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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 will speak and sign copies of “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union this afternoon.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.)