Hot buttered science

In lieu of climbing Everest this year, I am reading Gary Taubes’s book Good Calories Bad Calories.

Taubes is best known for writing a pro-Atkins 2002 article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” Many people, including Michael Pollan, credit Taubes with pushing the low-carb craze over the top.

His book is essentially an expansion of that article, but it’s an American-wastline-sized expansion. I’m about 100 pages into the 500 pages of text (there are an additional 100 pages of notes). And it’s rough going–not because the book is hard to read or understand, but because it’s, well, convincing.

The first part of the book is about the relationship between fat consumption and heart disease. Taubes, bolstered by research both recent and old-school, argues that there is no good evidence for a link between heart disease and saturated fat in the diet, and furthermore, saturated fat (especially animal fat) seems to lower your risk of unexpected death in the aggregate, probably by lowering the risk of certain cancers. Later, I gather, he is going to argue that sugar is really bad for you.

This is the kind of stuff I would expect to find on a skeezy dot-com site peddling supplements and frozen dinners. But this is not that kind of book. You have to admire Taubes for not shrinking from controversy–given the last few decades of dietary recommendations, he might as well be arguing that a blow to the head with a bat is good for mental acuity and that puppies cause cancer.

So I have three questions.

1. Should I finish the book? I don’t think of myself as the sort of person who changes his opinions based on a single book, however well-argued. But to not finish the book because it might convince me to believe something weird? I don’t think of myself as afraid of books, either.

2. How does a person decide what to believe on a topic as fraught as diet and health? Taubes’s book has copious citations. But there are dozens of other well-written and well-cited books arguing that opposite. You could simply go with the official consensus, but if you had done that with hormone replacement therapy, you would have chosen wrong. Taubes, of course, gives HRT as an example of the establishment screwing up, and if they can be so wrong about HRT, they can be wrong about fat and sugar, too. That’s true, but it’s exactly the sort of thing I would say if I were trying to peddle any controversial idea. They laughed at Galileo, you know.

3. Say I do finish the book and I’m convinced. What should I do, personally? I love refined carbohydrates. One of the best things about living in Seattle is that we have the world’s best croissant, which is thankfully to be found eight miles from my house rather than eight blocks. I don’t want to cut croissants out of my diet.

In fact, I don’t want to cut anything out of my diet. My belief, as of now, is that we know so little about diet and health that the best bet is to eat whatever makes you happy. I don’t want to think about calories or grams of anything while I’m shopping, cooking, or eating. All I think about is: what am I hungry for? What looks tasty? What would Laurie and Iris enjoy? (This is, I know, a very privileged and temporary position to be in: no allergies, no illnesses, no doctor’s advice.)

So I’m predisposed to applaud negative findings about diet. Low-fat diets don’t prevent anything? Great! Fat is delicious! I’ll write an article about lard! And I’m equally predisposed to laugh off positive findings. I think I got some postmodernism in my science.

Readers, I ask you: how do you navigate this morass?

39 thoughts on “Hot buttered science

  1. Wendy

    I was already formulating an “eat what makes you happy” response, before I got to the part where you say that. It’s the “The Chocolate Touch” school of reasoning. Even if you really like chocolate and think you could eat it forever, it won’t really take that long before your body (and, therefore, your mind and palate) starts rebelling. This is how I know that pie is good for me.

    I’ve twice started reading books and been afraid to finish them, because I knew I would be convinced: Beyond Backpacking, which convinced me to hike in tennis shoes and stop trying to hide food from bears, and Curly Girl, which convinced me to stop shampooing my hair. Wow, I sound like a dirty hippie, but I’m really not.

  2. mamster Post author

    Wendy, I have nothing against dirty hippies. But why should you not hide food from bears? Is it because you’re supposed to find wild food on the way, or because it’s nice to share with bears? Does the bear also wear tennis shoes, like in the song?

  3. Wendy

    It’s because bears are really good at finding food, and logically, if you can get your bag of food up a tree, a bear can get it down; they’re good climbers. Instead, you’re supposed to stay away from the areas where, as the other song goes, the teddy bears have their picnics.

  4. anita

    How do I navigate this morass?
    Miserably, in both senses of the word.

    I think that many folks — myself included — have a tendency to fret too much about this new book or that new study. The recent news that even moderate drinking is somehow (and god knows how) linked to breast cancer had me in a tizzy for days; my aunt died of breast cancer, my mom is considered to be at severe risk, so it follows that down the road this will be a major factor for me.

    But I decided, in my self-serving way, that living into my 80s without wine and cocktails would be a lot less fun than living into my 60s enjoying things that bring such pleasure to my life. And with my luck, something else would probably ‘get’ me first, even if I did decide to live the teetotal life.

    So, my plan over the last few years has been to eat as little processed food as my willpower allows, to eat a wide variety of food, and to buy organic whenever possible. (We consciously made a decision this year that a small, unexpected bump in income would be channeled into this last goal.) They’re all common-sense ideas that don’t take a book to explain — eat fewer chemicals, hedge your bets by not eating too much of any one thing — and it’s a system that I feel good about.

    At least until the next alarmist newspaper article comes out.

  5. knit1purl1

    First of all, finish the damn book. Worrying about it having a “bad influence” on you is kind of like the old school Catholic theologicans worrying about people becoming “bad Catholics” because of reading a forbidden book. Get over it.

    I finished the book last week. I enjoyed it—but am a little puzzled about why Taubes didn’t address the whole issue about trans fat being used to represent saturated fat in a lot of studies—-and thereby giving old fashioned saturated animal fat a bad name when trans fat was the real cause of the problems.

    As far as what to do. If you don’t have a weight problem and your blood lipids are fine, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you do have some problems, you might want to consider some of his arguments and maybe made some changes.

    I found the most compelling arguments in the book to be against eating sugar. Croissants don’t have much sugar and properly made ones use butter—so the white flour is probably the only questionable thing about them. I’d eat them and not worry about it.

    In any case, Taubes’s views are becoming less and less “out of the mainstream”. Remember, the South Beach Diet was written by a cardiologist who finally concluded that the low fat diet he had been recommending was making people fatter and sicker. So he starting recommending that people cut back on carbs and found out that it worked. There are more and more doctors out there who are discovering the same things. So things will change, eventually.

    What’s becoming the mainstream argument is that carbs cause problems due to insulin, but that saturated fat is still bad. It’s a hard argument to sustain because if you want people to cut out carbs but still cut out fat, it’s hard to know what you can tell people to eat. Until more studies are doneto finally determine whether or not saturated fat is actually harmful, I expect this quandary to last awhile.

  6. mamster Post author

    Hey, knitpurl, thanks for the kick in the butt. Although when I finish the book, I’ll still be Jewish, which is a pretty bad Catholic if you ask me.

    Also thanks for reassuring me about croissants.

    Anita, one very reassuring passage in the Taubes book is where he discusses how much of an effect on life expectancy your diet choices will have on average, assuming a worst-case scenario. The worst he can come up with is about four months. (Although he doesn’t talking about drinking in that part, specifically.)

  7. Beverly

    I think the reason we find the results of nutritional studies so inconsistent is that our bodies themselves are inconsistent. Each of us is a complex mix of nature and nurture that may react differently to specific diets than the next guy, or the next rat. To make matters even more complex, even our own bodies work differently over time, so what was “right” for us at twenty may not be so “right” at forty or sixty.

    So how do I navigate the morass? I listen to what my own body is telling me right now. I pay attention to how I feel–both physically and emotionally–and watch for patterns and connections with what I’ve been eating or not eating. (I watch my exercise, sleep, and stress patterns, too; it’s never all about diet.) Trial and error may be a bumpy road to health and happiness, but I’ve found it more reliable than studies done on other people.

  8. Neil

    Personally, I’ll eat whatever makes me happy, because the alternative lifestyle just doesn’t seem worth living. Of course this is not a very difficult position for me to take since I only have myself to think about, not having any children.

    However, given my current career choice of pastry chef, what does concern me is will I eventually come to be associated with drug dealers and tobacco company executives?

  9. Susan Ely

    My grandma always used lard in her biscuits – so I’m a fan. On the other hand, when I was a chunky 10 year old, my nick-name was lard-ass, so I’m a little conflicted.

  10. mamster Post author

    Neil, it’s okay, you can wear a leather jacket and be a rebel. Alternatively, you can claim to be Rémy Fünfrock.

  11. David Brown

    I am a nutrition science analyst residing in Kalispell, Montana.

    I enjoy your writing style. But I have to take issue with your assertion that “there are dozens of other well-written and well-cited books arguing that opposite.”

    I’ve been reading books authored by the anti-saturated fat crowd since 1977. Please name one title that doesn’t appeal to consensus of opinion and that doesn’t ignore the research of Robert McCarrison, Weston Price, John Yudkin, T.L. Cleave, Roger J. Williams, Wilfred Shute, and Mary Enig.

    About 25 years ago, after reading “Why Raise Ugly Kids?” by Hal Huggins, DDS, I concluded that the mainstream was wrong about saturated fat. (That was not the only book that influenced my thinking.) Because of the strength of the evidence implicating sugar as the major culprit in heart disease, I fully expected the mainstream science community to eventually correct itself. Ten years later, when nothing happened, I got disgusted and began writing letters to our local paper. Now I correspond with scientists, science writers, and people who have websites and blogs. I urge them to compare explore the literature and not speculate about what’s out there as you did. You want to examine the opposite viewpoint? Google “Daniel Steinberg The Cholesterol Wars”. The book costs $69.95 new or $57.06 used. Does this tell you something?

    I read quite a bit of Steinberg’s material on line for free after a British Heart Disease researcher recommended his work. Here’s what he wrote:

    “Boy you are in the dark! Try reading these articles. They trace ALL (emphasis mine)the science going back to 1913 plus the epidemiology you so dislike.

    1. Steinberg D. Thematic review series: the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. An interpretive history of the cholesterol controversy: part I. J Lipid Res. 2004;45:1583-93.

    2. Steinberg D. Thematic review series: the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis: an interpretive history of the cholesterol
      controversy, part III: mechanistically defining the role of hyperlipidemia. J Lipid Res. 2005;46:2037-51.

    3. Steinberg D. Thematic review series: the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. An interpretive history of the cholesterol
      controversy: part II: the early evidence linking hypercholesterolemia to coronary
      disease in humans. J Lipid Res. 2005;46:179-90.

    4. Steinberg D. Thematic review series: the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. An interpretive history of the cholesterol
      controversy, part V: the discovery of the statins and the end of the controversy. J Lipid Res. 2006;47:1339-51.

    The billions I refer to come from McDonalds, Cadbury Schweppes and the like.

    By the way if it’s truth you are looking for you should follow another
    carpenter and stop playing about with science which deals only with observations.”

    This was his second message to me. In the first one he wrote:

    “Dear David

    I find your email rather sad. While it’s true that the adverse effect of saturated fats is based on the surrogate of cholesterol levels, there is
    overwhelming evidence for their association with heart disease and total
    mortality. Even the FDA is convinced.

    What makes me sadder is that you impugn the motives of health promotion lobbyists who spend a few 10 of millions of dollars each year while ignoring the billions of dollars annually spent by the food industry implicitly to promote your point of view. Should I accuse you of being in their pay?

    The saddest part of all though is that you chose to throw your infinitesimal weight behind this huge food lobby. Can’t you find something else to do where your individual efforts would have more impact?”

    Want to see what I sent this scientist? Google “Re: Saturated Fats and Heart Health – Share the Wealth”

    Again, I like your writing style. I hope you’ll read some of Dr. Steinberg’s arguments. He’s sort of the top advocate of the mainstream view as was Keys before him.

  12. JR

    You’re forgetting one data point: you’re exceptionally lucky in that you live in a time where you can reasonably be expected to live beyond the age of 50 regardless of what you eat. On top of that, you back probably won’t break from what you do and your fingers probably won’t get chopped off, either.

    Even eating a slice of American cheese seems like celebration enough.

    On top of that, you said something a while back that made perfect sense. You were talking about that book where you see a photo of people’s diets, and you said that if it wasn’t colorful or varied you couldn’t help feeling bad for them.

    Eat lots of crazy stuff. Make it to fifty. Have a quart of whiskey to celebrate.

  13. Maggi

    Being a mother to a toddler (as you are to Iris) my husband and I have the mantra, “Moderation is the key” running through our heads. Sure, we eat refined carbs, red meat (and even the occasional foie gras) and butter and cream. But it is not the mainstay of our diets. We choose brown rice, whole wheat/grains over white and when you look at our plate it is half fruit/vegetable, one quarter meat, one quarter starch. We found this to be reasonable for us. Round that out with some daily exercise/activity and I think we found the recipe for nutritional satisfaction.

    Sorry to say, but we have become so jaded with all fo the ‘research’ out there. In the 70’s, carbs were bad, in the 80’s and 90’s carbs were good. now they’re bad again. Who’s right? In my opinion, nobody is right. Too much of anything isn’t good. So mix it up. My goal isn’t to live forever – but to live happiest. Well, at least until my son is done with college. I’ll reassess my goals once I reach that one. :-)

    But truly, the bottom line here (and this applies to anything, not just diet and nutrition) is to choose something you can live with based on your values. In the end, it is your life you are leading and you are responsible for your own happiness. No one else is going to it for you.

    Finish the book. Take it from a Catholic rebel…

  14. Robin

    Like many others I find that moderation is my mantra. And, I find that moderation itself, should occur in moderation.

    I have had a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (M. Pollan) sitting on my bedside table for almost a year now. While I’ve read Pollan’s other books and enjoyed them thoroughly, I have been delaying my reading of this book mostly because I fear it will complete my transformation into a vehement, foodie warrior who is unable to eat without analysis.

    Clearly, I need to take a page from your comments, and “finish the book”.

  15. heather

    my father had a surprise quadruple bypass when he was 53…meaning i’m something like four thousand times more likely than some other person to turn up with heart disease. so on the one hand, i feel like it’s my responsibility to, well, eat responsibly, if only so that my husband isn’t left alone mid-life to marry a stripper, which i’m confident would happen, because, between you and me, the house goes off the rails when he’s left alone. (we don’t have kids, and i can’t even imagine the host anxiety i’d feel, trying to stay alive for them, AND hustling to keep them healthy.)

    on the other hand, my friend carol died at 34 from a cyst in her brain that nobody knew about and couldn’t have fixed even if they did know. one day, just bam, dead.

    if an anvil falls on my head tomorrow, literal or metaphorical, i’m going to be pretty peeved if i wasted what little precious time i had on earth NOT eating bacon.

    all you can do is all you can do…make interesting choices, be kind to your body (the mechanics AND the feelings) and other bodies around you. treats are called “treats”–and not “lunch”–for a reason. and watch for falling anvils.

  16. Liz

    I think you should finish the book. One of the best books I ever read in the nutritional-vein was “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins. The man’s a vegan, but I couldn’t personally dive off into the deep-end that way. Still, he had a point. One of those nightmarish points that bites at my skin when I can’t sleep.

    I still fervently believe that there’s something to the “everything in moderation” mantra. One croissant doth not cancer become.

    P.S: Just started a foodie blog – any advice as I learn to crawl?

  17. Chris

    The book sounds painful. You should press roasted garlic and fresh herbs between the chapters, marinate it in bacon grease and grill it to a perfect medium rare.

  18. Yvonne M.

    It’s all well and good to say “eat everything in moderation” but when more than 1/2 of our population is obese, and we have chronic diabeties and heart disease, we can’t just “eat everything in moderation”.

    And to leaving it to each individual seems simple enough, but when you are obese, you are PRESSURED to follow the low-fat mantra. As our government gets more and more involved in our eating, they will eventually force us to eat the “way we all ‘should’ eat” and if we don’t, we’re ostercized by our own doctors and friends (I KNOW this from personal experience).

    I’ve been battling obesity for 20 some years. I have Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome – the main side affect – obestiy. You see, I’m not a binge eater, lazy or emotional eater. I am active and live a good life. But I’m plagued with Insulin Resistance – as is a large part of our population. My 15 year old daughter was REFUSED treatment because she was “too young, still growing” and yet I saw the same signs in her that I grew up with. I finally CONVINCED my GP to just test her blood. Sure enough, her insulin levels were off the charts – but blood sugar was fairly normal. Something a lot of docs wouldn’t even think of testing or even treating.

    Due to a low-moderate carb diet she has lost almost 50lbs and dropped off the stigma of just being a lazy fat teenager. What about her? If I had “fed her everything in moderation” she would have ended up like me – over 300lbs and people constantly telling me to eat less and move more. It has NOTHING to do with calories for me but WHAT I was eating. I unfortunately was not caught as young as her and have to restrict my carbs a lot more than her. I have lost 90lbs myself and still need to lose at least another 40-50lbs. I tried Weight Watchers and the like and just could NOT lose on them. I was accused of cheating and not following the program properly. But I didn’t cheat. I’m not obsessed with food and found it fairly easy to follow – albiet I was hungry most of the time (the added fat in my diet now keeps me satisifed for HOURS). But I was the obese person. The lazy person. It was painful in many ways.

    How’s our blood levels? My diabetic husband is off of all his diabetic meds and his lipitor, all of us have STELLAR cholesterol levels and we feel GREAT!

    It’s not always easy to “just eat in moderation”. Because that doesn’t work for a large majority of our population.

    Count your blessing that you aren’t obese and don’t have health problems now, but is years of eating refined sugars and grains going to catch up to you? Maybe.

  19. mamster Post author

    Yvonne, I appreciate your candor. But I do wonder why, as Gina Kolata noted in her NYT review of Good Calories, Bad Calories, millions of Americans have tried low-carb diets, and nearly all of them have abandoned the diet and gained back all the weight they lost. If the answer is simply that they didn’t have the “willpower” to stay off croissants, how is that better than any other diet?

  20. Yvonne M.

    I think it has to do with many things. Facts are facts, diets only work (long term) for 1-3% of the people who try them. ANY diet.

    It’s hard to go against the grain. It’s hard to eat different than everyone else. Add to that the “stigma” of a low-carb diet. Your doctor opposes it, your friends, your family. Let’s face it, people look at me weird when I say we don’t eat anything with: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, sugar, high fructose corn syrup etc. etc….. They say “what DO you eat”. I reply “real food” – meat, loads of fresh veggies, low-sugar fruit and even a few whole grains. People tell me I’m going to die, I’m going to get clogged arteries. Think about how scary it is for people hearing how “bad” low carb dieting is, to stick with it – especially when they are new at it. Peer pressure is VERY powerful.

    I think people like my family stick with it, because #1 – NO junk in the house. Period. We don’t bring it in. #2 We HAVE to do this to live heathier lives. Since we’ve seen in demonstrated in our own lives and know exactly how we feel when we stray (sorry but we don’t get the super high pleasure of eating croissants anymore – they make us sleepy and cranky). But a took a while of “clean” eating to get to the point where we can FEEL how bad that stuff makes us feel.

    I don’t think one size fits all, when it comes to dieting. I’d just like for low-carb to be an option ALONGSIDE a low-fat diet. But I read today 92% of all doctors think the low-fat diet is “the” diet for good health and weight loss. How can you survive on this with that type of opposition.

    I hand pick our doctors. My GYN, GP and Endo all support a low-carb lifestyle, that makes is FAR easier.

    And my point about government being so tied into our diet is scary to me. I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can not eat. They’re already saying that everyone over 12 should be put on a statin. OMG!! Can you imagine that??? Do you know that 54% of people at year 3 on statins have some sort of nerve damange and they give them to CHILDREN!!! It’s scary and I worry that more and more government regulation is on it’s way.

  21. mamster Post author

    Yvonne, I hear what you’re saying. I am not as convinced of the benefits of low-carb as you are, but I would be delighted to see the medical establishment swing in that direction for a decade or so just to see what happens. The low-fat experiment has certainly failed.

  22. dlight


    First, I very much enjoy your blog and other writing (as a wannabe foodie with a toddler and a baby, it’s right up my alley). I want to briefly comment on this perfectly valid question you raise:

    “But I do wonder why, as Gina Kolata noted in her NYT review of Good Calories, Bad Calories, millions of Americans have tried low-carb diets, and nearly all of them have abandoned the diet and gained back all the weight they lost. If the answer is simply that they didn’t have the ‘willpower’ to stay off croissants, how is that better than any other diet?”

    I had a lot of success on a low-carb diet and then put all the weight back on, but I’m still a huge low-carb advocate and feel the low-carb diet IS better than other diets I’ve tried. Here’s why: (1) I felt so much better when I was low-carbing than I have in years that I actually look forward to being able to get back on the diet; and (2)on top of that, it was the first diet I’ve ever tried that I could eat food that I enjoyed, and could always eat enough to feel sated. On other diets, I’ve never felt very good, even though I was losing weight, and I also generally felt like I was starving myself and not eating foods that I enjoy. Bottom line … I hope to get back on the low-carb train shortly and can’t wait to do it. I’ve certainly never looked forward to dieting before.

    Why do people put the weight back on? I slipped off and put the weight on for many reasons — primarily because we had our second child and slipped back into convenience food mode for a time. In this respect, the low-carb diet doesn’t differ from other diets … it takes time, planning, and discipline, so it’s easy to slip up. The difference, though, as I said above, is that (at least in my case) you feel great during the diet and can still generally enjoy food while dieting.

    (Also, incidentally, I live very near Cafe Besalu and am happy to report that a croissant here and there doesn’t kill the low-carb diet … it’s my treat while I’m dieting.)

  23. Rose

    In my early twenties, I could lose weight by eating less fat. After I turned 25, all that went out the window–and the only thing that worked was eating less calories. Inadvertently, I ended up eating less carbs–because they carry a lot of calories and I started finding alternatives (and started eating a little more locally and organically). I also ended up eating less fat, but not on purpose.

    So, basically, if losing weight is the goal, and you go less calories, you kind of end up regulating your diet into something resembling healthy–which mixes veggies and fruits and some risotto and some dairy and some meats.

    And since I’ve been eating like this for six months (with one day a week where I don’t count anything–which is when I go out to eat or have that yummy grilled cheese or bacon sandwich), I just got used to it. Did I mean to go low-carb? Not really. I just needed to lose weight and went with the oldest trick in the book–less calories. Sugars have calories–ergo, I consume less of them.

    Maybe low-carb is good for some people, maybe low-fat works for some people, maybe low-calories works, too. Who knows? But I kind of have to agree with comments above–why live to be 100 if you can’t have bacon or butter or the occasional croissant?

  24. JJ

    Taubes says that carbs cause obesity and chronic disease, and that meat is good for you and won’t make you fat.

    However, over 50 years of meticulously conducted research has found that people who follow traditional Mediterranean and Asian diets (which contain little meat but plenty of carbs from rice, pasta, bread, beans, fruits and vegetables) have low rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as the longest life spans in the world.

    Researchers have also found that when people from Mediterranean and Asian cultures abandon their traditional diets and start eating a meat-heavy Western diet, their rates of obesity and chronic disease increase to our levels, and their life spans decrease substantially.

    This makes it clear that Gary Taubes has got it very wrong indeed.

  25. mamster Post author

    JJ, have you read the book? Most of it is devoted to refuting the exact contentions you’re making. It’s not as if he wrote the book without realizing that it challenged various orthodoxies. Is there a specific argument he makes that you want to take on?

  26. mamster Post author

    Not really, JJ. But, as I said, Taubes goes on for pages and pages about why he believes the data on Mediterranean and Asian diets has been misinterpreted.

    He could be utterly wrong. But if you want to make a counterargument, you need to read the book and explain why his data doesn’t say what he claims it says, not just restate the premise that he’s aiming to refute. And I’m not going to paraphrase his argument here, when you surely have the book available at your local library.

    It sounds to me like you’re in the same dilemma I’m trying to avoid: you don’t want to read the book because you know you’ll disagree with it. I’m over half done with the book now. How’s it going for you?

  27. JJ

    I have a major credibility issue with Gary Taubes, which is why I won’t be reading his book. Let me explain.

    Taubes’ book is actually an expanded version of his article published in the July 7, 2002 edition of The New York Times Magazine, called “What if it’s all been a big fat lie”

    I read that article, and I also read the reactions of the scientists and doctors who were interviewed by Taubes for the story. In the November 2002 Nutrition Action Health Letter, John Farquhar, professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University’s Center for Research in Disease Prevention, called the Times article “a disaster” and said that he was “greatly offended at how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins diet.” Pioneering Stanford University researcher Dr. Gerald Reaven, another source for the story, said he was “horrified” by the piece.

    Also, not long after the Times article went to press, CNN contacted the researchers from Harvard School of Public Health who had, according to Taubes, endorsed the Atkins diet. Yes, the scientists agreed that fat can be good for you if it’s the right kind of fat (namely unsaturated fats from plant and fish oils), and they also agreed that people should cut down on junk carbs. But they certainly didn’t recommend that people eat a diet like the one recommended by Dr. Atkins. What did they recommend? That people eat a Mediterranean-style diet, complete with plenty of carbohydrates from grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, and fat from healthy plant and fish oils.

    Actually, the controversy was so big over these factual errors that the book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” comes with a disclaimer by Taubes stating that citation of a researcher’s work or words should not be taken as an endorsement by that person.

    So, Gary Taubes definitely isn’t the sort of person I would trust to get sound nutritional advice from.

  28. mamster Post author

    JJ, I think Nutrition Action Healthletter is a heinous publication, riddled with factual errors and antithetical to the cause of good eating.

    However, if I were going to attack a claim made by Nutrition Action Healthletter–say, that salt causes hypertension–I would not do so by saying, “Nutrition Action Healthletter says salt is bad for you; Nutrition Action Healthletter is obnoxious and Michael Jacobson is a jerk; therefore, salt is good for you.” Instead, I would read their argument and point out flaws in their reasoning and holes in their data. I understand that if the reaction to GC, BC hinges on the personality of Gary Taubes, the author may well have brought that on himself.

    Very briefly on the subject of Mediterranean diets: the diet you are describing is historically characteristic of only certain parts of the Mediterranean. It is absolutely true that you can find some populations who eat the diet you describe and have low rates of chronic disease. It is also true that you can find populations who eat very different diets and have comparable lifespans and rates of chronic disease. I have never understood why it makes sense to prescribe the Cretan diet, tasty though it may be, and not the diets of the Masai, the Inuit, the French, and other populations, modern and traditional, who are far healthier than the American population.

    edit: I wrote “Maori” where I meant “Masai.” Sorry, folks.

  29. neild

    Add me to the list of people who subjectively feels better when I’m eating a low-carb (really, low-refined-carb) diet. For me, at least, it’s been less a matter of “cutting out” things (though I pretty much kicked my popcorn habit) than of having a new awareness of how I’m eating: If I’m feeling tired and depressed and craving potato chips at 3 in the afternoon, I can conclude it’s my pancreas going off the deep end and try to do something about it.

    The best thing my doctor said to me in kicking all this off was: “Eating a bagel is like having a piece of cake.” Does that make you feel any better about finishing the book, Mamster? I assume you still eat cake (as do I), just not for breakfast every day.

  30. mamster Post author

    I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s bagels were bigger than the average piece of cake.

    I wish I’d known earlier that posting about a controversial book would draw 37 comments. Wait until you hear my thoughts on The Secret. (Not really.)

  31. JJ

    You mention the French to back up Taubes’ hypothesis. Actually, the French don’t traditionally eat great slabs of meat, but they do eat plenty of bread — white bread. Yet according to Taubes, white bread and other fast-digesting carbs are the cause of obesity and most of the diseases of Western civilization. (Which of course doesn’t make sense anyway because the healthiest, leanest and longest living people in the world, the Japanese, eat white rice with most meals.)

    Also, many French people live in the south eastern region of France, where the traditional diet is like those of other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea — rich in carbs from grains, fruits, beans and vegetables; good fats from olive oil and fish; and wine to wash down the meal.

    You also use the Inuit as an example of healthy high-protein eaters. Actually, Inuit have very short lifespans (until recently the average lifespan for an Inuit man was 35 years). Their rates of the bone thinning disease osteoporosis are also among the highest in the world.

    Compare this to Cretans who eat a Mediterranean diet and, along with the Japanese, enjoy very long life spans, low rates of osteoporosis as well as the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.

  32. mamster Post author

    JJ, you raise an interesting point.

    One aspect of the Taubes book that I am finding less than convincing (and I’m almost done!) is the contention–most closely associated with Weston Price, if I recall–that “diseases of civilization” are really diseases of civilization. It seems to rely largely on anecdotes, and very old anecdotes at that. If populations eating traditional diets turn out to have plenty of cancer, diabetes, and other causes of premature death, then the whole argument goes out the window. On balance, I think Taubes and Price are probably mostly correct, but I would like to see more actual data.

    As for the French, they seem to confound both the modern diet orthodoxy and Taubes and his torchbearers. They eat much more saturated fat than we do, but also more bread. Perhaps they eat less sugar, but you’re right that it would be very hard to paint the French as anything but in love with refined carbohydrates. And their rates of heart disease are really, really low.

  33. Lani

    I’m currently in the library queue for this book, but I have to say I think it goes back to portion control. And low-carb diets support portion control because you naturally feel fuller when you eat fats and protein over carbs.

    I went on a low-carb diet recently because I had read that high-protein diets can be beneficial to endurance sports athletes. What I didn’t expect was to be as lean as I am now, a month later, but at about the same weight. My body shape is better and I feel healthier and sleep better. I am eating every 2-3 hours, but I don’t have to eat a lot to feel full and I have way more energy than I did when I had more carbs in my life. It’s weird not to eat as many carbs as I used to (I was a pastry chef years ago, so you can imagine how weird this is for me) but I eat more vegetables and fruit than I used to and I know I’m in the best shape I’ve been in years – and I’ve been a distance runner for the past 5 years. I can’t wait to read Gary Taubes bok because I think he’s got something that, at the very least, works for me.

    Now, I think (without any scientific studies to back me up) that the reason why the Asians do so well with the carbs they consume is because the eat and live balanced lives, but also eat way smaller portions than we Americans do. Same with the French – they might eat make more food choices that include higher fat items than we consume regularly, or eat more bread, but they aren’t eating it in the volumes that we do. It really does go back to earlier discussions here, and what I believe is part of the philosophy of this blog – buy fresh, outstanding food, buy locally, and eat a varied diet. And try not to gorge yourself.

  34. mamster Post author

    Lani, I finished the book, and I think the author would partially agree and partially disagree with what you’re saying. (I think you’ll enjoy the book even if you disagree with parts, because it’s a great piece of writing.)

    He spends a couple of chapters laying out the evidence that obesity, in particular, is almost totally unrelated to calorie intake. My thoughts were already leaning in this direction after reading and forming a mental rebuttal to the book Mindless Eating. Particularly relevant to your comment, Taubes argues that low-carb diets promote mobility in the fat storage system in a way that other diets don’t.

    I realize it sounds very strange to say that “obesity is unrelated to calorie intake,” so, hey, read the book.

  35. JJ

    It’s when I changed to eating mostly Mediterranean and Asian foods that I lost weight, and I’ve kept it off for many years, and I’ve never been healthier, felt better, or had more energy.

    I eat protein (mainly from fish, seafood and poultry) and fats (mainly from olive oil, nuts, and cheese and yogurt in moderation) but I also eat plenty of white rice and pasta, as well as other carb-rich foods such as whole grain breads, fruits, beans and vegetables (including potatoes).

    These are all the same foods that generations of lean and healthy Mediterraneans and Asians have eaten as well.

    So go ahead mamster and believe Gary Taubes’ anti-carb hypothesis — but while you’re busy avoiding pad thai, pasta primavera and sushi, I’ll definitely be doing just the opposite.

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