every now and then, I see hints of the impact in the world around me. These alternative views are taking hold and won’t remain alternative for long. They are forcing their way into mainstream awareness, often for practical reasons such as bakeries taking a hit in sales (Amy-Clare Martin, Bakers notice decline in dough – as more Brits ditch bread for low-carb diets). Unsurprisingly, there is backlash.

There is the corporate media, of course, with their typical attack pieces on “fad diets”, ignoring the fact that the keto diet has been medically researched since the early 1900s, the low-carb diet having been the first popular diet starting back in the 1800s, the traditional foods diet based on hundreds of thousands of years of shared human experience, and the paleo diet as the diet hominids have thrived on for millions of years. The corporate media prefers to ignore what is threatening, until the point it no longer can be ignored, and so we are in that second phase right now, maybe a bit beyond since the mainstream authorities have already adopted some of the alternative views without acknowledging it (e.g., AHA quietly lowering its recommendations of carb intake after pushing a high-carb diet for a half century, as if hoping no one would notice this implicit admission to having been wrong, and wrong in a way that harmed so many; also see here and here). Local media is sometimes more open to new views, though.

The whole EAT-Lancet issue demonstrates the sense of conflict in the air. The authors of the report frame the situation as a crisis for all of humanity and the earth. And they use that as a cudgel to bash the new low-carb challengers, to nip them in the bud, even to the extreme of pushing for international regulations that would force conformity with the high-carb approach of conventional diets that have risen to prominence these past decades — mainstream versions of: vegetarianism, veganism, and Mediterranean (the modern Mediterranean diet as studied after World War II, not the traditional one with high levels of animal foods that existed for millennia before 20th century industrialization of the food system, no noodles or tomatoes prior to modern colonial trade, and surprisingly not much if any olive oil since according to ancient texts it was mainly used for lamp fuel, with animal fat being preferred for cooking). We’ve seen this push with such things as “Veganuary”.

It has become an overtly ideological fight, but maybe it always was. The politicization of diet goes back to the early formalized food laws that became widespread in the Axial Age and regained centrality in the Middle Ages, which for Europeans meant a revival of ancient Greek thought, specifically that of Galen. And it is utterly fascinating that pre-scientific Galenic dietary philosophy has since taken on scientific garb and gets peddled to this day, as a main current in conventional dietary thought (see Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden with an excerpt to be read here; I made this connection in realizing that Stephen Le, a biological anthropologist, was without awareness parroting Galenic thought in his book 100 Million Years of Food).

But the top-down approach to pushing dietary regimens hasn’t been all that successful in more recent years, maybe because of growing cynicism about past failures. Even with it being heavily promoted by well-funded organizations and government agencies, the high-carb plant-based diets are beginning to find it hard to maintain their footing in the tides of change. According to various data, it’s easy to get people to try veganism for a short period, but few maintain it (only 20% who try veganism continue on the diet long-term). Vegetarianism is less restrictive, of course, but consistent adherence is still rare. The vast majority who start veganism or vegetarianism either occasionally eat meat or fish or else eventually give up on the diet (less than 3.2% of Americans are vegan or vegetarian and few of them consistently adhering to the diet). There is big money, including corporate money, behind the campaigns promoting it (most processed foods, including junk food, are technically vegan and big food has come to realize this is an effective way of marketing unhealthy food as healthy). Still, it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the general public, not that I doubt there will be those who continue their games of propaganda, persuasion, and perception management.

People have gotten the message that a plant-based diet is good. That part of the official messaging machine has been successful. Indeed, for decades, most Americans have been increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables and that might or might not be a good thing (the science is contested), but as far as that goes the paleo diet and many related diets also tend to recommend high levels of fruits and vegetables. The main advantage the low-carb diets have is that it’s easier to give up bread than to give up all animal foods (including eggs and dairy), though vegetarianism is a decent compromise since it allows some animal foods and that increases availability of the key fat-soluble vitamins. It’s not that low-carb, keto, or paleo vegetarianism is hard to do — so it isn’t an either/or scenario, but many pushing a so-called “plant-based” diet for some reason want to portray it in such dualistic terms, maybe as a way of falsely portraying low-carb as an anti-plant caricature in order to make it seem ridiculous and extremist.

Despite the ideological reaction, there is the growing realization that maybe there is some profit to be had in this emerging trend, as most businesses ultimately don’t care about dietary ideology and will go where the wind blows. New products cater to these alternative diets (paleo creamer, keto supplements, etc) or else old products are repackaged (“Keto Friendly!”). This is why it gets called a “fad diet”. But if being heavily marketed makes a diet a fad, then the same label applies to conventional diets (e.g., low-fat) as well that are more heavily marketed than any alternative diet. I’ve also begun seeing paleo and keto magazines, guides, and recipe booklets in grocery stores. Even when dismissed by experts such as in rankings of recommended diets, these “fad diets” nonetheless get mentioned, albeit usually tossed to the bottom of the list. As all this demonstrates, we are long past the silent treatment.

Furthermore, it goes beyond the products specifically marketed as paleo or keto or whatever. Demand has been increasing for organ meats, coconut products (from coconut milk to coconut oil), cauliflower, etc; consumption of eggs is likewise on the rise — all favorites on the paleo diet, in particular, but also favorites for similar diets. Prices have been going up on these items and, because demand sometimes exceeds supply, they can go out of stock at stores. Why are they so sought after? Organ meats are nutrient-dense, coconut milk is a good replacement for dairy and coconut oil for unhealthy vegetable/seed oils, and cauliflower can be used as a replacement for rice, mashed potatoes, tater tots and pizza crust (“The weird thing about cauliflower, though, is that while it has allies, it doesn’t really have adversaries.” ~Rachel Sugar); as for eggs, their popularity needs no explanation now that the cholesterol and saturated fat myths are evaporating.

Even Oprah Winfrey, though financially invested in the conventional Weight Watchers diet (in owning 8% of the company) and a self-declared lover of bread (actual quote: “I love bread!”), has put out a line of products that includes a low-carb pizza with cauliflower crust. This is interesting since, as low-carb diets have gained popularity, the stock of Weight Watchers has plunged 60% and Oprah lost at least 58 million dollars in one night and a loss of 500 million over all, putting Oprah’s star power to a serious test — maybe Oprah decided it is wise to not put all her eggs in one basket, in case Weight Watchers totally tanks. The company is finding it difficult to gain and retain subscribers. Those profiting from established dietary ideology are feeling the pinch.

It’s amusing how Weight Watchers CEO Cindy Grossman responded to the low-carb threat: “We have a keto surge,” she said. “It’s a meme, it’s not like a company, it’s people have keto donuts, and everybody on the diet side look for the quick fix. We’ve been through this before, and we know that we are the program that works.” And that, “We’ve lived through this [competition from fad diets] for 57 years and we’re not going to play a game and we never have.” Good luck with that! Maybe in reassuring stockholders, she also stated that, “We’re going to be science informed and we’re sustainable for the long term.” That is great. Everyone should be science informed. The problem for those trying to hold onto old views is that the science has changed and so has the public’s knowledge of that science.

Most people these days aren’t looking for complicated diets with eating plans and paid services, much less pre-prepared meals to be bought. A subscription model is becoming less appealing, as so much info and other resources are now available online. Besides, the DYI approach (Do It Yourself) is preferred these days. Diets like paleo and keto are simple and straightforward, and they can be easily modified for individual needs or affordability. But even for those looking for a ready-made system like Weight Watchers, there are other options out there that are looking attractive: “Wall Street is clearly nervous, too. JPMorgan analyst Christina Brathwaite downgraded the [Weight Watchers] stock to “underperform” last week and slashed her price target. One of the reasons? She was worried about competition from rival weight-loss service Diet Doctor, which is a proponent of keto.”

In whatever form, like it or not, low-carb diets are on the rise. Even among vegans and vegetarianism, the low-carb approach will probably become more common. Maybe that is why we’ve suddenly seen new low-carb, plant-based diets like Dena Harris’ paleo vegetarianism (2015), Will Coles’s ketotarianism (2018), and Mark Hyman’s peganism (2018). Do a web search about any of this and you’ll find numerous vegans and vegetarians asking about, discussing, or else praising low-carb diets. The same is true in how one sees broad interest in thousands of websites, blogs, and articles. Hundreds upon hundreds of organizations, discussion forums, Reddit groups, Facebook groups, Twitter alliances, etc have sprouted up like mushrooms. More and more are jumping on the low-carb bandwagon, as apparently that is what a large and growing part of the public is demanding. Whether or not it ever was a fad, it is now a movement and it isn’t slowing down.

* * *

New Survey Shows Changes in American Diet Trends
from Nutrition Coalition

Many Americans appear to be ditching low-fat diets for higher-fat foods in hopes of improving heart health and losing weight — according to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation on more than 1,000 Americans, ages 18 to 80.

Roughly 36 percent of respondents reported following a specific diet, according to the survey. Of those on a diet, nearly 25 percent chose plans with more fat or protein. Some seven percent followed a paleo diet, six percent low-carb, five percent Whole30, four percent high-protein, and three percent ketogenic.

Ten percent of respondents reported following a regime of intermittent fasting, or cycling between periods of fasting and eating, during a defined period of time.

The report did not include data on the other 64 percent of survey respondents who elected not to share specific dietary preferences.

Overall, the survey suggests that Americans are increasingly trading carbohydrates for fats. Twenty-five percent of survey respondents blamed carbohydrates for their growing waistlines — up from 20 percent last year, while 33 percent blamed sugar. These numbers are both at “the highest since 2011,” according to the report. Only 16 percent blamed fats for weight gain, and just three percent fingered protein.

* * *

Why are these changes happening now? Here is one answer. The wisdom of crowds.

 

20 thoughts on “Low-Carb Diets On The Rise

    • It was several things that got me to write this. A while back, my parents mentioned that an employee at the local Trader Joe’s said they had been running out of coconut milk and cream because of some article or something promoting a new diet. I never could figure out exactly what had caused the run on coconut products.

      Just yesterday, my mother showed me an article on the increasing demand on previously unpopular cuts of meats, the kinds of cuts that are recommended on the paleo diet. Shortly after that, I noticed several tweets about Weight Watchers and Oprah taking a hit. I put it together with the observations I’d made the past year.

      I find this kind of thing fascinating. Ignoring what one thinks of any given diet, I just enjoy watching a major change emerge. It initially builds up slowly and it goes unnoticed by most, even as it is beginning to become a force to be reckoned with. A half century of conventional wisdom on diets is unraveling. But the most serious fight in the arena of public policy has not quite yet begun.

    • I’ve been thinking about the societal changes going on for a long time, most seriously since around the late 1990s. I sensed something in the air back then, the darkening mood that many others also noticed. And in the late Aughts, I could feel rumblings as gears clicked into place. It made me feel giddy with excitement, not that I necessarily believed it portended good omens. I just knew something had dramatically changed and that further change was inevitable, and it felt odd to look out on a world that continued on as if nothing had fundamentally changed at all.

      But I saw the changes with my own eyes. I had been following the shift in public opinion for years and the data showed the shift had begun decades earlier, and yet the mainstream acknowledged no such shift. In academia, biblical mythicism was gaining traction and biblical literalism was suddenly on the defense, after centuries of dominance in biblical studies. The shift was happening in environmental issues as well, a consensus against climate change in the 1990s had become a consensus for it in the decade following. Example after example, a realignment in the making could be detected.

      The present dietary shift just adds to the mix. And it involves the larger replication crisis that sweeps across nearly every scientific field. We are dealing with a paradigm change that is being felt in every area of our society. But we focus on the symptoms while missing the disease. The mainstream media, in being part of the old paradigm, can’t recognize much less acknowledge what is happening. That is why I go to such effort to write posts like this, for the simple reason it isn’t really about a single topic. I explore a specific concrete issue because that is the only way to grasp what is otherwise elusive, to make it compellingly real to the human mind.

      To the unaware and uninformed, though, all they can see is what shows up in their daily newsfeed or pops up in social media chatter. They can’t put the pieces together, can’t take in the larger view. So, a post like this would simply seem to be about the latest “fad diet” and they would dismiss it without even reading. It doesn’t fit the paradigm they know. Then there are those like Steve Bannon who do see the changes happening, but respond to them as reactionaries in hoping to repeat the past:

      “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

      Though I might agree that there likely is excitement on its way.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/radical-moderate-enlightenments-revolution-reaction-science-religion/

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/how-do-we-make-the-strange-familiar/

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/12/09/clearing-away-the-rubbish/

  1. The fearful response from the reactionary authoritarians, as they lose control of the narrative, is to attempt social engineering. The stupid masses are making the wrong decisions by turning to low-carb diets and so must be manipulated into making the right decisions or else to have decisions made for them through regulations, taxes, and bans. That is the stated strategy of EAT-Lancet and its big biz partners. But first Orwellian language needs to be used for framing debate and controlling perception.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/dietary-dictocrats-of-eat-lancet/

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/monsanto-is-safe-and-good-says-monsanto/

  2. I know I’ve had to keep blood glucose down for my job (plus, it gets worse if you don’t control it anyway), so have to watch carbs, and so glad at allt he alternatives, such as stevia or monk fruit (tastes much better than the older more common sweeteners), another group of sweeteners called “sugar alcohols”, which have zero or very low actual sugars, recently discovered riced cauliflower as a replacement for rice, and there are also low carb baked products, most using almond flour and fibers (which then provide a good chunk of the carbs, but are not digestible, and so don’t count). ThinSlim, FatSnax and especially Chatila’s bakery of New Hampshire have a lot of lo carb cookies and cakes and stuff.
    Virgil’s has a line of really good tasting zero sugar sodas (using the above mentioned sweeteners).

    I used to eat a lot of snack cakes and sugary juices, and tried to “moderate”, but can’t do that very well. So this stuff, while not tasting exactly like the regular sweets, still gives the sensation of having that stuff, and satisfies it at least a little bit (especially after months of a near “cold turkey”).

    • I spent many years decreasing sugar and using alternative sweeteners. Stevia was one of my favorites. But I’ve been slowly moving away from even using non-sugar sweeteners, as it still elicits my sugar cravings a bit.

      At times when I was being more strict, I felt better learning to enjoy food and drinks without any sweetness at all. I was a sugar addict for most of my life and so, like an alcoholic, it’s easier to just eliminate it entirely. But I must admit that alternative sweeteners were useful in initially transitioning out of my sugar habit.

      I have used cauliflower as a replacement. It is good riced, but I also like it mashed with herbs and butter. Cauliflower crust pizzas are tasty, better than a wheat crust in my opinion. I don’t use too many processed foods sold as low-carb these days. I mostly eat “whole foods”. That is a carryover from the paleo diet I went on after watching the documentary The Magic Pill.

      I’m more keto now than paleo, but the most important lesson I took from paleo is emphasizing nutrient-dense foods. The only category of food I’ve been on the fence about is dairy, as high-quality dairy is nutrient-dense, but I’m starting to think I feel better without it (I used to have a dairy allergy as a child).

      • Actually, for me, getting used to stevia and the other sweeteners, sometimes when I taste something with regular sugars, it tastes “too sweet”! This happened, with the new Russell Stover or Whitmans sugar free candies, and then when I had a regular one once). So this should help keep me off of a lot of the old sweet stuff.

        We use the cauliflower pizza crust too, and it is better than regular wheat (which I never cared much for), but I’m finding they add other starches, such as rice flour, so there’s still a substantial amount of carbs. Again, the key is almond flour, but I don’t know why they don’t use that for the pizza. One brand of flaxseed crackers also had the high carb flours, but another one I’ve found (Flackers) doesn’t.
        I also moved to bean past, but found many of them too still have a lot of carbs. Black bean pasta is the one with the lowest. (I shoot for single digit net carbs, or at most the teens).

        • I still do include some sweetness in my diet. One thing I’ve come to enjoy are Kevita probiotic drinks. A bit pricey but tasty. They are less sweet than any of the brands of kombucha. A bottle of Kevita has sugar content in the single digits. And one flavor, Watermelon Rose, has zero sugar in it.

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