March 24, 2008

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

It is hardly radical for Gary Taubes to recommend staying away from foods rich in simple carbohydrates.

Based upon the extensive and meticulously detailed evidence, I decided that avoiding sugar at all costs would provide the most benefit to my health.

I also decided to avoid products with refined grains and simple carbohydrates. This included for me bread, pasta, beer, and vegetables stripped of their nutrients (skinless mashed potatoes being a good example).

long and short of it is this: if you are a non-smoker the single-most important thing you can do for your health is: AVOID SUGAR.

Andy claims this is oversimplifying things, but Gary shows over and over in his book what a toxic substance sugar is and how the rise in obesity over the last 20 years is directly related to the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup into the American diet.

By 1999 we ate 30%more sugar than in 1983 - how could sugar NOT be causing the obesity epidemic?

I just noticed that Andy did not respond to a question posed to him about Michael Pollan, because he had not read the book.

I think in the future you should follow that rule with Gary. His book is 450 pages long - his articles and speeches are just a small summary of the vast and nuanced argument he provides in the book, so to me your responses have been inadequate and short on content.

Keep in mind that I found this blog, because I am actively seeking refutations of the science presented in Gary's book.

So far everything I have read is high on rhetoric and low on science.

-- Hugh (last name unknown)
Location Unknown

Alright, let's take this e-mail piece by piece.

First, you are absolutely right, it is not radical of Mr. Taubes to advocate a low-carbohydrate diet.

Robert Atkins brought this idea to the masses in the early 1970s.

Millions bought the hype and ate steak, butter, and cheese to their heart's content.

That clearly didn't work, since this country's weight problem only worsened.

In 2002, low carb was back with a vengeance.

Supermarkets offered low-carb everything: ice cream, cookies, pizza, crackers, yogurt, you name it. Talk about easy and convenient!

Again, millions of people shunned rice, bread, and pasta. And obesity rates did not decrease.

So, yes, Taubes isn't exactly breaking new ground.

I think it's wonderful that you have cut down the refined carbohydrates in your diet.

If you take a look at this blog's archives, you will see that I am constantly recommending high-fiber, nutritious carbohydrates.

I constantly suggest people consume whole grains and aim for a largely unprocessed diet.

I again want to make it clear that my position is not, has never been, and never will be, "refined carbohydrates and added sugar are the best things to eat if are looking to lose weight."

My position is that if we're talking about weight management, it's ridiculously naive to leave calories out of the conversation.

Gary Taubes makes it very clear that, in his opinion, "obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior."

As I have said in previous posts, then please show me someone who, for an entire month, consumes 1,000 extra calories a day -- without burning them off -- solely from fat and protein and does not gain a pound.

We come back to the issue of faulty logic.

The reason why low carb diets "work" is because protein and fat are very filling.

As I have said before, 500 calories of pure protein and fat will leave someone satiated for much longer than 500 calories of refined carbohydrates.

In turn, the person eating mostly protein and fat will end up consuming less total calories during the day than the person consuming the refined carbohydrates.

As far as your recommendation to avoid sugar, I'm assuming you are referring to added, and not naturally-occurring, sugars.

The issue once there is that sugar is not new. It was not launched in the early 1980s before the obesity boom.

Sugar has been around for thousands of years.

It is true that we are eating more of it.

The emphasis there is on "eating more of it" -- AKA consuming more total calories

If sugar in and of itself, regardless of how much was consumed, is the cause of obesity, why have rates in the United States skyrocketed only over the past twenty years?

The thirty percent increase in sugar consumption you mention is significant because it points to excess CALORIES being consumed.

Keep in mind that between 1970 and 2,000, the average caloric intake for United States citizens increased by 24.5 percent (that's, on average, an excess 530 calories, per person, per day).

Pointing to one food, or ingredients, is completely irrelevant.

For example, total meat consumption per person in the United States in 2000 was 195 pounds. In the 1950s, this figure was much lower -- 130 pounds.

So, why are you singling out only an increase in sugar as the sole culprit for weight gain? People in this country are eating more of everything.

Calories have increased, and, logically, so has people's weight.

Now, if caloric intake over the past twenty years had NOT increased, and obesity rates had, then, yes, maybe this idea that calories are irrelevant would hold some weight.

By the way, Gina Kolata of The New York Times made an excellent point in her review of Good Calories, Bad Calories:

"[Gary Taubes] ignores definitive studies done in the 1950s and ’60s by Jules Hirsch of Rockefeller University and Rudolph Leibel of Columbia, which tested whether calories from different sources have different effects.

The investigators hospitalized their subjects and gave them controlled diets in which the carbohydrate content varied from zero to 85 percent, and the fat content varied inversely from 85 percent to zero. Protein was held steady at 15 percent.

They asked how many calories of what kind were needed to maintain the subjects’ weight.
As it turned out, the composition of the diet made no difference.

By the way, Mr. Taubes' talk at New York University laid out the main arguments of his book very explicitly.

His basic theory is that weight loss has nothing to do with overeating. I don't need to read his book in its entirety to counter that particular argument.

I also want to note that my post also specifically responsed to things he said during the question and answer session.

I am not assuming or guessing what his thoughts are; they were made perfectly clear in his presentation.

Is a diet high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars unhealthy? Of course it is.

But, as far as I'm concerned, telling people that calories don't matter as long as carbohydrates aren't being eaten is a giant disservice.


David Brown said...

For several years I've been trying, without much apparent success, to drum up some interest in the unabsorbed calories phenomenon. People argue that one can't increase caloric intake and simultaneously loose weight. Apparently, they assume that the body responds the same way to various sorts of calories (protein, carbohydrate, fat, alcohol) and absorbs every last calorie that passes between the lips into the bloodstream. Well, I'm pretty much done writing about this. Here are some web pages for curious readers of this blog to visit:

This last item was posted on the website October 5, 2007.

Indeed, we are not closed systems. The alimentary canal is a tube that allows calories to escape without being absorbed and utilized. It is the absolute amount of absorption and utilization that that determines whether one gains weight, maintains weight, or sheds pounds.

If one could trace every calorie that enters the stomach, one would observe that some twenty to sixty percent of caloric energy passes out of the body without being absorbed into the bloodstream. Some of the energy contained in those calories is released as heat energy into the body as a result bacterial activity in the gut.

It’s estimated that about half of fecal matter consists of dead bacteria. I personally find that if I consume more food, I have more frequent bowel movements. I simply do not gain weight.

One would expect that variations in biochemical and physiological makeup would generate corresponding variations in absorption efficiency that would, in turn, determine whether one gained or lost weight with variations in caloric intake.

David Brown said...

Something didn't work right. Three of the URLs in my first post were truncated. Missing characters are on the next line. You'll have to paste both parts into your browser to get to the web page.

RicoVado said...

Very interesting blog.

I was impressed by your line by line refutation of the Taubes-supporter.

You quote Gina Kolata of the NYTimes - "[Gary Taubes] ignores definitive studies done in the 1950s and ’60s by Jules Hirsch of Rockefeller University and Rudolph Leibel of Columbia."

Maybe my research skills stink but I can't find any study done by Hirsch and Leibel dating to the 1950s or 1960s. Have you read it yourself?