“Most people are simply not designed to eat pasta”: Evolutionary explanations for obesity in the low-carbohydrate diet movement

From Public Understanding of Science

The popularity of low-carbohydrate diets in the 1990s and 2000s was prompted, at least in part, by concern about rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and the perceived failure of low-fat/low-calorie dietary advice to address these “epidemics.” This study examines the deployment of two distinct neo-Darwinian explanations of health and body-weight in the low-carbohydrate diet movement. First, evolutionary nutrition, and second, the thrifty gene theory. These evolutionary models maintain that the answer to the question “what should we eat” can only be found by turning to the primitive past.

Clinical trials prompted by the popular low-carb diet trend quickly established that low-carb diets are effective for weight-loss particularly in the short term. In addition, low-carb diets have been shown to improve glucose control in type 2 diabetes. However, scientific evidence for the long-term effects of low-carbohydrate dieting remains scarce, The author concludes that community-based nutrition interven­tions are required to address the social and environmental causes of unhealthy eating habits, beginning in childhood. More fundamentally reducing current trends will require policies to address broader socioeconomic inequality, known to be asso­ciated with overweight, ill-health and disease.


Low-carbohydrate diets, notably the Atkins Diet, were particularly popular in Britain and North America in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On the basis of a discourse analysis of bestselling low-carbohydrate diet books, I examine and critique genetic and evolutionary explanations for obesity and diabetes as they feature in the low-carbohydrate literature. Low-carbohydrate diet books present two distinct neo-Darwinian explanations of health and body-weight. First, evolutionary nutrition is based on the premise that the human body has adapted to function best on the diet eaten in the Paleolithic era. Second, the thrifty gene theory suggests that feast-or-famine conditions during human evolutionary development naturally selected for people who could store excess energy as body fat for later use. However, the historical narratives and scientific arguments presented in the low-carbohydrate literature are beset with generalisations, inconsistencies and errors. These result, I argue, from the use of the primitive as a discursive “blank slate” onto which to project ideals perceived to be lacking in contemporary industrialised life.

Read this research for free

Article detailsKnight, C. (2011). “Most people are simply not designed to eat pasta”: evolutionary explanations for obesity in the low-carbohydrate diet movement Public Understanding of Science, 20 (5), 706-719 DOI: 10.1177/0963662510391733

This entry was posted in Health, SAGE Insight, Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.