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Carbs, not fats (nor gluttony, nor sloth) are what's making us fat, says author of controversial new book

Gary Taubes
Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell
Gary Taubes

Few people writing about food and nutrition are more controversial than the award-winning science writer Gary Taubes. For more than a decade — starting with articles in Science and the New York Times magazine,  and then in his 2007 book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” — he’s been arguing (with painstakingly researched evidence) that our most prevailing current beliefs about what makes some of us fat and some of us lean are all wrong.

Forget about the calories-in, calories-out model of why we get fat. That’s really just a distraction — and a dangerous one at that, he says. So is the idea that you can exercise yourself to weight loss.

But, most important, don’t believe the bad rap about dietary fat. It’s not the fat in our foods that’s making us obese, Taubes says. It’s the carbohydrates.

Here’s the short-form explanation: Carbs are absorbed quickly in the gut, causing a sharp rise in blood sugar (glucose). Insulin levels then rise as well in an effort to contain the blood sugar within a healthy range. Over time, this constant spiking of insulin (along with contributions from other hormones) creates a host of metabolic problems that cause our fat cells to become disregulated — and our bodies get fatter and fatter.

According to Taubes, carbs are responsible not only for our obesity epidemic, but also for much of our heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic illnesses.

So if you’re overweight or obese and you want to be lean, the solution is simple (but not so sweet): You must toss out the carbs (including all sugar, bread, cereal, flour-containing items, fruits, juices, honey, whole or skimmed milk, and yogurt) and embrace meat, poultry, fish and eggs. (And, yes, that does sound a lot like the Atkins diet, but Taubes steers clear of promoting any one low-carb diet over another.)

Taubes, who is currently a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation investigator in health policy research at the University of California in Berkeley, is in Minnesota today to promote his latest book, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.” He’s scheduled to speak and sign books at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union (300 Washington Ave., SE) this afternoon at 4 p.m. Taubes spoke with me last week from his home in Berkeley. He was eating a Greek low-fat yogurt mixed with peanut butter and blueberries at the time —“one of my few non-meat meals,” he said.

MinnPost: What first led you to this topic?

Gary Taubes: I was doing a story for Science magazine about salt and blood pressure. I interviewed the primary proponent of that belief, and he also took credit during the interview for getting Americans to eat less fat and less eggs. He was easily one of the five worst scientists I had interviewed in my life. You can just tell from how they describe [their research]. … I called my editor when I got off the phone and I said, “One of the five worst scientists I’ve ever interviewed has just taken credit for Americans eating less fat and less eggs. I don’t know what the story is there, but if he was involved in any substantive way, I know it’s a story. So when I’m done with salt and blood pressure, that’s what I’m going to do.” And everything followed from that.

MP: You certainly have been the center of controversy since you started writing about this topic. Are you finding that your message is meeting with the same resistance as it was, say, after your 2002 New York Times magazine piece?

GT: Can I let you know after I get back from Minnesota? (laughs) … Every week that goes by I hear from someone in the field who has finally read my books and has found fit to contact me and say, “I agree with you, and this is really important work.” People know what I do more. They’re a little bit more aware of the arguments that I make. But, in general, I’d say that 95 to 97 percent of the community are as obdurate now as they were three years ago [when “Good Calories, Bad Calories” was published] or eight years ago [when “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” appeared in the New York Times magazine].

MP: You’re certainly coming into the hornet’s nest here. In your book you describe Ancel Keys [the University of Minnesota physiologist who first championed the low-fat Mediterranean diet in the 1950s] as “almost singularly responsible for convincing us that the fat we eat and the cholesterol in our blood are causes of heart disease.”  Can you give me the short version of how he did that?

GT: Bullied. Yelled. Spoke louder than anyone else. Went out and got more research funding. Ignored negative evidence. Selectively interpreted his data. Decided that any evidence to the contrary could be ignored. How’s that?

MP: You also write about how European scientists before World War II were quite actively exploring the idea that overeating and sedentary behavior were — as you argue in your book — the side effects of obesity, not the cause of it. That history was fascinating.

GT: Yes. They had come to accept, for the most part, the hypothesis that obesity was a disorder of disregulated fat tissue. … They thought that if we just knew which hormones and enzymes regulated fat tissue, then we’d be able to figure it out. But [those scientists] vanished with the Second World War.

MP: In the book, you cite our post-war anti-German attitudes as part of the reason their research seemed to disappear.

Why We Get Fat

GT: I started my career writing about physics. Physicists used to say the best thing that happened to American science was Hitler, because he drove all these brilliant Europeans to the United States. … In medicine, however, we didn’t embrace these people. [Like the physicists,] they also lost their positions [in Europe]. They also fled. One of the reasons Israel has such good medical research is because a lot of them ended up in Israel. But we [in the United States] had little desire to pay attention to these German-speaking, pompous, “Herr Professor” doctor types.

You can really see that in the literature.  In an obesity textbook published in 1940, two-thirds of the references were from German or Austrian medical journals. The next textbook was written in 1948 by a couple of Mayo Clinic doctors as a kind of clinical guide. And of some 500-plus references in that book, only 12 were in German. But there were 12 alone from a guy at the University of Michigan, Louis Newburgh, who insisted that all obese people suffered from a "perverted appetite" — that they, in fact, lacked the willpower or were too ignorant to do something about [their weight].

MP: You talk a lot in your book about this sort of “blame-the-person” approach to obesity — about how getting fat has been wrongly considered a moral failing.

GT: Yes. I think it’s crazy. You see it most in children. I can’t imagine a more miserable existence than an obese child, socially. There was actually a study done five or six years ago that found obese children had the quality of life of pediatric cancer patients on chemotherapy. And yet they get blamed for their condition.

It’s all the [misguided] idea of calories-in, calories-out — the idea that eating too much or being too sedentary is the cause of obesity. The biblical terms are gluttony and sloth. People say this all the time: “Why can’t they just eat in moderation?”

What I’m saying is people aren’t fat because they’re sedentary or because they eat too much. They’re fat because their fat tissue is disregulated. It’s just like being 8 feet tall. You know, [NBA basketball player] Yao Ming isn’t 7’6” because he ate too much.

MP: You also make the argument that exercise won’t help us lose weight, that it actually helps us build up an appetite and eat more.

GT:  People who exercise a lot tend to be lean. People who are overweight and obese tend to be sedentary. When you look at a class of third graders running around a track, the lean kids are in front and they’re running effortlessly, and the fat kids are in back, and they’re laboring and grunting and groaning. All they want to do is sit down and rest. So you think, “Geez, if I could just get that fat kid to run enough, he’s going to become one of those lean kids.”

MP:  But, as you explain in the book, it doesn’t work that way.

GP: One of the metaphors I use in the book is that if I could just put a basset hound on a treadmill and kept him on it long enough, I’d end up with a greyhound. It’s never going to happen. I document how this idea [that exercise increases appetite] got lost. But it mystifies me that it did. When you perspire and lose body water, your body gets thirsty and wants to replenish the water. When you expend energy, your body wants to replenish that, too.

MP: But exercise is good for other reasons.

GP:  Probably. … I suspect the benefits of exercise in terms of our long-term health is that it burns off the carbohydrates that you’re eating. So if you didn’t eat the carbs, you wouldn’t need the exercise.

MP:  When you talk about eliminating carbs like sugar and flour, I think, OK, I might be able to take those out of my daily diet. But fruit?

GP: When I’m talking about fructose and fruit having negative effects, I’m talking about people who are 50, 100, 200 pounds overweight. … Look, I’m 6’2”, 200 pounds. I’ve been a jock my whole life. My waistline is the same as it was in college. I look like a Jewish linebacker, OK? But if I eat a lot of fruit, I’ll put on 15, 20 pounds. And by a lot, I mean four or five pieces of fruit a day. … The blanket recommendation that everyone should eat more fruits and vegetables — it can do more harm than good. Some people can tolerate it, and some people can’t.

MP: Your book got a bit depressing when you said that some people reach a point of no return, that even if they do go on a strict no-carbs diet, they’re still not going to lose weight.

GP: I’m just going from the experience of people who’ve treated a lot of patients. I don’t know how much chronic damage we do over the years with these [high-carb] diets. Conceivably, it could become irreversible. There was a British physician who between the late ‘50s and ‘70s treated about 1,500 obese patients with carb-restricted diets. Maybe 20 percent didn’t do well. They claimed to be on the diet, but they didn’t lose weight.

MP: But short of locking them in a room and feeding them, you can’t really know if they followed the diet.

GP: Yeah, you don’t know if they were staying on the diet. That was a time when we weren’t so carb-crazy, but some of the people [treated by that British physician] had serious carb cravings if they were obese. Some people may have to essentially eat all meat, three meals a day, because any carbs are too many carbs.

MP: So is this a diet that people can stay on? You talk in the book about how people can’t stay on a low-fat diet. Can they stay on a low-carb one?

GP: I’d say a low-fat diet fails because your body adjusts. You’re hungry all the time. You expend less energy. So even if you stay on the diet, you’re going to gain the weight back.

MP: But some people do lose weight on low-fat diets. And some even keep the weight off.

GP: They may have a greater tolerance for living on a low-fat diet. The argument I’m making is that every diet that cuts calories significantly has to cut carbohydrates because they’re the greatest portion of the diet.

MP: Cutting back on refined carbs — the stuff with sugar and white flour — seems to be something that both low-carb and low-fat people agree on.

GP: You see that in the research. … I was in Australia talking to people recently, and they said that nowadays everyone is having people get rid of all the high-glycemic carbs [foods that raise blood sugar quickly]. So you can call it a low-fat, low-calories diet, but you’re getting rid of the fattening carbohydrates.

MP: And for some individuals, that may be enough?

GP:  Yes.

MP: But you don’t believe it’s going to solve our obesity epidemic?

GP: No. You’ve got to know the cause of the problem. This isn’t about the diet wars. It’s not about me advocating that bacon and eggs are health foods. It’s not about Atkins. It’s literally about what makes us fat. … Do we eat too much and exercise too little because McDonald’s is on every corner and we’re too nervous to let our kids walk to school, so we pack them in the car and drive them everywhere? Or do we get fat because the quantity and quality of carbohydrates in the diet are triggering fat accumulation through the hormone insulin? That’s what this is about.

(This interview has been condensed.)

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Comments (7)

Back when I was taking a circuit-training class three days a week and water aerobics three days a week and still gaining weight, I asked the circuit-training instructor for advice, and he said, "Cut out sugar."

This was different from the advice my doctor(!) had given, which was to de-emphasize meat, use only Dry Fry oil instead of fat, and eat more rice when cooking my favorite Asian cuisines.

I cut out sugar, and while I didn't lose any weight, I stopped gaining.

Later, my brother, also a doctor, told me about low carb eating. It went on such a plan and lost 15 pounds before various disruptions in my life put me back on a carb-heavy diet.

When I told my circuit-training instructor about this, he said that he had been involved in designing the exercise program for an experiment involving recovering cardiac patients and that patients who ate a diet consisting mostly of protein and vegetables, with a little bit of fruit, showed the best results.

Giving up sugar is actually easy. The craving goes away in about a week. The hard part is giving up bread, potatoes, cereal, and pasta. But I find that even the whole grain versions have kind of an addictive quality, in which eating a little makes me want more.

It's encouraging that more and more people, including nutritionists, are recognizing the truth about what high carb diets do to people. Of course, it's nothing Atkins didn't say 35 years ago, and for the same reasons. If one takes the time to read Atkins' books, he explains metabolically why low carb works and is healthful, and he was right.

An additional piece of good news is that type 2 diabetes is reversible, without medication, by going low-carb. Simply remove the high glycemic carb load, give the pancreas a break, lose weight and get some exercise, and blood sugar levels return to normal. Blood pressure and cholesterol numbers improve too. This is something that needs to be widely communicated. There are so many obese diabetics who are truly suffering who can be helped with a simple change in diet, and without medication, and it pains me to see them medicated and told to eat carbs. This is lunacy.

As noted, some types of carbs are harder to do away with than others. I had no trouble giving up sweets, but as a bread lover, I did have cravings for crusty bread for some time. But, I've been on very low carb for over a year now, the carb cravings are all gone, I've lost 65 lbs and my health has improved dramatically. It simply works, and this one thing - a change in diet - is the silver bullet for the obesity, and diabetes, epidemic. I hope the public health model catches up, and soon. You will need fiber supplements and should also take vitamin supplements, but these are simple things.

Low-carb really does work. Lance is right about the effects on blood chemistry too. I experienced it myself after going on the South Beach diet. My doctor recommended it and even he was surprised how quickly things improved.

It's tough to drop the carbs at first. Bread is a tough one for me. I felt pretty bad for about a week but then things start to settle down.

The thing I like about South Beach is that it's not "no carbs." It's "the right carbs" and the phased approach means you get to reintroduce more carbs as you approach your weight goal.

Thank you so much for this article! Most Americans would be shocked to discover how much of the standard wisdom regarding how we should live our lives, including what we should eat and drink, is based on NO actual reputable scientific studies.

I strongly suspect that the timing of the obesity epidemic, coupled as it has been with the hyping and harping on the necessity of low fat diets and the removal of fat from so many processed "convenience" foods, replacing it with carbs to try to keep those foods palatable goes far beyond mere correlation.

They're never going to admit it, but it seems very likely that the recommendations for healthy eating which have been promulgated by our nation's so-called experts are largely the cause of our obesity "epidemic."

Thank God for Gary Taubes and Dr. Richard Bernstein who wrote "Diabetes Solutions". Dr. Bernstein's book saved my husbands life and enabled us to reverse type 2 diabetes and Gary Taubes helps me to prove to people that we are not crazy. The low fat nuttiness has permeated our society for so long and with such fervor that people have literally been brain-washed into believing it.
My husband had type 2 diabetes for over 20 years. He had neuropathy in both his feet so severe that he could not walk over 75 feet at a time. His pain level was 9>. HA1c was 9 or 10. On 43 units of insulin a night. Tired, irritable, depressed. Hypogycemia at night so bad that his pillow had to be covered to protect from the profuse sweating during the night. He was morbidly obese and could not lose weight.
He went on a low carb diet and lost 80 pounds within 9 months, came off of the insulin within 3 weeks, came off of medication for the neuropathy and the pain level has diminished from a level >9 to <1. He has been in 2 5K races (walking), goes to the gym 3 times a week and walks 2 miles each time. He came off of diuretics, insulin, neurontin and others. Doctors are astonished! One doctor said he was the poster child for diabetics and she wished she could get all her diabetics to do what he did - she never told him about low carb - Dr Bernstein's book did. I have my husband back. We just celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. He has been on low carb for the past 8 years. He has never regained the weight and continues to feel and do very well.
He and I give workshops and seminars to corporations, organizations and individuals to share our new life with others and show them how we beat type 2 diabetes. Gary Taubes books are ALWAYS on our "must read" list.
Low carb lifestyles saves lives. Low carb gave us a happier life. We feel like newlyweds!!
Thank you, Gary Taubes!!!! Thank you so very much!!!!
check us out at http://www.liveabetterlife.org

I agree - bravo for this article! Everything that acquaints people with the truth about what they're eating and what it's doing to them is to be celebrated. And yes, Dr. Atkins said it years ago, but few people read the actual books. I wish Gary Taubes better luck.

weight gain is tricky subject

thats totally nuts to say that you should stay away from fruits and yogurt, first fruits are our most viable source of vitamins and yougurts you need them for the healthy bacteria that helps our stomach digest better.
Of course there are lists of weight gain foods out there that include carbs and fats which we all agree that they increase weight.
http://www.mengainweight.com