March 17, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Gary Taubes/Low-Carb

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.

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.

-- Anonymous
Via the blog

Gary Taubes' controversial views help certainly get discussion going, which I am absolutely thrilled about.

Yes, there is a small area in which conventional nutrition advice and Gary Taubes' views intermingle.

That being said, I ultimately consider his conclusions to stem from faulty logic.

It is indeed true that most processed (or "junk") foods consist of nutritionally void refined carbohydrates (mainly overly processed grains and sugar).

The bottom line, though, is that these processed foods are ultimately adding extra calories to people's diets.

A lot of these same processed foods (donuts, cookies, brownies, etc.) are also high in saturated fat and sodium.

They are not pure carbohydrates. So why isn't Mr. Taubes placing the blame on those two nutrients? Why just carbohydrates?

Allow me to present an analogy.

Imagine that I decide to study the health effects of strawberries.

For ten years, I have a group of people eat two cups of strawberries every day. The control group, meanwhile, doesn't eat any strawberries.

A decade later, I analyze the results and see that the strawberry eaters clearly had higher rates of cancer than the non-strawberry eaters.

Based on those statistics alone, a researcher might conclude, "strawberries increase your risk of developing certain cancers!"

Except it's not that simple.

What if it wasn't the strawberries themselves that had harmful health effects, but the fact that these strawberries had incredibly high levels of pesticides on them?

That is how I interpret Taubes' beliefs. I feel he is coming to a conclusion without considering all the information.

Mind you, the issue here is not "refined carbohydrates are chock full of nutrition" vs. Gary Taubes.

Dietitians are not saying -- and have never recommended -- "eat as much white flour, sugar, and processed food as you want!"

Glance through my blog and you will see numerous recommendations for whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and other high-fiber foods.

I distinctly say that nutrition isn't solely about calories, but also about nutrients. I also, though, think that sugar and white flour have a place in the diet as long as they are an exception to the rule and not the bulk of anyone's eating pattern.

That being said, keep in mind that many of the foods I suggest people consume often (chickpeas, kidney beans, oatmeal) are not low-carb; Gary Taubes believes they make you fat!

I also do not agree that calling for a diet "low in processed foods" is advocating a low-carb lifestyle. Legumes, fruits, vegetables, sprouted grains, and whole grains are not considered processed foods and are certainly not low in carbohydrates.

My main concern about refined carbohydrates is that, because they are low in fiber and protein, they do not satiate as well. The result? It takes more CALORIES to make you feel full.

Eating 400 calories of white rice, soda, and white bread for lunch will leave you feeling hungry, whereas 400 calories of steak will not have you raiding the pantry for a snack an hour later.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to calories. The 400 "empty carb" calories do not satiate you, so you end up eating more (consuming more calories).

There are two particular statements Gary Taubes make that raise my blood pressure, though.

The first is including potatoes in the same category as "processed foods."

As I have explained before, when cooked a certain way (ie: baked, with the skin on), a potato is highly nutritious. It is not junk food.

Second, his belief that fiber is overhyped tremendously weakens his stance for me. How anyone can ignore the health benefits of fiber is truly beyond me.


GK said...

Andy, the extent of your mis-reading of Taubes is staggering. Every one of your points has been discussed in his book (which I've read twice), to some of which entire chapters are devoted.

Why has he single out carbs? Why not, fat has been singled out by the medical establishment for the last fifty years and hasn't solved anything, even made it worse.

Read GCBC, and see the evidence that we're after the wrong villain.

Typical of your misunderstanding is the comment about fibre. Taubes argues that fibre is inconsequential to weight control and obesity. Even the health benefits you attribute to it are still controversial, not fact. The U.S dietary reference intakes from 2005, which is the source of the mainstream recommendations, can say only this: "The relationship of fiber intake to colon
cancer is the subject of ongoing investigation and is currently
unresolved." (


Vincci said...

I think that part of the issue is what is defined as a "low-carb" diet. In school, we learn low-carb diets are dangerous because they can lead to ketosis, but that is only if people are eating less than 100 g of carbohydrates a day. If people on these so-called low carb diets are still eating vegetables, legumes and even some of the dairy products that are higher in lactose, then their diet isn't really "low carb".

Andy Bellatti said...

Remember -- Gary Taubes believes it is entirely possible for humans to subsist on ZERO grams of carbohydrates. That is what he said when asked that very question by someone in the audience at his NYU talk. He didn't say, "the problem is just white flour and sugar, chickpeas and milk are fine."

jamie said...

I think it's funny how people forget that for many many many years mankind ate lots of rice and potatoes and bread (all carbs) and yet it's only recently that the obesity rates have skyrocketed. The culprit is not "carbs" it's too much unhealthy and refined sugar, outrageous portion controls and sedentary living... DUH!

GK said...

Vincci, don't confuse ketosis with diabetic ketoacidosis.

Andy, it is known that people can be healthy on an all meat diet. Stefansson and his friend did it in the twenties under medical supervision, after living with the Inuit for years at a time (

Jamie, "lots of rice" and "many, many, many years" don't cut it scientifically. Mankind starting eating significanlty more carbs with the advent of grain farming only 10,000 years ago, which is insignificant in evolutionary time. For more than 200,000 years before that during the existence of modern humans, hardly any. And hardly any for the 5 million years leading up to that, while evolution was tuning our digestive systems. I think it's funny that people don't even seem to know this.

Andy Bellatti said...


Then we get into the issue of our bodies' capability to consume meat.

From an anatomical -- and physiological -- perspective, the point can easily be made that our digestive system (and teeth!) are not well designed for an entirely carnivorous diet.

Also, even if we start the "carb timeline" at 10,000 years ago, obesity rates started sharply increasing in the past 25 years...

You take a look at what happened in those 25 years and the link is clear... people are eating more calories.

GK said...

The issue of what our gut functions best on is still controversial; you can find polar expert opinions all over the 'net. Personally I think we are omnivores and do best like that; however, our guts are fully capable of digesting meat. The trick is finding the right items on the menu and in the right proportions.

Any theory to explain the modern obesity crisis should also explain it in other times and populations -- Taubes' shining example is the Pima Indians, late 1800s, when fast food and sedentary lifestyle could not be blamed.

You are of course right about the extra calories, but you have to ask why! What has changed in the past 25 years that makes it so easy for so many people to overeat? Why is it that people can eat 3000 calories a day and still be hungry?

A very good case can be made to point the finger at refined carbs and sugar. In fact Taubes wrote 500 pages to support precisely this.

Andy Bellatti said...


What do you mean by "finding the right items on the menu and in the right proportions"? I have never heard Gary Taubes make that disclaimer. According to him, a diet based on meat alone doesn't have any negative health consequences.

Even if you don't want to believe that saturated fat is unhealthy, there is plenty of research showing ,for instance, a correlation between high red meat consumption and increased risk of prostate cancer (and exacerbation of existing prostate problems).

Taubes discussed the Pima Indians at his talk. Yes, it was interesting, but there are also plenty of examples of cultures in the 1800s that ate carbohydrates and did not experience sudden weight gains.

What has changed in the past 25 years is clear -- bigger portions, which in turn lead to more calories.

Brian Wansink has done some excellent research showing that when we have large portions in front of us, our hunger mechanism is skewed, and we end up eating more. I blogged about this several months back.

This is why there is such an outcry over large portions -- we unmistakably end up eating more simply because it is in front of us.

As I have explained before, refined carbs and sugar can take the blame for not being satiating, therefore leaving us hungry to eat more calories. But they in and of themselves do not cause weight gain.

Also, how does "blaming carbs" explain countries like Italy and France where refined carbohydrates are commonly eaten? Shouldn't the French and Italian have had skyrocketing obese rates decades ago with all the pasta and baked goods they eat?

People who travel to France and eat croissants every day don't come back weighing 10 more pounds; if anything, they lose weight while they are there because they eat smaller portions, and thus consume less calories.

GK said...


By finding the menu and balance, I meant finding which foods are best for us; I follow Michael Pollan's advice, which is to eat food, not macronutrients. If one eats the proper foods, carb/fat/protein balance just comes out right. I have been very successful in improving my weight and health drastically by eliminating sugar, processed food, grains, dairy and legumes (a basic "paleo" prescription).

All your other points are touched on in great detail in Taubes book.

You still have to answer the question about what changed to allow people to overeat so easily. When there is more fat and protein in the diet, you just don't want to eat more.

Wansink's research sounds interesting, I'll try to find out what he fed his subjects. Apparently it's really hard to get people to overeat meat; really easy to do on bread and potatoes.

The French eat more fat, and are less hungry. In southern Italy, where pasta is consumed in great quantities, the people _are_ fatter!