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Are Americans really scared of carbs?


When we were in New York, we went to this cafe Rice and Riches that specialises in rice puddings with loads of different flavours and toppings. They have a slightly tongue in cheek anti-diet branding concept that has lots of these cartoons like in the picture. I’m sure some one of them I’ve seen shared on facebook before (I’m thinking of the one of the doctor that goes “doctor says: three square meals a day only ruins your appetite for pudding’) but here they were adapted in a rice pudding specific way. They made me smile, but I also found them a bit confusing.

Because in the scale of these things, rice pudding hardly seems a ‘bad’ food to me! Back in my teenage days when I was interested in weight loss related nonsense I used to actually make rice pudding as a healthy alternative to other sweet stuff. I mean, it’s just milk and rice, and you can put as little sugar in as you like*. I asked my friend that were were staying with what was up and what he said was ‘Americans are scared of carbs’. And I wondered if that was true.

It does seem that almost everything I hear about cutting out starchy foods** comes from the US. I know plenty of people here who are ‘watching what they eat’, in some cases to what seems an excessive extent. I even know a few people who have done atkins style diets. But they’ve always done it for short term weight loss reasons, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Europe who has seriously suggested that never eating any bread or potatoes or rice ever again is in any way sustainable or a good idea.

I was considering writing a lot more about sustainable diets and cutting out whole food groups but I didn’t want this to turn into an argument about whether complete starch avoidance is a good thing or not. Plus I ran out of time as I’m still feeling my way back into writing chunky thinky posts. So I will just leave it with the observation that diet trends do seem to be culturally/nationally determined and the tentative question of if and how that relates to countries’ actual ways of eating, unhealthy weight rates etc.


* admittedly, the rice to riches stuff was more like a mix between ice cream and rice pudding, so it probably very fatty/sugary. But you know what I mean.
** and cutting out things in general, dairy being the most obvious one, but the other day I saw something about cutting out pulses as well which was a new one to me.

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  • Dawn 3 October 2012, 9:26 am

    I’m not American (Irish actually), and in one way, I actually agree with cutting out some starchy wheat carbs from everyone’s diets- the white bread and so on, but replacing them with brown carbs, oats and rye. Most people would probably benefit greatly from that, but of course, I still keep white flour for occasional treats. However I don’t think there are any major gains of cutting out all carbs for me which would outweigh the side effects- loss of easy energy source, missing bread and so on.

    The other thing for me is that low-carb diets are not sustainable at all. They’re expensive, time-consuming and it can be difficult to get low-carb dishes in a restaurant. Furthermore, they’re a recipe for putting weight back on the moment you stop dieting as you have learned nothing about a healthy diet, just how to restrict on carbohydrates. Currently, the low-carb diets are part of a trend of paleo diets, cross-fit, strength-building workouts and fitspo. 5 years ago, when running was a big thing, carb-loading was part of regular dietary advice. I wish health wouldn’t come down to trends and what is the most popular thing that year.

    I read an interesting report from the Irish Safefood Authority who were revising their food pyramid, and obviously the food pyramid has been criticised for prioritising carbohydrates as needing 4-6 servings a day, depending on age, sex and activity level. In the report, they were very eager to emphasise that it’s not actually the carbohydrates which are the issue, it’s that people don’t measure out their servings for carbohydrates. So to the ISA, for example, a bagel is two servings of carbohydrates, whereas people in their study were interpreting a bagel as one serving of carbs.

    Sorry, rambling comment but to pull everything together, obviously everyone needs to eat for their lifestyle and nutritional needs, but it’s very easy to forget about appropriate portion sizes and simple overeating may be more to blame for obesity than carbs.
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    • Franca 3 October 2012, 12:46 pm

      I completely agree with everything you said! I went on a two week only fruit and veg thing once when I was a student, and after a week I was daydreaming about toast constantly! I will never ever attempt anything like that. I’m veggie as well, so high protein diets just have that extra level of restricted, though even with plenty of meat I can’t see how they’re sustainable (and meat is so expensive!).

      To the extent that I watch my diet, it comes down to two things for me: making sure I get plenty of fruit and veg (5 a day is a minimum for me, not a target) and stopping eating when I’m full. The fullness thing has taken me a while to figure out, but once you start really listening to your body it works! (i’ve written about it a bit here: http://www.oranges-and-apples.com/2011/03/ffb-re-learning-to-eat.html)

      Together they are a very shorthand/easy way of making sure you get a balanced food distribution without having to ‘ban’ anything, count calories or points or whatever or really thinking about it too much. So things like cake are ‘bad’ only to the extent that they use up stomach space that could be used for veg and protein that gives you the nutrients you need. Not evil in themselves.
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  • Bettina @ Liburuak 3 October 2012, 9:59 am

    I can confirm the Fear Of Carbs from some American friends, though it doesn’t seem to be a pan-US fear ;-).
    Also, it strikes me that health and food scares usually seem to be nationally determined. The Fear Of Raw Chicken, for instance, seems to be a British phenomenon (yes, raw chicken has to be treated with caution, but if you’re around Brits – no offense – it suddenly becomes a lethal poison), while Germans suffer from the Fear Of Re-Heated Spinach. I think I read something about this in a very recommendable book called Bad Science by Ben Goldacre where, if I remember correctly, a lot of this stems from sketchy media coverage of health and nutrition related issues.
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    • Franca 3 October 2012, 6:27 pm

      I wasn’t thinking everyone in America, of course! Just that the no carbs thing as a long term life choice doesn’t seem t exist AT ALL here, and it does among some people in the US. Definitely true about health scares! I’ve not heard of either raw chicken (maybe cos I don’t eat meat) or re-heated spinach, but when I was in Belgium and people had all these complicated rules about what you shouldn’t eat when pregnant. Which basically involved all raw food, unless you had washed it yourself. My colleague who was also pregnant was told by one person that she should cut the skin off the side of tomatoes! And in Finland apparently they have a thing that you shouldn’t eat any berries unless they’re grown in Finland!

      • aisling 4 October 2012, 3:52 pm

        About berries in Finland, berries from other Scandinavian countries are also sen as OK. The suspicion against frozen berries from especially a few former east block countries comes from a nasty bout of some kind of tummy flu due to bacteria on berries washed/watered with crappy water. The berries, I think it’s mostly raspberries, need to be heated before being eaten to be safe.

        What’s safe to eat and what not is a whole science, I’ve seen and read for example the Swedish recommendations and boy, that list is long 🙂

  • Alice 3 October 2012, 11:55 am

    I think we all have our weird cultural things, Americans do seem to avoid carbs, while the trend among my friends at the moment seems to be cutting dairy from your diet. I can’t say it is something I understand though, I’m way to crazy about good food to try and cut anything from my diet, unless I am genuinely allergic to it. I’ve got to admit I don’t eat a lot of bread, I tend to got for wraps and pitta instead but I think that is more to do with personal taste than worrying about getting bloated or anything. I think in America the culture of fat shaming has evolved though, to the point where even small indulgences by healthy people is seen as negative, not that there isn’t a lot of fat shaming going on here as well, but luckily no one in Scotmid judges me when I buy a massive bar of Galaxy late at night xo
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    • Franca 3 October 2012, 6:37 pm

      Hehe, no, scotmid is not a judgemental place! I do find people claiming they’re allergic to things as an ‘excuse’ to not eat things pretty annoying. (Same for people that go into a massive thing about how they had a big lunch or whatever. I don’t need a reason. Going into over elaborate explanations just makes people seem like they have a borderline eating disorder) . For a while it seemed everyone was claiming to be allergic to gluten, but that seems to have gone out of fashion now. It makes a mockery of people who are actually allergic to things.

  • Susan K 3 October 2012, 1:10 pm

    I think there is a small, subculture (as Dawn mentioned) that are scared of carbs. There are also minor groups of people who eschew other foods for non-allergy related reasons (dairy, gluten, soy). There then are individuals out there who are weight conscious (regardless of their current weight) who might “watch their carbs.” A have a few female acquaintances who have commented on my carb loving diet. At the encouraging of someone I met through blogging (who became a Facebook friend), I cut out all dairy and grain for 30 days and relied mostly on sweet potatoes, green veggies, nuts, eggs, and some “low sugar” fruits. It was horrible, messed up my digestion, and seriously disrupted my menstrual cycle. I went back to my brown rice and lentils, and I’ve been doing much better.
    As someone who is interested in mitigating climate change and promoting sustainability, I am very suspicious of those who claim that the caveman style diets are 1) for everyone 2) necessary for health or fitness. I was happy to learn about the very impressive vegan bodybuilder that exploded on the internet last spring. Hopefully, this high meat/low carb zeitgeist will die down soon.

    • Franca 3 October 2012, 6:47 pm

      Yum, brown rice and lentils! in my opinion dal is the food of gods. Also good point about the meat eating! will look up the vegan body builder now!

  • thorne garnet 3 October 2012, 1:13 pm

    We Americans are crazy when it comes to food. Case in point: The sugar busters diet. A friend of mine was on that one a few years ago. We went to a picnic. and I was putting watermelon on my plate. She asked me if I was going to have a piece of chocolate cake, when I said “Yes”, she told me I shouldn’t have both because ……..wait for it……watermelon has a lot of sugar in it! BTW. she has a PhD! The sugar busters diet was designed to help people with diabetes, which in a major problem in the USA, the problem with my friend’s interpretation is fruit is always the better choice and chocolate cake (yummy) is not. What’s that new buzz line: First world problem? Enjoy food, people

    • Franca 3 October 2012, 8:19 pm

      I think the fruit thing the most confusing thing about the low carb diets. I mean, I get that fruit have sugar in them, but they are still mainly water and fibre also have lots of vitamins. I just cant see why you’d vilify them!

  • Cynthia 3 October 2012, 1:25 pm

    I don’t think Americans, in general, are scared of carbs. We mostly eat them in copious quantities, unthinkingly. When we go out for meals we are presented with a huge basket of bread before we even get our orders, we get servings of pasta and rice that are three times the recommended daily intake in one meal, etc. I think people are starting to be more aware of that. When I’ve eaten in Europe, your restaurants simply do not pile on the carb-dense side foods in the same way, and so it’s not something that you have had to be aware of and compensate for.

    However, there is also a subset of Americans who really love to tinker with their own health (we take tons of supplements for example) and right now there’s a fair bit of interest in what’s called a Paleo diet — it’s not really low-carb like Atkins, but you cut out a lot of very dense processed carb sources — grains, added sugar, legumes, dairy. People (like me) often have unexpected health improvements on this diet. When I cut out grains, dairy, legumes, etc. at the beginning of the summer, I didn’t expect that I’d start being able to breathe through my nose consistently, be able to go off steroids for asthma almost completely, have the constant bubbly feeling in my ears clear out, largely stop having headaches, etc. There is some fairly convincing science that indicates that specific proteins found in wheat and other grains, as well as regulatory microRNAs, do not degrade in the human gut as we previously thought. A microRNA found in oats and rice can actually mis-regulate our biochemical pathways that get rid of LDL cholesterol properly; wheat (and other) proteins can irritate the gut lining and contribute to allergies and autoimmune problems. So Paleo has been getting a lot of press in the last few months and I think a lot of people are trying it.

    • Franca 4 October 2012, 8:43 pm

      It’s true that American portions are huge! But at least it’s socially acceptable to take leftovers away with you, so it’s fine to just eat half the plate. There’s no doubt that US food is heavy on processed stuff and lots of artificialness (those lurid breakfast cereals are scary!), which obviously isn’t great, I just find it strange that coexists with (relatively) widespread use of really hardcore restrictive health rules. I don’t really want to comment on the science behind particular diets, because I’m not at all qualified, and it’s great if they work for some people, but I guess I believe that being generally healthy is pretty easy, but when people start thinking that the only way to health is through strict adherence to complex and uber-resrictive diets (which is the message sent by many Paleo converts), they might not even try at all.

  • Era 3 October 2012, 4:31 pm

    Great post. I love love love rice pudding. In spanish we call it arroz con leche . One of my favorites meals. And no unhealthy at all.

    • Franca 4 October 2012, 8:44 pm

      I love it too!and its savoury cousin risotto!

  • Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys 3 October 2012, 6:21 pm

    Probably there’s more a culture of extreme diets in North America because the obesity problem is also more extreme than in most European countries (although it’s a significant problem in the UK, I guess, so I’m not sure what that says). In Spain, anyway, people seem quicker to villify the excesses of American culture as causing weight gain in society, although I think it probably has more to do with sedentary lifestyles. In any case, it’s hard to make a no-carb argument when most of the population is still a healthy size while eating patatas bravas cooked in olive oil every chance they get…

    I could personally never in a million years give up bread!
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    • Franca 4 October 2012, 8:51 pm

      I always think of the UK as being a halfway between the US and the rest of Europe in so many ways, including unhealthy weight rates and willingness to go for extreme diets. Though Scotland has higher obesity rates than England, so I don’t know what that says.

  • joann, sidewalk chic 5 October 2012, 3:09 am

    I live in the American South, where urban sprawl, lack of education, food options and exercise are contributing factors to obesity and poor health, especially in more rural areas. It’s a big problem in the Southern states. I don’t want to over-generalize and say that all people from the South aren’t interested in dieting or healthy programs, but I do think that I’ve seen more health-conscious behavior in larger cities in different regions (for example, NYC’s large soda ban and calories being listed on restaurant menus). Obsessive dieting is not the best answer, but I guess it’s understandable with the obesity issue.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had rice pudding but it sounds awesome!
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  • Nichole 7 October 2012, 7:55 pm

    I am horribly horrid at sticking to anything. I canceled my membership with the gym after a few months, I’ve never gone gluten free for more than a day, and I f*cking love trashy romance novels. Like you, I’ve written about the restrictions as well (http://liverhythm.blogspot.com/2012/01/reward-and-punishment.html).

    So, my new thinking is just to do what will feel good in the moment. I know from experience yoga first thing in the morning makes me feel all powerful, so I do it! Eating is the same thing. I’m really sensitive, so bad food makes me feel awful. So if I choose to eat it, I eat it seldomly and in moderation. Life is too short to cut yourself off from pleasure, but there is a balance to everything. So I say rice pudding to all!!
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  • Shelly D 10 October 2012, 8:11 pm

    While I generally agree about balance in all things, including what one eats, a while back I read a book called Protein Power by Drs Michael & Mary Dan Eades and it explained to me, in a way that made sense, the chemical/biological consequences of eating carbs, such as insulin resistance. I suggested my mom, who is pre-diabetic, try the diet and she has lost weight and the diabetes is no longer an issue. I’ve mostly cut out the white stuff (bread, rice) and limited the brown stuff (other grains) and fruites, and try to eat quality proteins and increase the veggies. (Cutting out or limiting sugar is still a struggle.) My general observation, as an American, is that we want the quick and painless path to a great body (and not necessarily a healthy body.) And we are suceptible to the newest quick miracle method instead of developing a way of eating for long term based on science/facts. (Also, check out Mark’s Daily Apple for the “paleo” perspective.)