March 15, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Gary Taubes

I would very much appreciate any thoughts you have regarding Gary Taubes.

-- Karen Carabio

Reno, NV

This question arrived in my inbox on March 3, the same day I heard that Mr. Taubes was due to speak at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health on March 13.

I wanted to attend that event before answering Karen's question, so as to truly familiarize myself with his theories and viewpoints.

If you are not familiar with Gary Taubes, he is a journalist and physicist who has contributed articles to Science magazine since the 80s.

He became a semi household name in August of 2002 when his article "What If It's All Been A Big Fat Lie?" made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

Its main point? Carbohydrates -- and only carboydrates -- are to blame for rising obesity rates in the United States.

Cut out carbs from your diet, Taubes claimed, and you won't gain weight. And when he says "carbohydrates", he's even referring to whole grains.

His article paved the way for the 2002 rebirth of the Atkins diet.

And what a rebirth it was! Six hundred low-carb products were launched in 2003.

Even common products like oils, cheese, and diet sodas included large "Low Carb!" stickers on their packaging, capitalizing on consumers' growing interest in shunning carbohydrate-rich foods.

By 2005, however, the hype died down, the Atkins company filed for bankruptcy, and "low carb" was out (thank goodness!).

That certainly didn't change Taubes' mind, though.

Last year, he pubished Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.

Its main point? Dietitians are blaming the wrong guy for this country's increasing weight problems.

Obesity, Taubes claims, is not caused by overeating. Not only that -- calories have nothing to do with weight gain or loss!

So what is the cause? Taubes attributes it to insulin.

The more insulin you produce, he believes, the more weight you gain.

Therefore, it follows that carbohydrates (which raise blood glucose levels more than fat or protein, thereby signaling the body to release more insulin) cause weight gain.

At his March 13 NYU talk, Taubes presented a few more points.

He first referred to animal studies demonstrating that when animals overfeed themselves, their metabolism revs up and burns more energy than usual; when they underfeed, their metabolism slows down.

Taubes went on to explain that the same concept can be attributed to humans.

If we overeat, he explained, our bodies are smart enough to know to burn more calories. If we undereat, our metabolism slows down.

In Taubes' view, calories in and of themselves are irrelevant because our bodies can handle what comes their way.

Fair enough -- one of the main flaws behind very low calorie diets is that they end up slowing metabolism down, thereby making it easier to gain weight when regular eating patterns are resumed.

And while it is true that our metabolisms can compensate if we overeat by 50 or so calories, don't count on it to balance things out if you overeat by 300, 500, 1,000 or 1,200 calories.

Taubes claims that all overweight people are in such a state simply because of high carbohydrate consumption.

Okay, but can he point to examples of people overeating calories and NOT gaining weight?

Taubes believes that "portion control" only works because people are eating less carbohydrates.

Yes, but they are also eating less fat and protein, thereby discrediting his entire argument.

After the talk, a member of the audience asked Taubes how he explains many Asian cultures subsisting on "bad carbs" like white rice and having lower obesity rates than the United States.

His response? "Well, they've been eating rice for thousands of years, so their bodies are just used to it." Huh?

At one point in his talk, Taubes claimed that sugar and refined carbohydrates are only approximately a hundred years old or so in much of Europe and North America.

I would love to know where he got that information from, since the most basic of research on sugar points to its existence in Persia around 650 AD, and its delivery by European Crusaders to their continent in 1100 AD.

Sugar is not new. It has been consumed by civilizations around the world for centuries. Following his logic then, why aren't most humans "immune" to calories from sugar?

Overweight and obesity are clearly linked to a higher consumption of calories.

If you are skeptical, do me a favor and eat 1,000 more calories than usual (solely from pure fat or protein sources; absolutely no carbs) every day for a month.

Then, get on a scale.

Or, try the reverse and subsist on 400 calories of pure carbohydrates every single day for a month. According to Taubes, you would still gain weight.

Taubes was also asked by an audience member if he thinks it is possible for humans to live healthfully without consuming a single gram of carbohydrates.

His answer? A resounding "yes."

At one point in his presentation, he even referred to fiber as "insignificant." I thought my eyebrows were going to reach the ceiling.

I seriously wonder how he came to this conclusion; a thorough review of the evidence-based research on fiber consumption and its role in decreading cancer risks (particularly colon and prostate ones) clearly demonstrates the important role it plays in overall health.

Once again, this theory can easily be disputed by trying it out yourself.

If you think fiber is irrelevant to your health, go two weeks on a fiber-free diet -- no laxatives allowed! I'm pretty sure you'll soon realize just how crucial fiber is.

By the way, Taubes' infamous 2002 article quickly received a response from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Washington Post health reporter Sally Squires (I am unable to find her excellent article online -- can anyone help?).

Michael Fumento of Reason magazine also added his two cents at the time.

Gary Taubes fired back a response, which in turn was replied to by Fumento.

I have provided links to all these articles to enable you to read and form your own conclusions.

I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on this.

14 comments:

Tom Blogical said...

Fantastic post. I'm having a friendly argument with one of my blog friends at the moment about Taubes' book and his nutty ideas. I've bookmarked your atom feed in Mozilla, great blog. I'll see what I can find out about the Sally Squires article you referenced.

A little background about myself so you know where I'm coming from-I'll keep it short. I was an IT professional for 20 years. During that time as you can imagine from working at a desk all day, I lost my athletic frame and ballooned to 202 pounds at 6'-1". I looked like a 2nd trimester pregnant woman. Since 2005, I've been using a boxer's workout (Ross Enamait's Never Gymless book at www.rosstraining.com) and following the USDA MyPyramid Plan. I've found the www.mypyramid.gov site very useful. I'm now at a lean and muscular 185 pounds. If Taubes was right, I should've failed, and should still look like a 2nd trimester pregnant woman.

I've also quit the IT industry and I'm going back to school for associates degrees in Sports Management and Exercise Science.

The Nutrition class I'm taking now is reaffirming everything I believed about nutrition. Physical Activity and eating as recommended from the MyPyramid Plan works. Text is Nutrition Concepts and Controversies, 11th Edition by Frances Sizer and Ellie Whitney. Super textbook, and not dull.

I'll be using this post to support my argument. Thanks again.

Tom Blogical said...

Here is the link to the Sally Squires article you referenced in your post. Unfortunately, it's only a partial preview; it was archived by WaPo; so any old links to the full article by blog entries or other websites will not work anymore.

You can purchase the document for $3.95 and ask for permission to reprint it. It's only available for 30 days after your payment. They may give you a login ID and password in order to access the article after payment--you may be able to allow others to read it by providing that sign-on info (if that's the procedure anyway) and link. Not that I'd recommend that, or anything. ;-)

David Brown said...

One thing you don't want to do is generalize from personal experience. The low carb movement did not evaporate as suggested above. Just Google "low-carb" and visit some blogs and forums. You'll find that there is a vigorous discussion taking place among numerous participants.

The basic rationale for the low-fat, high-exercise approach is weight loss and protection from heart disease. Unfortunately, while many seem to thrive on the low-fat diet that Tom Blogical is so enthusiastic about, a significant portion of the population cannot tolerate high carbohydrate intake no matter how much exercise they get. These are the ones that Gary Taubes' book was wrote his book for. So, to suggest that Taubes recommends the same low-carb approach for everyone seriously misrepresents his message.

Tom Blogical said...

David:

"Unfortunately, while many seem to thrive on the low-fat diet that Tom Blogical is so enthusiastic about, a significant portion of the population cannot tolerate high carbohydrate intake no matter how much exercise they get."

First, I'm not, and never have been, on a "low-fat" diet. I consume 20%-35% of total calories in fat--mostly in the form of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This is the recommendation from the MyPyramid Plan. Second, the population you reference are already overweight or obese, so they are already behind the 8-ball, especially if they don't use an exercise program to accompany the MyPyramid Plan. Exercise is something Taubes attempts to refute as ineffective. Third, once again, the overwhelming factor in weight gain is calories consumed and calories burned. It doesn't matter what the content of the diet is. I lost fat mass and gained muscle mass by controlling calorie intake and busting my a** in the gym.

For the population you mention, these folks typically don't have the patience to stick with an exercise program, and/or don't use periodization once their body adapts to the exercise, and usually want a diet that works fast without having to work hard for weight loss. Hence, Taubes' ideas are very attractive to them.

Finally, the idea that Taubes' message is for a select few is complete fantasy. He's openly attacking Nutrition Science and Exercise Science. There's no way to characterize it otherwise.

David Brown said...

Tom:

I see now it was a mistake to use the term low-fat. Restricted-fat is more in keeping with the 20% to 35% fat calories range recommended by the MyPyramid Plan. Thanks for pointing that out.

It's crucial to our understanding of the obesity problem to appreciate the biochemical and physiological variables of human metabolisms that determine the appropriateness and effectiveness of the various weight control approaches. I suggest you read "Biochemical Individuality" and "Nutrition Against Disease" by Roger J. Williams, PhD.

You might also want to read "The Modern Nutritional Diseases" by retired public health scientists Fred and Alice Ottoboni. I included A few paragraphs from the Introduction to their book below. The remainder can be accessed at: http://nutritionscienceanalyst.blogspot.com/

INTRODUCTION
We decided to examine the heart-healthy diet and why it had become the national panacea for cardiovascular diseases. We also decided to investigate the overall relationship between diet and the chronic diseases that were thought to occur only in older people but were now beginning to afflict young adults and even children. Why had the dietary changes that had been imposed on the public many years before not been effective? Why were the numbers of new cases of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and perhaps even some forms of cancer increasing instead of decreasing?

With these thoughts in mind we began our long search of the literature, both scientific and popular. In general we learned that lifestyle and nutrition, not genetics and not luck, were the most powerful factors affecting health and well being. Further, it became apparent that unhealthful lifestyles and faulty nutrition were affecting the health not only of older adults but also of people in all age groups. We learned that popular notions concerning the adverse effects of dietary fats and cholesterol, which were the foundation of the heart-healthy diet, were not based on scientific facts. What we read in the popular press was not what we read in the scientific literature.

Tom Blogical said...

David:

First, thanks for the links, I'll read them in their entirety when I have an opportunity.

I can appreciate your concern for understanding physiological mechanisms. Thankfully, I have taken classes in Anatomy, Physiology and Nutrition for my studies in Exercise Science and Sports Management, and so I do not take what I read in the arena of popular press as seriously as you would seem to be assuming.

"We learned that popular notions concerning the adverse effects of dietary fats and cholesterol, which were the foundation of the heart-healthy diet, were not based on scientific facts. What we read in the popular press was not what we read in the scientific literature."

There are volumes of scientific research showing links between high saturated fat intakes and Cardiovascular Disease. Apparently, you missed all that information somehow. Since this information is readily available in spades, I won't worry about providing links.

It's very evident to me that national obesity rates in the last 20 years coincide with the technology boom, and as a result, people have become increasingly lazy; which includes a preference for activity and food conveniences that are detrimental to their health. Just think about what was required of people to live in the early part of the 20th century in comparison to today's society. Much more required activity and food preparation with whole foods.

Therefore, this question in the introduction was easy for me to answer, "Why had the dietary changes that had been imposed on the public many years before not been effective?" Because people chose not to follow the dietary and exercise choices given to them, and chose (and continue to do so) a life of convenience and sedentary lifestyles, in spite of the obvious repercussions of that behavior. Obviously genetics and other factors play a part, but the main issue is choosing an unhealthy lifestyle.

Thanks for the discussion, but I think we'll have to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

What's funny about this whole discussion is how nutrition experts are closer to Gary's ideas than they want to admit. When people talk about Americans eating more processed foods, no one seems to want to make the connection that these processed foods are entirely high-carb. (go to a vending machine or fast food restaurant and find more than 1 item that is low-carb) So by saying Americans should eat fewer processed foods is to argue for a lower-carb diet.

Having read Gary's book I think some of his key points are under-represented. One of the main things that I took away from his book is the numerous studies that show insulin and hunger are directly related. The more insulin in the blood, the more hunger you tend to feel. Since simple carbohydrates cause a spike in insulin, eating these carbohydrates actually creates hunger and cravings.

I know anecdotal evidence doesn't go far in science discussions, but based upon reading this book I chose to stop eating simple carbohydrates (anything with white flour and white sugar). I replaced this with copious amounts of green vegetables, eggs, cheese, and meat. I quickly dropped 20 pounds without exercising or EVER feeling hunger or thinking about portion control.

Compare this to my half-dozen attempts at calorie-restricted dieting that got me nowhere. Or when I was running 5 miles a day. I was always hungry and would always eventually give up.

Another main point to his book is that animal fat and saturated fat do not lead to heart disease. Instead, it is the over-consumption of simple carbohydrates.

Tom, your comments about laziness show that you have a judgmental streak. It's interesting because you want to get into the field of nutrition and yet seem to despise the very people that need nutrition advice. I suggest you read Gary's book, at least to get a different viewpoint on the laziness issue. Gary contends that laziness is a result of excess insulin - essentially a hormone imbalance as opposed to a personality defect. Remove the insulin imbalance by consuming fewer carbs, and energy levels naturally increase. I know this to be true in my case.

Finally Tom, I suggest you read Gary's book carefully and objectively. There is much to a disagree with I'm sure, but a lot (not all) of his arguments that go against mainstream nutrition "knowledge" are backed up by scientific studies of the highest quality.

Tom Blogical said...

Tom, your comments about laziness show that you have a judgmental streak.

First, I think you exaggerate my use of the word "lazy" in the context I used it in. I was describing people's behaviors and their choices, not the people themselves. They could be very hard working people in their professions, but if someone chooses physical inactivity over physical activity to improve their health, they're still physically lazy. I'll use that word wherever it fits, and I won't apologize for it. Keep in mind, I used to be a member of that population. Further, I don't allow words so much power over me that they hurt my feelings. I'm not sensitive, and I'm not a PC Police-following kinda guy. Finally, the last time I checked, this is a blog, not a business owner-client relationship. If you don't like my choice of the word "lazy", well...I guess that's just too bad.

"It's interesting because you want to get into the field of nutrition and yet seem to despise the very people that need nutrition advice."

Bzzzzt. Wrong answer. Twice. I'm pursuing degrees in Sports Management and Exercise Science, not Nutrition. The only nutritional advice I'll be giving to my clients will be to hire a Registered Dietitian, to follow the MyPyramid Plan, to eat a wide variety of whole foods, to drink plenty of water, and to listen to their dietitian. Any more than that would be irresponsible. And no, I don't despise people, for crying out loud. How can you possibly pretend to know what kind of person I am by using one word from one comment? Sounds very judgmental to me. Pot, meet Kettle.

"Gary contends that laziness is a result of excess insulin - essentially a hormone imbalance as opposed to a personality defect. Remove the insulin imbalance by consuming fewer carbs, and energy levels naturally increase."

I wholeheartedly and completely disagree with this contention from a physiological standpoint.

I know this to be true in my case.

Since you're using anecdotal evidence, so will I. I didn't and still don't find it to be true in my case. I lost 30 pounds using the MyPyramid Plan and I had, and still have, more energy when I switched to the plan and coupled it with a solid exercise routine. And we know what they say about using anecdotal evidence, don't we?

"Finally Tom, I suggest you read Gary's book carefully and objectively. There is much to a disagree with I'm sure, but a lot (not all) of his arguments that go against mainstream nutrition "knowledge" are backed up by scientific studies of the highest quality."

I may, I may not. I'm certainly not going to pay for the book. I got everything I needed to know about Gary Taubes' theories by reading, "What if it Was All a Big Fat Lie?", the subsequent rebuttals presented in Andy's post, and from Andy's synopsis of Taubes' talk at New York University. I sincerely doubt there will be anything mind blowing in the book that would change my view on the subject.

If I ever do get an opportunity to read the book, it will be for the purpose of reading what angle on the story he's interested in now so I can be prepared to educate myself on the other side, and to fill in the missing information he conveniently leaves out of the book. He's got a track record of misrepresenting interviews and findings, and ignoring important facts to push his agenda.

Sounds like we'll have to agree to disagree as well. Happy St. Patrick's Day. Sincerely. :-)

David Brown said...

Hi again Tom,

You said, "There are volumes of scientific research showing links between high saturated fat intakes and Cardiovascular Disease."

Actually that older research you speak of only demonstrates that some forms of saturated fat, such as myristic acid, raise LDL cholesterol. http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/80/3/550
What most don't realize is that the form of LDL cholesterol involved here is the light, fluffy kind not associated with clogged arteries.

On the other hand, sugar also raises LDL cholesterol and triglycerides to boot. When sugar is substituted for saturated fat on an isocaloric basis, LDL cholesterol remains steady. However, the form of LDL changes from the light fluffy form to the small dense form that IS associated with clogged arteries.

What's strange about this whole business is that the belief that saturated fat causes clogged arteries is based on assumptions about the findings of outdated science. And although today's instrumentation has shown the conclusion to be false, it lives on and does considerable mischief.

Below is part of the concluding paragraph from the AJCN article referenced above.

At this time, research on how specific saturated fatty acids contribute to CAD and on the role each specific saturated fatty acid plays in other health outcomes is not sufficient to make global recommendations for all persons to remove saturated fats from their diet. No randomized clinical trials of low-fat diets (105) or low-saturated fat diets of sufficient duration have been carried out; thus, there is a lack of knowledge of how low saturated fat intake can be without the risk of potentially deleterious health outcomes.

Tom Blogical said...

David:

"Actually that older research you speak of..."

I found this, a 2006 update, within minutes at the American Heart Association's website. I guess I would suggest you look for the new and current, ongoing research, as well as peruse that site for more.

It looks like neither one of us is going to convince the other, so once again, let's agree to disagree. :-)

Dave said...

Loved the post, enjoyable read.

I've never appeared in Science magazine but I've some everyday & professional experience with nutrition and weightloss.
It goes something like this, eating a balanced moderated diet including all food groups, drinking plenty of fluids, I don't count the calories but I do choose tomato based sauces over cream ones etc.

I trained for a half marathon... lost body fat and weight, until my weight started to increase (I assume due to muscle) at which point a stop weighing myself altogether.

Gave up trainaing after the half marathon, gained weight quite quickly.

Gave up alcohol, started training again and within three weeks had dropped a couple of notches on my belt.

I've no doubt there are many ways science can discover quirks within the body that can be related to weightloss but things can be so much easier. Eat well and exercise and you'll get there.

David Brown said...

Regarding Tom Blogical's response, I read the 2006 update from the American Heart Association's website. It had nothing to do with saturated fat research which is what I was discussing. Instead, the article was all about cholesterol trials.

I still say the central question is this: is saturated fat a health hazard? I think the evidence says no. Consensus of opinion says yes.

I realize that many highly respected health experts rely on consensus to inform their opinions. I suppose that can't be helped given the nature of today's academic training.

So for those who happen to read these comments and wonder where to look for evidence, here's what I suggest:

If you're interested in recent saturated fat research, here are a few articles:
http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/80/3/550
http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/2/1/21

Here is an interesting article about high fat intake and physical performance: http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/1/1/2

Here is an article about the benefits of consuming saturated fats: http://www.health-report.co.uk/saturated_fats_health_benefits.htm

Finally, here is an article I frequently send to people who insist there's a connection between saturated fat intake and clogged arteries: http://nutritionscienceanalyst.blogspot.com/

Matt Metzgar said...

"If you are skeptical, do me a favor and eat 1,000 more calories than usual (solely from pure fat or protein sources; absolutely no carbs) every day for a month.

Then, get on a scale."

This person did just that, and didn't gain any weight:

http://magicbus.myfreeforum.org/ftopic846-0-asc-0.php

Also, Taubes cites other overfeeding studies if you were to read his book.

Andy Bellatti said...

Matt,

Without photographic evidence I can't take that person's experiment very seriously.

Besides, without any third party objective supervision, I also can't be completely sure that his caloric values are accurate.