Here’s some news that might be of interest to anyone who’s ever struggled to get fit—and been met with a sigh and a haughty, “Just eat less and exercise more.” Your intuition—not to mention your experience—might have suggested that things weren’t really so simple—and new research backs that up. Turns out, the science behind the slogan is much more complex than it seems. “If you just try to eat less and exercise more, most people will lose that battle—metabolism wins,” David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, tells Time.
Ludwig describes the number of people who can successfully lose weight following that advice as “exceedingly small.” Why? Ludwig and his team say it underestimates the role of how certain foods can affect weight gain—specifically, refined carbohydrates. Eating refined carbs, like certain breads, white rice, pasta, chips, crackers, and so on, raises insulin levels, which in turn can spur cells to store fat, leading to weight gain—to some degree regardless of caloric intake.
For a simple illustration of this seeming paradox, consider the work of diabetes researchers like George Campbell. In the mid-1960s, Campbell studied a community of Indian immigrants in South Africa who performed extensive manual labor and ate only around 1600 calories per day, but were, in his words, “enormously fat.” Campbell came to believe that the culprit was their diet, consisting of around 80 pounds of sugar per year (representing approximately 25% of their caloric intake) and refined carbohydrates. Another long-term research project, The Tokelau Island Migration Study (TIMS), which began in the 1960s, studied the impact of imported foods on a Polynesian community. In 20 years, the islanders transitioned from a diet nearly devoid of refined carbohydrates to one in which they played a central role: “Through the 1960s the only noteworthy problems were skin diseases, asthma and infectious diseases. In the decades that followed, just as diabetologist George Campbell predicted, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, gout and cancer appeared.”
What does this mean for us? Diet and weight loss will likely always be more complicated than “exercise more, eat less”—no matter what a well-meaning relative or personal trainer might suggest. And it’s worth considering the potential outsize, knock-on effects of refined carbohydrates on our bodies. It is perhaps more valuable to think: “Healthy diet, healthy body”—and to carefully consider whether any food that comes out of a box, as so many refined carbs do, qualifies for the former, or will help achieve the latter.
To read more on George Campbell and TIMS:
- “Obesity is a Disease—Are Refined Carbohydrates the Cause?” by Patrick Earvolino
- “Nutrition Transition” from Zeroing in on Health
- “The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: The Final Word” from Whole Health Source
How do you feel about refined carbohydrates? Do they have a place in your diet? Share in the comments below.