Metabolic Syndrome and the Diseases of Civilization: Could They Have a Common Cause? And Could That Cause Be the Carbs in Our Diets?

Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of health problems that includes insulin resistance, obesity, and an increased risk for developing diabetes and heart disease. The cause is hotly debated. Many experts believe that diet must be involved somehow.

An apple a day... is it really that good for us? Or could eating carbs actually make us sick?

We will now discuss two competing theories about diet and metabolic syndrome:

Theory #1: The conventional idea is that eating too much and not exercising enough leads to obesity, which in turn leads us to get sick. The root problem is the number of calories in our diets.

Theory #2: The alternative idea is that the carbohydrates in our diet -- in particular, the sugars and easily digestible starches -- cause not only obesity but also metabolic syndrome and hundreds of the other so-called "diseases of civilization," including but not limited to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's.

Below is an (incomplete) list of diseases/conditions that some researchers believe may be caused/exacerbated by eating carbohydrates. Links that are bolded and bigger lead you to pages on this site; other links lead you off-site to other resources. (Please note that the authors of this site do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the arguments made by the writers/websites cited.)

Discussion:

Lipophilia says that what messes up our fat tissue is (most commonly) carbohydrate induced hyperinsulinemia. In other words, eating too many carbohydrates causes the body to over-secrete insulin. The hyperinsulinemia is the root problem. Obesity -- the accumulation of a positive caloric balance -- is just one of many consequences of chronic hyperinsulinemia. Other consequences include diseases like metabolic syndrome, cancer, heart disease, and so on.

No website can summarize all the technical mechanisms by which hyperinsulinemia and other problems associated with eating too many carbs (such as the generation of Advanced Glycation Endproducts - a.k.a. "AGEs") theoretically could drive disease. But over time we will try to cover the basics to build a compelling case that the Lipophilia Hypothesis -- in some form -- must be correct.

The sheer scope of this hypothesis may make it sound ridiculous. But many respected scientists, researchers, and doctors have argued along similar lines. For references, see the links above.

Could carbs really singlehandedly cause metabolic syndrome and so much suffering? It seems too reductive, especially when you first hear the idea. But consider the ubiquity of carbs in our lives. Practically everything we eat contains carbs -- even the meats and proteins we buy often come larded down with sugar and flour or packaged with bread or starch.

If human beings are biologically carnivorous, as some have argued, then we're supposed to eat mostly fats and proteins. Instead, we consume massive amounts of carbohydrates; thus, we might expect profound negative effects to emerge. So the scope, at least, seems to match.

Also, many of these diseases don't normally occur in indigenous populations that consume low carbohydrate diets. Diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's are nearly absent in some of these populations, in fact. That should tell us something.

Even more convincingly, scientists have postulated precise and testable biochemical mechanisms by which hyperinsulinemia could drive obesity and disease. We've already discussed obesity. (i.e. the secretion of too much insulin drives sugar into our fat tissue, where it's oxidized, creating alpha glycerol phosphate, which interferes with the triglyceride / fatty acid cycle, causing us to accumulate too many triglycerides in our fat tissue; and thus obesity results.) Other mechanisms can similarly be tested experimentally and either confirmed or disconfirmed.

Lastly, for some perspective, consider the old legend of the "Blind Men and the Elephant." As the tale goes, a group of blind men approached an elephant and attempted to identify what the creature was. One man grabbed the elephant's tusk and mistook the beast for a projectile weapon. Another grabbed its wiry tale and concluded he was holding a broom. Still another grabbed the trunk and posited that he had come across a giant water hose. The moral is that the blind men "lost the elephant for its tusk." Or -- to use a more common metaphor -- lost the forest for the trees. Lipophilia proposes that obesity and health researchers have similarly fallen victim to narrow focus. They're all so specialized. And in a way, who could blame them? After all, it's hard enough just to keep tabs on what's going on in a single sub-sub-specialty. Unfortunately, their collective neglect to synthesize research/ideas and to reach across disciplines has apparently blinded them to the existence of important unifying theories -- such as Lipophilia -- and we've all suffered greatly as a result.

In any event, if rigorous scientific scrutiny bears out the carbohydrate/hyperinsulinemia theory of metabolic syndrome, the implications would be revolutionary. So dive in. What do you think? Does the evidence validate or disconfirm the theory?