The Revenge of Bud the Spud

by Karen Virag

Everyone should eat good carbs — whole wheat and spuds and rice And on a dark and wintry night, a bowl of oatmeal’s nice Carbohydrates give us energy and also make things sweet And foods like pasta, fruit and beans are oh so nice to eat All this crazy low-carb carping on my nerves it really grates I’d rather give up dreams of gold than give up carbohydrates.

Pity the poor P.E.I. potato farmer back around 2004. Despite Stompin’ Tom’s rollicking musical paean to the potato, Bud the Spud, the low-carb, no-potato Atkins diet (and others, such as the Zone and the South Beach Diet) was wreaking havoc on the potato industry. In 2004, at the height of the no-carb craze, the number of truckloads of PEI potatoes bound for markets plunged by more than 1,400 compared to the same period the previous year. At the same time, the no-carb movement promised people that they could reduce their bulging waistlines by eating fat and meat. Bacon and brie, cream and cashews were now allowed. What was not allowed was carbohydrates — no potatoes on which to slather butter, no fettuccini for Alfredo sauce, and not even any wine to wash away your blues.

So what are carbohydrates and why do so many people talk bad about them? A carbohydrate is a natural organic substance (a sugar or a starch) that is our major source of metabolic energy. Almost all societies have a carbohydrate staple, be it grain (for example, wheat and rye), rice, potatoes, maize, millet, cassava or sorghum (an important cereal grain in Africa). And because of their predominance in almost every diet since recorded time, many carbohydrates have considerable social and religious significance. For example, rice, the main dietary staple for more than half the world’s population, is so central to life that in many Asian countries the words for “rice” and “food” are the same. The custom of throwing rice at newlywed couples points to rice as an important symbol of fertility (although in some societies thrown rice was meant to feed evil spirits, based on the premise that a well-fed evil spirit will not cause trouble in a marriage).

Wheat, too, has been associated with fertility — brides in ancient Rome carried wheat sheaves and wore wheat in their hair. And in Christian countries, a wheat product, bread, is a potent religious symbol: the Lord’s Prayer asks God to give us our daily bread, and bread symbolizes Jesus’ body in the communion rite. And as any cool cat of a certain generation would know, “bread” and “dough” are metaphors for something we can’t live without: money.

Carbohydrates constitute the major source of dietary energy for the majority of the world’s people. In poor countries, they provide up to 80 per cent of energy intake; in North America, about 50 per cent. At the same time, people in poor countries get about 10 per cent of their calories from fat; North Americans get a whopping — and alarming — 40 per cent. Is it just me, or is there something ironic about the rich West eschewing the carbohydrate-rich diet of poor countries, where obesity is generally not a problem, while promoting the consumption of fat, which constitutes too high a proportion of the diet in North America, where obesity is a problem? And one cannot help but be struck by the class implications of low-carb diets — a rich in meat and dairy diet would be completely unaffordable in much of the world.

So why do so many in our society spurn the staple foods that have sustained us, bodily and culturally, for thousands of years? The increase in obesity, our desire for quick solutions, our tendency to overreact and to adopt fads, and our legitimate desire to be healthy all figure into our eating patterns. Unfortunately, common sense sometimes does not. A better approach to healthy eating is to focus on the quality of carbohydrates rather than on banning them. Complex, or good, carbs are contained in vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes, and are much healthier than simple, or bad, carbs — white flour, sugar, cakes, candy and pop, all of which have a high glycemic index (GI), which is a measure of how quickly carbohydrates enter the bloodstream as sugar. The faster the digestive system breaks down carbs, the more quickly the blood sugar increases and the higher the GI. Generally, simple carbohydrates break down almost immediately, while complex ones take time. However, there are anomalies; for example, some vegetables, such as carrots, have rather high GIs, but contain little carbohydrate.

It is true that many dieters following an Atkins regime lose weight, though eventually most gain it all back (the studies are astoundingly similar: 95 per cent of people who diet regain lost weight, and often more besides). A study from Vanderbilt University explains the problem with lowcarb diets: “Although the dieter will probably lose some weight, the changes are entirely due to changes in water balance. … these diets would not be suitable for long-term weight loss because once the dieter resumes their normal eating habits the weight will return very quickly.”

So, what can I say but carbohydrates, shmarbohydrates. In the end, it comes down to the two Qs: quality and quantity. With respect to the former, weight loss is a numbers game — eat fewer calories than you burn and you will lose weight. As for the latter, a diet high in highly processed white foods, like sliced white bread and sugary breakfast cereals, which are woefully lacking in vitamins, minerals and fibre, provides instant energy, but little else. Dieticians encourage a balanced and varied diet that includes lots of whole unprocessed foods, including carbs. This is good news to Mary Sonier, of the PEI Potato Board, who told me that although the low-carb craze “is not so big now, it is still there.” As a consequence the board vigilantly promotes the potato’s nutritional heft. Sure, if you dress him up with butter, bacon and sour cream, you have a problem, but an unadorned medium spud contains about the same calories as an apple, 45 per cent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and more potassium than a banana.

Michael Pollan’s famous manifesto from In Defense of Food, comes to mind here: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I would add: “Eat whole foods. Avoid unpronounceable additives. And forget fad diets.”

Karen Virag is an Edmonton writer and editor who tries never to be starchy.